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I'd seen "Wild Strawberries" as a college freshman when it was first
released, and knew right away I'd be a Bergman fan from then on.
I watched it again just last night, January 2004, at age 63, and needless to say got a whole different perspective on the film. Where the surrealist touches, moody photography, and incredibly smooth direction had made the big hit with me as a near boy, as an aging man I found myself--I hesitate to say painfully, but...well, closely--identifying with old Isak Borg in his strange pilgrimage, both interior and exterior, the day he receives his honorary degree at the cathedral in Lund.
In the last twenty minutes or so of the movie, I found tears running down my face, not from any thrilling sentimental browbeating (I doubt if Mr. Bergman shot five seconds' worth of sentimentality in his whole long career!) but simply from the cumulative emotional impact of this simple, powerful story and its probing revelation of human character, desire, and chagrin.
By the time the film ended, I felt wrung out, disoriented, happy and deeply sad at the same time: it's the experience the Greeks wanted their tragedies to convey to the spectator; they spoke of "katharsis." I experienced it firsthand when I had the great good fortune to see a production (in English) of "Medea." I walked away in tears and scarcely able to think straight for an hour or so.
The same thing happened with "Wild Strawberries." This is one of the handful of films I unhesitatingly rate a "ten."
A side note: I watched the Criterion Collection DVD. Before the film itself, I watched the hour-long interview conducted in 1998 by Jorn Donner included on the disc. It was remarkable to see how the film Bergman shot ca. 1957 contains many elements that were to be present in his later life--like a foreshadowing of his own old age.
In this symbolic tale of an old man's journey from emotional isolation
to a kind of personal renaissance, Ingmar Bergman explores in part his
own past, and in doing so rewards us all with a tale of redemption and
Victor Sjostrom, then 80 years old, stars as Professor Isak Borg whose self-indulgent cynicism has left him isolated from others. Sjostrom, whose work goes back to the very beginning of the Swedish cinema in the silent film era, both as an actor and as a director, gives a brilliant and compelling performance. All the action of the film takes place in a single day with flashbacks and dream sequences to Borg's past as Borg wakes and goes on a journey to receive a "Jubilee Doctor" degree from the University of Lund. Bergman wrote that the idea for the film came upon him when he asked the question, "What if I could suddenly walk into my childhood?" He then imagined a film "about suddenly opening a door, emerging in reality, then turning a corner and entering another period of one's existence, and all the time the past is going on, alive."
Bibi Andersson plays both the Sara from Borg's childhood, the cousin he was to marry, and the hitchhiker Sara who with her two companions befriends him with warmth and affection. The key scene is when the ancient Borg in dreamscape comes upon the Sara of his childhood out gathering wild strawberries. Borg looks on (unnoticed of course) as his brother, the young Sigfrid, ravishes her with a kiss which she returns passionately; and, as the wild strawberries fall from her bowl onto her apron, staining it red, Borg experiences the pain of infidelity and heartbreak once again. Note that in English we speak of losing one's "cherry"; here the strawberries symbolize emotionally much the same thing for Sara. Later on in the film as the redemption comes, the present day Sara calls out to Borg that it is he that she really loves, always and forever. Borg waves her away from the balcony, yet we are greatly moved by her love, and we know how touched he is.
The two young men accompanying Sara can be seen as reincarnations of the serious and careful Isak Borg and the more carefree and daring Sigfrid. It is as though his life has returned to him as a theater in which the characters resemble those of his past; yet we are not clear in realizing whether the resemblance properly belongs in the old man's mind or is a synchronicity of time returned.
Memorable is Ingrid Thulin who plays Mariana, the wife of Borg's son who accompanies him on the auto trip to Lund. She begins with frank bitterness toward the old man but ends with love for him; and again we are emotionally moved at the transformation. What Bergman does so very well in this film is to make us experience forgiveness and the transformation of the human spirit from the negative emotions of jealousy and a cold indifference that is close to hate, to the redemption that comes with love and a renewal of the human spirit. In quiet agreement with this, but with the edge of realism fully intact, is the scene near the end when Borg asks his long time housekeeper and cook if they might not call one another by their first names. She responses that even at her age, a woman has her reputation to consider. Such a gentle comeuppance meshes well with, and serves as a foil for, all that has gone on before on this magical day in an old man's life.
See this for Bergman who was just then realizing his genius (The Seventh Seal was produced immediately before this film) and for Sjostrom who had the rare opportunity to return to film as an actor in a leading role many decades past him prime, and made the most of it with a flawless performance, his last major performance as he was to die three years later.
