Wild Strawberries

Wild Strawberries ★★★★★

Much has been discussed and evaluated in regards to Ingmar Bergman's unhappy childhood, with many of these traumas resurfacing throughout his many motion pictures. The son of a strict Lutheran household, Bergman refers to his mother as ‘cold and rejecting’ and recalls how his pastor father violently caned and humiliated him, often punishing the child by locking him away in dark closets for minor disobedience. Bergman had a brother and sister who also felt the wrath of the father's fierce discipline. His brother was a troublemaker and seemed to take sadistic pleasure in tormenting the younger Ingmar. "Wild Strawberries" has a character called Dr. Isak Borg as its chief protagonist, a 78-year-old widowed former doctor, as portrayed by Victor Sjöström, an actor and director revered for his pioneering work in the silent era. The initials of the character parallel with Bergman's and there is a little autobiographical essence, but I am inclined to view this figure as primarily a screen depiction of his father Erik. Here is a pedant individual living within the construction of an emotionally vacant cocoon, lifeless and unable to reconcile in his relations with others. In the opening scene the lay of his land is established, with his pet dog as a solitary companion. There he is seated in his work study, surrounded by hollow objects of achievement and the inert photographs of family members. Sjöström's embedded narration implies how this area is his sanctuary, keeping his intellectual mind stimulated in a room acting as an adult daycare centre. When someone knocks on the door to this room, it is gathered that the doctor does not appreciate being interrupted, unless it is for essential bodily reasons. He has figuratively closed off the doors in his life, which does not permit anyone else to enter. Crucially, the locked door works both ways, as he is unable to walk through the many doors shut over the course of his life. Doors that could have been passed through once upon a time, but now his self-imprisonment is firmly established and the abandonment of emotional maturity.

The film takes place over the course of a single day, excluding the brief prelude occurring the evening before, chronicling the retired doctor's trip to his hometown and university alma mater to receive an honourary degree for his lifetime achievements, fifty years on from his doctorate award. The physical road trip will be matched by a figurative journey on a spiritual and psychological level. Isak Borg translates as 'ice fortress' in the Swedish language; implicitly alluding to his impenetrable barriers. At one point he will visit his 96-year-old mother (Naima Wifstrand) just as the thundery weather arrives, who is described by Isak's daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin) as ‘cold as ice, more forbidding than death.’ Could she, too, be a screen surrogate of Bergman's own mother and their complex connection? There is also a sadistic sibling proxy, through a brother who purposefully damages Isak's promising romantic relationship with his love Sara (Bibi Andersson). This youthful peccadillo leaves Isak scarred for life and psychologically withdrawn. Perhaps the emotional torment experienced by the two-pronged betrayal is Bergman's own method of distilling his father's later callousness and selfishness, by contemplating how Isak's devastating heartbreak could leave his heart weak, inactive, and unable to give out love for the rest of his life. Bergman has always contended that he was an accidental and unwanted child. "Wild Strawberries" is a painful howl for children who grow up with divorced parents, or parents divorced from their guardian responsibilities.

Divorced from such extrinsic interpretations of a loose memoir from the Bergman clan, "Wild Strawberries" succeeds with its own intrinsic take on themes including loneliness, guilt, regret, nostalgia and forgiveness, while tackling memories, dreams, reveries, premonitions, and the fear of death. Take Isak's nonagenarian mother, who reared ten children and has outlived nine of them so far. A mother who has had to endure the burial of this many offspring can surely be forgiven for becoming bitter and frigid. Yet she announces that only one of her grandchildren ever visits, meaning Isak's rare appearance elevates him, ironically, alongside the reticent Evald as, inconceivably, the family's most considerate member. Why do these children not visit their grandmother? We do not know for certain if their parents warned them to avoid direct contact with a hateful female, or if the offspring share her inability to express meaningful feelings. Dr. Sandra Cohen has written an informative psychoanalytic examination of the film. She states: ‘Cold mothers stop emotional time. And, Isak Borg lives, lost, in a world of deadened feelings.’ Marianne, who will later reveal that she is pregnant, addresses her conviction that this coldness is passed down hereditarily, given how alike her husband Evald (Gunnar Björnstrand) is to his father, and is concerned that her child will be afflicted. Cohen cites a Bergman quotation on the idea of some mother's having a cold womb with shivering embryos the inception for imperturbable children. It is ironic that Isak should finally be forced to confront his repressed emotions on the day of his greatest professional triumph. Until now he has survived by confining himself in a self-absorbed contentedness. He is proud of his scientific work, and despite feeling a little lonely in his old age, he does not regret sacrificing personal ambitions for his career (we will learn more about his dead wife later). He lives with his housekeeper Miss Agda (Jullan Kindhal), a selfless servant who spoils him, magically making food appear on cue and demonstrating how to fold formal attire in a suitcase with conductivity. He keeps his son Evald at arm's length, but does not envisage this to be an issue, rather an expectancy. He has absolutely no idea as to the wellbeing of his son, even as he must surely gauge the marital issues signposted by Marianne's month away from her husband. All she represents to Isak is a personified cat roaming around his home.

