Admittedly, I wasn’t a big fan of the second and third film in Criterion’s Bergman collection, Crisis and A Ship to India, but they were interesting as stepping stones towards the director’s more accomplished later films – and Wild Strawberries is definitely an illustration of those works and, after Smiles of a Summer Night, the second highlight of the collection.
The brief summary on IMDB makes Wild Strawberries sound very much like the kind of film people might expect of Ingmar Bergman: “After living a life marked by coldness, an aging professor is forced to confront the emptiness of his existence.” Once again, though, the Bergman stereotype doesn’t do the actual thing justice: while Wild Strawberries is concerned with themes of regret, guilt and the fear of death, it is by no means a cold, overly intellectual treatise on philosophical themes. For the film’s protagonist Professor Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström), an old physician traveling to Lund where he is expected to accept an honorary doctorate, the fear of death is not just an abstraction: even if he isn’t suffering from an illness, he knows that his remaining days are numbered.
More than that, he knows that he will leave behind few close relationships and little in the way of love: like his parents before him, he has been a cold, distant father to his son. The elderly Borg is an irritable old man, but the weight of loneliness and the knowledge that while he may have been a good doctor, he’s a failure as a human being, instill in him a dread haunting him to his dreams, that it may be too late for him to change any of this. An early conversation with his daughter-in-law, who accompanies him on his road trip to Lund, confirms his fears: Marianne (Ingrid Thulin) is quite upfront about the effects of Borg’s stern, judgmental behaviour towards his son Evald (frequent Bergman collaborator Gunnar Björnstrand), and she doesn’t hold back with her own resentment either, even if the accusations are delivered with a friendliness that belies the anger underlying them.
Marianne’s sharp honesty cuts deep, but it is leavened when three young hitchhikers join the two – and the professor warms especially to Sara (Bibi Andersson), who reminds Borg of a cousin of his (also played by Andersson) that he’d been deeply in love with as an adolescent. As Borg and his younger companions travel towards Lund, past and present begin to merge for the professor: he travels through his memories as much as through Sweden, reliving the times he was hurt most and the moments he most regrets. All of this could result in a film heavy with the weight of its own themes, but Bergman maintains a certain ironic distance from his protagonist – although he also infuses the film with a surprising affection for Borg, a man who has little affection for himself. It is especially Sara who helps the professor feel that he may not be quite as irredeemable as he fears he has become.
While I might not count Wild Strawberries among my favourites of the Bergman films I’ve seen so far, it is clearly one of his major works. There is much to appreciate here, from the evocative imagery of the nightmares that Borg is haunted by to the touches of humour, for instance when Borg recognises echoes of his younger self in the two male hitchhikers whose courtship of Sara turns into childish oneupmanship whose subject, the young woman, is all but forgotten as the men butt heads. Even if the protagonist of Wild Strawberries is male, it may again be the female characters that come across as more interesting, and more engaging, than the men, whose concerns and anxieties both seem more academic and more petty. With Bergman, I sometimes get the impression that his men learnt the things they think they know about life from books and films, while it is his women who actually live.
With this in mind, I’m curious to revisit Summer with Monika (1953) – though first, Criterion will take us back to two lesser-known early films, To Joy (1950) and Summer Interlude (1951). Make sure to come back next month for more travels with Bergman!