The idea for Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries originated with a long drive Bergman took across the Swedish countryside. Along the way, he stopped in Uppsala – the city where he grew up - and visited his grandmother's house. While there, Bergman was struck by a thought: what if he were to open the door to his grandmother's house and find everything just as it had been when he was child? What if he could wander in, explore a moment from his past and then return to reality? He began working on a screenplay, and proceeded to make one of the most tender, gentle films of his entire career.
Wild Strawberries spotlights a day in the life of Professor Isak Borg (Victor Sjostrom, the esteemed silent film director best-known for making The Phantom Carriage and The Wind), a Stockholm physician preparing to make a trip to Lund to accept an honorary degree from the university he once attended. He was supposed to take a flight, but decides at the last minute that he'd much rather drive (despite the fretful protests of his maid, played by Jullan Kindahl). He's accompanied on his journey by his daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin, Cries and Whispers), who has been staying with Isak for a while due to relationship problems with her husband Evald (Gunnar Bjornstrand, Winter Light). Her relationship with Isak is on the tense side, too, but they'll simply have to tolerate each other for the duration of the day. Inevitably, they'll learn a few things about each other along the way.
Early on, Isak and Marianne pick up a trio of hitchhikers making their way to Italy. One of them is a young woman named Sara (Bibi Andersson, The Passion of Anna), who just so happens to be a dead ringer for another woman named Sara whom Isak loved in his youth. This triggers an intensely vivid series of memories for Isak, as he recalls a number of mundane-yet-essential moments from his younger years. Andersson also appears in these memory scenes, playing the object of Isak's affection. Do the two Saras actually look identical, or does it merely appear that way to Isak due to a combination of sentiment and the foggy nature of memory? Whatever the case, Sara causes Isak to contemplate things he hasn't contemplated for many years.
This is a road movie of sorts, filled with episodic encounters. There's a middle-aged couple who find ways to sling venomous insults at each other over even the slightest of things, along with a slightly younger couple who run a gas station together and demonstrate sincere mutual affection. We also meet Isak's elderly mother (Naima Wifstrand, Smiles of a Summer Night), who laments that none of her relatives come to visit her anymore and that all of her children and grandchild find her very existence an irritating burden: “The inheritance isn't being divided up like they had planned,” she observes.
These encounters inspire Isak to see more pieces of his own past, which appear in either memory or dreams. Sometimes, it works the other way around. Early on, Isak experiences a terrifying, Dali-esque dream which prominently features a clock without hands. Later, he sees a handless watch at his mother's house and experiences a strange moment of deja vu. Bergman slips in and out of the dream sequences without employing much fancy visual trickery, instead simply making the world of dreams feel oddly alien and askew (in one, a woman runs to comfort her crying child, whose cradle happens to be located in the middle of a forest). These scenes benefit immensely from Gunnar Fischer's striking deep-focus cinematography, which delivers numerous indelible images and stands in sharp contrast to the way dream sequences were conventionally shot at the time.
Bergman secured financing for the film on the guarantee that Sjostrom would be playing the lead role, but it took some time for the director to convince the actor to accept the part. The 79-year-old Sjostrom was in poor health at the time, and knew that taking on such a serious job would be a challenging task on both a physical and mental level (he had trouble recalling his lines at various points during the shoot). The effort required to accommodate Sjostrom's limitations was absolutely work it: his weathered face has such battered beauty, and his eyes contain endless depths of heartache. Here is a man who has lived long enough to wish he had a chance to do things differently.
Though regret and guilt play a large role, Wild Strawberries is one of Bergman's warmest films. The film finds that warmth honestly, weighing it against a persuasively cynical view of the world held by many of the characters. “All along the line, there's nothing but cold and death and loneliness,” Marianne says, and Isak's life seems to validate her claim. The woman he loved married another man, and the woman he married never loved him. Now he is alone - a stubborn, unpleasant man held in little regard by his mother or his son. Despite the honor his university is offering, the world has essentially forgotten him. He sifts through the ruins of his past searching for meaning, and what does he find? Confirmation that all things work together for good? Perspective that makes him appreciate the things he has? Hope for a better future? No.... but he does find memories.
Bergman seems to argue that happy memories exist not to confront us with how much we've lost, but to remind us of the wonderful things we've experienced. A beautiful memory can sustain us, comfort us and carry us through life's darker chapters – if only we'll permit it to do so. In the film's lovely coda, Isak recalls a pleasant moment from his past and sighs contentedly. In that moment, I had a pleasant memory of my own and was reminded of Antonius Block's words from The Seventh Seal:
I shall remember this moment: the silence, the twilight, the bowl of strawberries, the bowl of milk. Your faces in the evening light. Mikael asleep, Jof with his lyre. I shall try to remember our talk. I shall carry this memory carefully in my hands as if it were a bowl brimful of fresh milk. It will be a sign to me, and a great sufficiency.
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 92 minutes
Release Year: 1957