There is a key scene about halfway through the movie as Isak travels closer to Lund, stopping for petrol and assisted by the attendant played by Max von Sydow. The petrol is issued free of charge, because the man is still remembered in this area for his past deeds, benevolence and charity - things that can never be repaid by a full tank. At this juncture, Isak concedes that he should have stayed in Lund as he became a shadow of his former self, a workaholic drone running empty on humanistic capacity, withering away emotionally in his isolated refuge. At last he understands how hollow an appreciation for occupational victories devoid of personal fulfilment. Immediately after the opening title credits, Bergman plunges us into Isak's dream, in a momentarily perfunctory manner where the separation from reality is unmistakable. The content of the dream, however, and Bergman's rendering of the image and sound is extraordinary. Here is Isak wandering through empty streets, where clocks have no hands and a horse carriage rides around carrying a coffin containing his own doppelgänger. Bergman's overexposure of white light foreshadows such a technique in Federico Fellini's "8 1⁄2" by indicating how this dreamspace is actually an accurate depiction of his reality, but with heightened veracity. Isak is alienated, living outside of emotional time, already prepared for death. When he beckons a stranger on the street, the crude facial appearance of this person's sign of senses signifies Isak's inability to have uninhibited connections; to emote humanism.

The dreamer awakens as Bergman focuses on the doppelgänger's face with a dissolving extreme close-up, desperately pulling at Isak to bring him into the coffin, where together they can finally close the lid on the absurdity of his life's guarded self-loathing. The extreme close-up is often used by filmmakers to draw the viewer's interest to a salient piece of information, or to very tightly coerce our lineage to the onscreen character's eyeline. Bergman is searching for something beyond surface expressions, demanding a deeper signifier denotation. This will not be the last double or tulpa creature to occur in the film. Some argue that when you see yourself in a dream on the cusp of death, it indicates a need for imminent transition and change. As Isak wakes up at around 3am, his thoughts turn to approaching the new day fully rather than hiding under the duvet covers. Miss Agda is surprised by his sudden discombobulated announcement that he will drive from Stockholm to Lund by himself, unsettling their fixed plans to fly there together, which would be the comfortable and stressless option for the protagonist. Miss Agda is likely paid well for her employment, and in some respects her personality is complementary, as she prefers formal communication and appropriate address language. One of the film's biggest laughs is delivered by the housekeeper as she realises her night's sleep has been abruptly ended in order to prepare Isak for his important ceremony. When Isak suggests that she can choose her own course of action for the day because they are not a married couple, Miss Agda motions with her hands in a prayer pose that she reminds herself daily of this fortunate blessing.

His dream has acted as a foreshadowing premonition, and like any nightmare sufferer it is in the immediate aftermath that our piercing feelings are provoked and stirred, puncturing their protective barrier. He was theoretically aware of his own mortality and, post-dream, existentially aware of its looming capacity. The viewer is disconnected from the subjectivity, but Marianne will swiftly disclose the tensions with her potent declarations, after she agreed to accompany Isak on his trip, where her husband will be on arrival and they have an argument to resolve. The scraped back hair of Thulin's character allows us to read the simmering emotions underneath her visage, as she exists often as a peripheral figure observing, inspecting for the slightest dash of humanity in her companion. She bluntly tells her father-in-law that neither she nor Evald have any affection for him, and provides supporting evidence to justify this harsh conclusion. Evald might respect the desired discipline to repay his father's loan, but he hates him for this rigid transaction. Marianne, too, feels that Isak's wealth should enable him to amend the terms of the repayment, as this financial pitfall has contributed to driving their marriage wayward.

