Wild Strawberries (Smultronstället)

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman
Stars: Victor Sjöström (Prof. Isak Borg), Bibi Andersson (Sara), Ingrid Thulin (Marianne Borg), Gunnar Björnstrand (Evald Borg), Jullan Kindahl (Agda), Folke Sundquist (Anders), Björn Bjelfvenstam (Viktor), Naima Wifstrand (Isak's Mother), Gunnel Broström (Mrs. Alman), Gertrud Fridh (Karin)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1957
Country: Sweden
Wild Strawberries DVD Cover

Like all of his films, Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries (Smultronstället) is a deeply personal work. It is of little surprise that Bergman used it as the starting place for his 1990 memoirs, Images, which he wrote at the age of 70, and in which he noted, after having screening 40 of his films over the course of a year, "I suddenly realized that my movies had mostly been conceived in the depths of my soul, in my heart, my brain, my nerves, my sex, and not the least, in my guts." Simply put, Bergman put the whole of his being into his filmmaking, which is why his body of work has had such lasting historical and aesthetic impact on the cinema.

Wild Strawberries was Bergman's 18th feature film in just over a decade as a film director, and it followed after the enormous international success of The Seventh Seal (1957). When the film was made, it was a time of crisis for Bergman: He had recently separated from his third wife, he had been hospitalized for several months due to a nagging stomach ulcer, and he was, in his own words, "feuding bitterly" with his parents. As he put it, when he wrote Wild Strawberries, "I tried to put myself in my father's place and sought explanations for the bitter quarrels with my mother."

The central character in Wild Strawberries is the elderly Professor Isak Borg (played by acclaimed Swedish silent star and film director Victor Sjöström), who travels from his home in Stockholm to the University of Lund in order to accept an honorary doctorate. As Borg is a renowned professor of medicine, the doctorate is yet another tangible award in a life of great achievements. Yet, for all his professional success, his personal life has been a failure, and the film traces his stepping back into his own past over a 24-hour period, finding himself faced with moments—some in flashbacks, some in dreams, some in fantasies—that were profoundly influenced by his egotism, coldness, and distance from those who loved him.

Wild Strawberries is a road movie of sorts, as the main narrative trajectory is impelled by Borg's car trip to Lund. He picks up passengers along the way, starting with his daughter-in-law, Marianne (Ingrid Thulin), who is estranged from Borg's son (Gunnar Björnstrand), who has inherited both his father's medical skills and his emotional frigidity and general misanthropy (this is depicted in a heart-breaking flashback in which Marianne tells the son she is pregnant). He also picks up three young people, a woman named Sara (Bibi Andersson), and two young men, Agda (Jullan Kindahl) and Anders (Folke Sundquist), who both wish to be her lover, but spend most of their time comically debating the existence of God.

Bergman structures the flashback and fantasy sequences as almost tangible experiences, in which the elder Borg stands like a ghost in the corner of his life's memories, watching events from his past unfold around him. As are so many memories, the ones that return to Borg are often painful, the road markers of where his relationships foundered. Yet, there is a twist in that the "memories" he relives are not really memories at all, for they depict events at which he was not present. So, in sense, there is a slightly supernatural aura over the events in Wild Strawberries, as if some unseen force is allowing Borg to see what happened in his absence, which has the effect of illustrating for him how his emotional distance damaged other lives. His past is not so much relived as it is revealed to him.

One of the first moments from the past he sees is the time in which the young woman with whom he was once in love (also named Sara and also played by Bibi Andersson) kisses his brother (Per Sjöstrand) in a wild strawberry patch (she eventually marries him). In another instance, Borg has a dream in which he fails a medical board examination, and as punishment is forced to watch a scene from his past in which his wife, Karin (Gertrud Fridh), has an adulterous liaison in the woods.

Personal as it was, Wild Strawberries is a deeply moving film that extends beyond Bergman's experiences and speaks to the importance of emotional connections among human beings—the need for people in our lives and the dangers of cutting ourselves off emotionally. In the central role, Victor Sjöström is a marvel. Having largely retired from acting, Sjöström, at the age of 78, brings a force of conviction and experience to the role of Professor Borg, and Bergman's camera captures perfectly the sense of loss in his deeply lined facial features.

Yet, as Robert Emmet Long perceptively noted in his book Ingmar Bergman: Film and Stage, if there is a flaw in Wild Strawberries, it is that Sjöström's depiction of Borg doesn't quite seem to fit with the portrait that is painted of his life through others. Constantly described as "cold" and "distant," by both the people in his past and those in his present, Sjöström never quite makes us believe this of Borg. Yes, he's pedantic and crotchety, but he never conveys that sense of inner coldness that could drive so much heartbreak in both himself and those around him. Thus, there is something of a narrative rupture between the presentation of the central character and the way others describe him, most notably his wife Karin in the adulterous flashback/dream sequence. As we never see Borg as a young man, we must rely entirely on others' appraisal of him.

But, perhaps this was part of Bergman's strategy. As much as Wild Strawberries is about an old man's journey through his past mistakes, perhaps it is also as much about how it is impossible to ever truly know someone, to ever get inside his or her soul and comprehend those complex inner workings. It may be that Borg was not nearly as cold as others made him out to be. While a seemingly pessimistic statement about human relationships, there are still moments of human warmth and comedy in Wild Strawberries that remind us that it's always worth the effort to connect with others, something Bergman, in his own personal isolation at that moment in his life, surely understood.

Wild Strawberries Criterion Collection Special Edition DVD

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioDolby Digital 1.0 monaural
Languages Swedish
SupplementsAudio commentary by film scholar Peter Cowie
Ingmar Bergman on Life and Work 90-minue documentary
Stills gallery
Distributor The Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment
Release DateFebruary 12, 2002

Another gorgeous transfer from Criterion. Taken from a 35mm composite print struck from the original negative and then digitally restored using the MTI Digital Restoration System, Wild Strawberries, which is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, looks gorgeous throughout. Gunnar Fischer's beautiful cinematography--whether employing soft gradations of gray, as in some interior scenes, or harsh contrasts of severe black and whites, as in Borg's opening nightmare--is expertly realized.

The soundtrack, which has also been digitally restored, is presented in Dolby Digital one-channel monaural. Overall, it sounds clean and clear, with only a bare minimum of ambient hiss. Bergman always took special care in composing his soundtracks (the credits for Wild Strawberries list two sound designers), and this DVD renders the delicate sound mix and Erik Nordgren's bittersweet score very well.

Film scholar Peter Cowie, author of Ingmar Bergman: A Critical Biography, contributes a new audio commentary to this disc in which he offers critical insight into both Bergman's life and his aesthetics, making key connections between the two while also pointing out all kinds of small details that you might otherwise be unaware of (for instance, that the opening nightmare sequence is an homage to an early silent film directed by Victor Sjöström).

A significant inclusion on this disc is a feature-length documentary shot for Swedish television in 1998 titled Ingmar Bergman on Life and Work. Hosted by writer and filmmaker Jörn Donner, it is essentially a 90-minute interview with Bergman about his life and film career, interspersed with brief biographical bits and old photographs. Divided into 10 chapters according to the topics under discussion—including fame and anonymity, dialogue with childhood, Swedish society, writing, and living with grief—this documentary offers detailed insight into one of the world's finest filmmakers. Its inclusion on this Criterion disc marks the first time it has been available in the U.S.

Lastly, the disc also includes a stills gallery of 34 rare behind-the-scenes black-and-white photographs from the archives of AB Svensk Filminsustri. Each photograph also includes an intertitle explaining who is who.

Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (3.5)

James Kendrick

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