(Note: Over 500 of my movie reviews are now available in my book "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!" Get it at Amazon!)
During the first scene of "Wild Strawberries," I didn't think I'd be able
get through it -- the Swedish was so alien to me it sounded almost
it seemed as if every word ended with an "eer" sound. But quickly the
beautiful black and white photography caught my eye and I was drawn into
Isak Borg's story, or rather, his self-examination.
The progression of the film is fantastic. Early in the film, Isak has an apparition within a dream and the small events leading up to it, within the dream, are quite brilliant. Throughout the rest of the film there are dreams and recollections; newly discovered secrets of the past that Isak sees for the first time. As he says in the film, "Dreams, as if I must tell myself something I won't listen to when I'm awake."
How Bergman shows us the characters is terrific. It's a like a relaxed puzzle that doesn't emphasize any sort of urgency to figure things out. The story unfolds beautifully as we get a deeper sense of Isak, who I assume is an alter ago of Ingmar Bergman at that stage of his life (he was thirty-nine when the film was released).
It pains me to know that the majority of people my age would rather watch an Adam Sandler movie or "The Rock" than something like this. Hey, I liked "Big Daddy" and I love Nicolas Cage, but "Wild Strawberries" is one of the few films I've seen that could possibly change the way I live my life. I'm always interested in listening to what aged people have to say about their own life because, well, it can only give me tips about my own, and that's what this film does in a way.
There is one sequence in the film that is frightening and "arty," and I don't completely grasp what it means beyond Isak's deterioration and his realization of how people actually feel towards him (he's told earlier in the film as well, but he seems to accept this "verdict" more readily), but it doesn't take away from the film; rather, it's an interesting addition to an otherwise satisfying experience. In fact, it's probably the most vital part of the movie -- Isak may not like it, bbut once he gets past it, he has the option to develop.
I don't know if the film is a masterpiece -- it's my introduction to Bergman, so once I see "Cries and Whispers," "Fanny and Alexander," "Persona" and "The Seventh Seal" (if I can get through it, this time) I'll come back to this film with a new perspective, or at least see it as a part of Bergman's whole. I do think this is a great film of its type. It's the kind of film that may require viewings every five or so years, as a sort of reminder.
Pauline Kael once said that she didn't think much of Bergman because she'd done her share of soul-wrestling and it wasn't that difficult. The film isn't as challenging as I was expecting it to be, in fact, it's a walk in the park. It's pleasant and rich and beautiful, and the title seems perfect after you've seen the film. It's all about wild strawberries.
I first saw "Wild Strawberries" many years ago at one of the special
screenings in the small theater in Moscow. It was the first Bergman's
film I ever saw. This picture is amazing in its emotional impact and in
my opinion is one of Bergman's most optimistic, profound, and warm
"Wild Strawberries" provides sincere, intelligent, and emotional contemplations of life's disappointment, regrets, and losses. The main character, seventy-eight-year-old Professor Isak Borg is forced to see his life in a true and painful light, but he also would learn that there is hope.
Sparkling cinematography by Gunnar Fisher and superb acting of Bergman's regulars Ingrid Thulin, Bibi Anderson, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Max von Sydow and especially, the great silent film director, Victor Sjostrom as Professor Borg add to many delights of "Wild Strawberries" which also include Bergman's writing/directing with his famous mixing of conscious and unconscious, dreams and reality, the past and the present in the same scene.
A gorgeous movie about memory and hope. A trip and a form of catharsis. It is not a story of an old man who discovers images of his past, about a marital crisis or some teenagers. It is not a confession. It is a mirror. The same crisis is the "gift" of everybody. The same silence, fear and desire are the refuge of a man, a woman, a n American or Irakian. At a moment, at a single moment, you discover your past like only reality. Like your real skin, your only voice, your essential eye. It is not strange. We are the fruits of some experiences. Some books, some people, a family, a child or a wife are the Ganymedes of our hours, our evolution, our death. Our freedom, our gestures, our smile are the trees of their presence. Isak Borg is the image of a age. Our age who grow-up in the noise of every day. The isolation is only way to be yourself. The way to Lund, the relation with Agda, the empty attitude, the projection in Evald, the words are the symbols of a clock who is seed of our conscience. Childhood is only reality of our life.