This does not dissuade Isak from his sense of honour in upholding a financial agreement, but his face does tense up with the use of the destructive 'hate' verb. ‘She's confirming his vision of himself as the intellectual forever on the emotional sidelines’ and he drives on metaphorically without believing that this tactic hits a major bump in the road. She asks Isak if he recalls the exact words he said when she asked to stay with him for a period, after a domestic argument with Evald, Isak displays a warped recollection of his own conduct. The reality, according to Marianne, is that he could not have cared less about her mental suffering, and did not wish to have any involvement in a private matter, even though it encompasses his only son. Evald will not appear until later in the film, but it is no great shock to learn how he considers himself an unwanted child, now estranged from his father in an even more devastating way, by having to be in his presence and pretend that their relationship is healthy. Observe the brisk handshake from Evald once his father arrives, an informal pleasantry suitable for a sperm donor. Cohen notes how Isak's reluctance to empathise with Marianne's suffering (which we will learn is due to Evald's reluctance to become a father) is due to his own failure to ever make peace with his mental suffering. This road trip may have been a spur-of-the-moment snap decision, but underneath his deep-rooted suppressions, Isak is searching for something on this journey to bring him a sense of closure and inner harmony. The roads not taken will bring him directly back to his formative childhood experience for the genesis of his tragedy.

As film critic Geoff Andrew has noted about this spiritual and geographical odyssey, Isak slowly takes ownership for ‘his self-defensive rectitude and devotion to work’ by accepting that it has not only limited and stunted his own growth, but his actions have also ‘influenced his son's attitude to life and to Marianne.’ Like father, like son the chilly demeanour has been inherited. In a wonderful match cut, Bergman will use a flashback to show Marianne and Evald debating the pregnancy in the same positions where she sits with Isak in the present. Evald does not want to bring a child into this cold, harsh, unforgivable world like he was, raised by a father who was detached and incapable of affection, and by a mother who drove herself hysterical trying to bleed the slightest drop of emotional energy from her husband. The vehicle can be interpreted as a symbolic presentation of these men's psyches, with Evald exiting the car once he is confronted with unwanted stimuli. This corresponds to the various hitchhikers who gradually take their place inside Isak's vehicle. Some of these are welcome visitors, which Isak is happy to have along for the ride as he drives, by prolonging his idealistic view of his past. Another hitchhiking couple, however, bring him into a penetrating gaze of his own failed marriage, and his romanticised remembrance of the past is revealed as a folly. Although it is Marianne who is driving the car by this point, and she who requests the couple to exit the vehicle of her psyche for it rekindles her own unpleasant marriage currently, Isak is similarly grateful to condone their removal. As Cohen perceptively indicates, ‘the husband that refuses to acknowledge his wife's feeling or needs’ is a parallel of how Isak treated his wife Karin (Gertrud Fridh), and letting go of that guilt is not as simple as opening the car door and releasing the information from his mind. Another car crash collision with that guilty conscience of regret is inevitable.

One reason why he decided to drive was to visit his mother, perhaps feeling that she might express pride on his big day, reigning in the emotional distance between them in their geographical separation. Another reason was an urge to take a detour to a summer house where he spent the first twenty summers of his life. This is where the film's title is defined: 'Smultronstället' as the place where wild strawberries grow, and the phrase has broader connotations of a significant environment where one can recall a moment of true happiness, often saturated in nostalgia. It is bittersweet for Isak, however, as the wild strawberry patch is also the scene of the crime, and through Isak's self-expressed peculiar reveries, the viewer can relive the day when his beloved Sara was goaded into kissing Isak's brother Sigfried (Per Sjöstrand) on the morning of their uncle's birthday. Sara was torn between the integrity and safety of Isak whom she refers to as ‘moral and sensitive (daydreams lend themselves to flattering discourse), and the exotic attraction from a more exciting and erratic Sigfrid. Isak, as a child, was fishing with his father at this moment and so it is feasible that this is a reconstruction of the past, filtered through the elder Isak's consideration of what occurred. This entire birthday breakfast sequence is one of the most joyful passages in the film. Critic Mark LeFanu, for example, announces: ‘How charming are the scenes of bourgeois revelry, where the girls are so pretty and the dandyism of the young men so innocent.’ Bergman conjures such a sense of place, by unifying sounds with the protagonist. Notice as Isak arrives with Marianne to this house he once knew so well, the tenor of the birds' chirps pleasant and a soothing background bass tone of the cuckoo call. The latter is a frequent sound associated with clocks, possibly indicating that emotional time has recommenced at last within Isak's interior.

