Original release: December 26th, 1957
Running time: 88 minutes
Country of origin: Sweden
Original language: Swedish
Writer and director: Ingmar Bergman
Composer: Erik Nordgren
Cast: Victor Sjöström, Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin
Wild Strawberries is one of Ingmar Bergman’s most celebrated films. Winner of the Gran Prix award at the Berlin Film Festival in 1958, the film tells a very familiar story using the old day in a life/life in a day structure familiar from Mrs Dalloway to Ferris Beuller’s Day Off.
Dr. Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström) is a softly spoken, well-mannered old man with a long and distinguished medical career behind him. After a disturbing dream, he wakes up on the morning that he’s to be awarded an honorary doctorate perturbed and decides to drive to the ceremony in Lund instead of taking the plane, against the protestations of his protective housekeeper.
Accompanied by his daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin), Borg sets out on his journey. Haunted by his bad dream of late which gave him fairly explicit intimations of mortality—hearses, clocks etc—Borg is drawn to stop off at his childhood home and here he relives moments from his past, talking to his childhood love who he lost to another boy.
Borg slowly begins to come with terms with the fact that he’s not necessarily led the fullest life and his complacency is shaken when he’s given insight into how his emotional reserve (derived from his ancient mother whom he also visits) has had an almost fatal effect on his son who’s so damaged by his childhood in what he saw as a cold destructive marriage that he threatens his wife Marianne with divorce if she doesn’t have an abortion.
The brilliance of Bergman’s film is that Borg is not a straightforward Scrooge character waiting for a Damascene U-turn. He’s a man who’s reached a moment of appraisal. He’s gained with age respectability and achieved a sense of completeness, a sense that everything is as it should be, which he now realises is illusory. There have been missed opportunities, compromises and unforeseen consequences (such as his son’s damaged nihilism), but nothing is black and white and Borg’s encounters allows him to also asses his achievements and to some extent redeem his mistakes.
This is partly done through his encounters with the past but it’s also the consequence of picking up a group of three young hitchhikers who are on their way to Italy. Bibi Andersson is the young hitchhiker who also plays Borg’s young love. She has the two boys who accompany her vying for her attentions. Their argument about metaphysics degenerates into fisticuffs—‘So who won? Does God exist?’—but they’re the future and they’re heading south. It’s Borg’s happy appreciation of their potential, of their vitality, their kindness as contrasted with the literal road accident of a marriage that they also encounter.
For Bergman, the past doesn’t go anywhere. It’s still there behind doors, or in new faces of people we meet. The film has an added poignancy in Victor Sjöström’s performance. An iconically famous actor from silent cinema, Sjöström was an ailing old man when he got the script, but Bergman secured his participation by promising to get the actor home in time for his five thirty tipple and smoothed the difficulty of filming by getting the other actors to take the blame for any mistakes during the filming.
Borg will ultimately be reconciled to his past and will see his way clear to accepting and blessing a future that will go on without him. His caring about that future represents some sort of post-death survival. It isn’t heaven, but it’s tangible and honest.
John Bleasdale is a writer based in Italy. He has published on films at various internet sites and his writing can be found, along with blog posts, collected at johnbleasdale.com.
He has also contributed chapters to the American Hollywood and American Independent volumes of the World Directory of Cinema: (Intellect), Terrence Malick: Films and Philosophy (Continuum) and World Film Locations: Venice (Intellect). You can also follow him on Twitter @drjonty.