The Last of the Classic Filmmakers: Ingmar Bergman–Wild Strawberries

A 1957 classic from Sweden where Bergman made all his films, beginning first as a theatre director, before he turned, famously, to film.

Wild Strawberries is about Isak Borg (played by veteran film director Victor Sjostrom), a retired professor, and his special day travelling to receive an honorary degree.
In a larger sense, it is about his facing death, realizing his many flaws, revisiting his 1890s childhood, and his search for a meaningful peace in his life. Despite many negatives (he is not easy to live as his┬áhousekeeper of 40 years explains, his failures in love with women, his failure to instill warmth and positive values in his son, his son’s rocky self-centered marriage), Borg, for the first time in his life, is forced to see himself as he really is and has been in the past.

Making the film’s process engrossing and never dull are the various dreams, nightmares, and flashbacks. Bergman moves Borg and the viewer seamlessly between past and present. The opening nightmare itself is a masterpiece sequence involving dead strangers, a horse-drawn hearse carriage, and a dead-ringer corpse of Borg. And the closing scene is totally unexpected, but brings Borg resolution and peace via past memory.

No one is perfect in this movie, but the women characters are the most interesting. Three are negative–Borg’s cold mother; Sara, Borg’s first, superficial, conventional love, and Isak’s unfaithful wife. Three others come off as kind, lively, respectful (toward Borg) and thoughtful: Sara (coincidentally same-named as the love of his youth), a sweet congenial hitchhiker; Marianne, Borg’s son’s estranged wife; and Agda, the long-suffering maid-friend who dotes on Borg, but is realistic enough to realize that a platonic relationship with him is sensibly for the best.

Shot beautifully in black-and-white by Gunnar Fischer, Wild Strawberries hasn’t a single blemish in its 90 minute running time. It is an honest film about the clash between dream/illusion and harsh reality in one man’s life. At the same time, it is a romantic, nostalgic film, harkening back to Sweden of the 1890s. This excellent 2002 Criterion DVD includes a commentary by Peter Cowie, a 90-minute-documentary on Bergman’s life and work, and a new, improved English subtitle translation. Wild Strawberries is one of Bergman’s best, one of the best of 1950s films, and a veritable classic.

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