He is awoken from his sentimental reveries by a young woman's voice. She is another Sara, and her father now owns the house. Bibi Anderson essays both the Sara from the past and now this hitchhiking namesake, roughly the same age. The film is not seen through a first-person perspective in the present, which leads me to believe that Sara's face is not adapted by the gaze of Isak with an illusory sight. I think Bergman wants the viewer to recognise how the universe can present us with fateful encounters, and this new Sara is a destiny presented for Isak to finally find peace with his disappointment at marrying a woman who could never live up to his precious impression of a childhood beloved. Sara confuses the Biblical facts, believing that Isaac and Sarah were married, before Isak corrects her with the identity of Abraham as her lover. In this story, Sigfrid is a modern Abraham, but in the Bible Isaac was Sarah's son. This is interesting, because in a later dream Isak has while sitting shotgun in the car, he meets Sara once again underneath the trees at the wild strawberries patch. Unlike in the reverie the gentleness of the birds spring sounds have dissipated. Now gathered in a flock, they are both imposing in their flight and severe in their squawks. In this dream Isak is no longer an invisible phantom to Sara. She can hear the older man now and talk directly to him, holding up a mirror to his wrinkled face and mocking him with disparaging comments as to why his brother was the better suitor. She ridicules him for being so pompous within the perimeters of an intellectual doctor, when he knows so little about anything else. In a curious move, she runs away in the direction of a baby's cries, coming across a cradle in the outdoor grasslands. She lifts the baby out and departs, as Isak arrives to a hauntingly empty cradle. This baby might represent Isak himself as a child, with his Biblical mother caring for his disrupted sleep, allowing him to regain a contended sleepwalking persona. Or this baby could symbolise the child that never existed, because Isak and Sara never married. The contradiction between her role as mother and wife within the exegesis allegory, stems from the carnage of his ravaged psyche.

The modern Sara is joined by two male hitchhikers, one with a passion for religion, the other for science. When Isak and Marianne are introduced to the men, it would appear that the religious scholar is in pole position for the young woman's affections, but she knows that the future scientist views her as a potential life partner and is keen to explore her options. The two men will get into a fistfight during a respite on the journey, battling not just for Sara's affections, but also over science and religion, the absence or presence of a God. Sara's playful conduct prevents the film becoming bogged down in didactic theological arguments, a complaint raised by critics in consideration of some Bergman films. Obviously one could see the youthful man of science as a displaced Isak, yet again coming in second best for a woman he could never reciprocate fully. Isak is, however, able to view the romantic triangle with a distant third-person perspective. This is a distinguishable character trait he possesses, to remain stubbornly neutral when quizzed about other person's feelings and emotions. Yet it also implies how he has finally accepted the past defeat, and refrains from encouraging this Sara to reconsider his fellow science scholar. The hitchhikers accompany him all the way to Lund and are keen to see him be publicly appreciated. Amidst the clinical procession of the formal spectacle, their jubilant celebrating as spectator appeals directly to his desire for humanity.

In a continuation of the nightmare dream, all the hitchhiker figures reappear as concocted dual apparition roles in Isak's trial examination, which he fails miserably and leaves Isak searching for an identity out of the ruins from his professional humiliation. He is ushered by the examiner/judge, played by actor Gunnar Sjöberg in an ironic casting since he also essayed the cruel hitchhiking husband, to a recollection of his wife Karin's infidelity. Evald was raised in a broken home, but it is how Karin explains her affair that really leaves the Professor in a state of miserablism. When Karin informed her husband of the infidelity, Isak reacted with condescending indifference. He did not care about her actions because he did not care about her, leaving Karin distraught. Cohen notes how ‘his wife was forced to bear all the feelings for both of them; too heavy a weight. Feelings that drove her crazy.’ Isak surveys the wreckage of his part in a loveless marriage and loveless fatherly role and asks the figurative executioner what his punishment will be. The usual, he nonchalantly predicts. Loneliness, that is, but not the casual ideology of being alone too often as Isak conceded in the opening pretext. Now it is sheer recognition that his loneliness has a sinful, guilty conscience as a strange bedfellow. Under such circumstances the only cure is to make amends and learn that you can change. I recall how Isak is fishing with his father during the summer house childhood segment. This suggests that the motif of terminal frostiness in this family line began with Isak's generation or once his mother became widowed, and it can cease with the new generation. His grandchild is growing inside Marianne's womb, if he can summon the mandatory warmth of his heart. Unfortunately, it might be too late for his own child to warm his stone cold heart from a different perspective. As the hitchhikers sing with delight and present the Professor with flowers after learning of his academic conferment, Sara suspects that he is wise on all life matters, and has learned them all by heart. Bergman pushes in with the camera and extinguishes all light, indicating how the operative word 'heart' in that statement has been recontextualised.

In their final interaction outside Evald's home, the trio sing again for their Professor, proud of having witnessed his career tribute. After the two men wander off, Sara climbs up closer to Isak on his balcony. She tells him that he is the one she truly loves. Today, tomorrow, always. Whether you analyse the story literally or allegorically, this moment acts as a form of clarification. If Isak has suffered inertia by denying himself emotional sensations, his penance is now complete through this alternate verdict from a proxy true love, one that he promises to remember. Before he can fully retire after the lengthy day, he overhears Evald and Marianne, piquing his concern for their future. He beckons for his son to sit by his bedside, planning to cancel the burdening debt because it is the father who truly owes. Cagily Evald yields, still unwilling to make firm eye contact with his father and continuing with his clipped, unemotive speech. In a moment of stunning honesty between the men, Evald informs his father that he cannot go on living without his temporarily estranged wife, and thus has agreed to her terms. Having told his wife that his stone cold deadness is diametrically opposed to bringing life into the world, this revelation promises the chance for change; both father and son seem willing to amend their errors through the birth of a new child, a new dependent who will be alone and lost without father figures. Sjöstrom's performance, which was his final role, has poignancy and dignity that prevents the pilgrimage narrative from becoming too mawkish in its tender nostalgia, or indeed too serious to completely feel like a legitimate character arc. The final sequence enables Isaac to escape into a childhood memory, but this time the daydream is conducted by an individual with a newfound vitalogy. He is not an omniscient ghostly surveyor, nor afraid of being confronted by a Sara unforgiving to his older appearance. She tells him that all the wild strawberries are gone. This does not frighten Isaac as a new man; their symbolic properties have been assimilated. He can free himself of the idealist image of her, and walk together to the other side of the lake to find the image of his parents that he requires at this precise point in his life. The warmth from a brighter summer day melting the fortress of ice, the significance compounded through the superimposition shot of body and mind.

1957 was a defining year for Ingmar Bergman professionally as a film director with the one-two punch release of "Wild Strawberries" and "The Seventh Seal," two of his most venerated films. He was now ascending into the upper echelons of the great European cinema masters. Personally it was not the best of years, as Bergman went through the third of his divorces and was hospitalised with debilitating stomach ulcers. In total Bergman was married five times, with four dissolved marriages coinciding with well-documented affairs, many of them partnered to his leading actresses, including a four-year romance with Bibi Andersson that endured the "Wild Strawberries" filming. Bergman had nine children, just one shy of Mrs Borg's total in this film. He spent a fortune sending money to ex-wives and supporting the children of former lovers. Adultery was a repetitive theme in his work as well as his private live, culminating with the sublime "Scenes from a Marriage" in 1973. While Bergman's father was a decisive antagonist in his early life, it was his mother who left the most indelible imprint on his later adult relationships. He did have love for his mother, but it was never adequately reciprocated. Through his marriages and infidelities was a quest to find a replacement mother figure, to give him the personal settled life he craved during his innocence. This resulted in a life away from his work that could only be described as chaotic. After his ultimate wife passed away, Bergman lived out the remainder of his life alone on the island of Fårö, off the coast of Sweden. I wonder if he compared himself to his protagonist in "Wild Strawberries" during this time, finding his own smultronatället and forgiving his parents by focusing on an idealised moment in time when things were just right. Bergman died at age 89. As affirmed in the Bible, Sarah became pregnant with Isaac at age 90. To quote T.S. Eliot, we are born with the dead.

Also in my collection: Bergman's "Cries and Whispers" and "Persona"

For all the titles in my great movies collection: letterboxd.com/davidwallace/list/great-movies-collection/

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