Wild Strawberries can be praised for so many reasons, but chief among them in my own mind is the way in which the film so perfectly conveys its themes of self-examination and the contemplation of one's own mortality (particularly through its stunning use of flashbacks). Bergman's autobiographical story also benefits from the brilliant casting of Swedish film legend Victor Sjostrom as Isak Borg, whose towering performance is essential to the success of Wild Strawberries. I read that Bergman based the coffin dream sequence on a frequent nightmare that he had -- and it never ceases to amaze me just how effective it remains even after all these years. Wild Strawberries seems like a quiet, thoughtful, introsepective movie -- and it is; it is also one of world cinema's most impressive motion pictures.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
We trace the journey of an elderly professor who is traveling to
receive an honor for a life of accomplishment and service. Along the
way he confronts the lack of success in his human relationships as
opposed to the success he has enjoyed professionally. A string of
encounters with the past and with iconic people he meets gradually
bring the contrast into focus for the viewer.
I particularly liked the subtle and intelligent storytelling in this film. He tells us before the credits that he is just a boring pedant. We realize as he comes to realize what this has really meant to him. We slowly receive hints of the emotional truths that frame the man's life. He is confronted by traces of how things could have been different.
Important points are hinted at without being said--the viewer is left to sort them out. For example, the couple at the gas station convince us in a short and seemingly banal exchange that the Professor was a great healer whose service to those outside his family was anything but sterile. Yet speaking to his daughter-in-law, his smug insistence that a debt must be paid gives us a glimpse at what it must have been like for his son to have been held at emotional bay by bloodless, cold rationalism.
This film deserves NOT to be remade, in order to preserve its artistic integrity. It affirms that film can be an art form that touches the soul as opposed to merely a product to be sold.
Although I'm not the biggest Ingmar Bergman fan, I have really enjoyed
some of his movies--especially the one that are not so pessimistic.
Although the underlying theme of this movie is aging and impending
death, the movie is NOT all pessimism. If it had been, it would have
lost my interest early on. Instead, I really enjoyed the
film--particularly the fine acting by Victor Sjöström as Professor
The professor is well-respected for his work as a doctor. However, despite his success in his career, he is a failure in his personal relationships. His emotional baggage over the years has prevented him from allowing himself to be close to those he truly loves. This theme mirrors one of the subplots of Through a Glass Darkly, where a father is being destroyed inside by his daughter's mental illness but he CANNOT allow himself to show his anguish--choosing instead to hide in his room with his tears. It is interesting that the same man playing Borg's son (Gunnar Björnstrand) plays the father only a few years later in Through a Glass Darkly.
Fortunately, unlike Through a Glass Darkly, there IS evidence that the professor is willing to change his persona, as he begins to open up more through the course of the movie. This appears to be assisted through extensive soul searching and dreams the professor has concerning his past and his own mortality--along with experiences he has during a long drive down the coast of Sweden. Because of this, even his extremely strained relationship with his son appears to hold some hope of improvement by the film's end. This hope for change lifts this movie above some Bergman films that only wallow in hopelessness.
FYI--The Criterion version of this DVD is nice due to its running commentary as well as the accompanying documentary. Get this version if you have the chance.
Also FYI--After watching many Bergman films and reading about his life, I detect quite a bit of autobiography in this film and his own stuggles with intimacy.
Quite simply one of the very, very best movies I have ever seen. Saw it recently for the second time, some 15 to 20 years after seeing it for the first time. First time round I was the age and stage of the traveling youngsters and saw the world through their eyes. This time I could identify more with the son and daughter-in-law characters with just as much conviction. The subtlety and sophistication of this movie defy description. It simply has to be seen to be believed. If you've never seen it, don't just sit there, go see the movie.
In Ingmar Berman's film masterpiece Smultronstallet (or Wild Strawberries'
B&W, 1957), the protagonist, an elderly professor who is facing death, has to
come to face to face with a long life that has failed to answer the
important questions. He is old now and faced with his own inadequacy and
Bergman introduces three young people into the drama to introduce life's most important question that of the existence of God. The old man gives them a ride. One of the young men is thinking about becoming a parson; the other argues that God doesn't exist. The old man offers no opinion to the debate. He is silent, but it is a loud silence. It's a silence that reveals an amazing dimension of loss the loss of year upon year of not coming to terms with this all-important question.
In one of the final scenes, Bergman masterfully closes in tight on the aged face of Professor Isak Borg (played by Victor Sjostrom). In that shot, we can see the whole universe in his eyes and all of its cares in the bags beneath them. Only Bergman could have directed that scene only him. It makes Smultronstallet one of the most important films ever made. That one scene, better than any other that I know, captures loss' on celluloid for all future generations to witness. If you see it, you may find yourself having to look away.
The imagery in Smultronstallet is unparalleled, except by Bergman's own Sjunde inseglrt, Det (The Seventh Seal, 1957). Look for the handless watch, the corpse wagon, the sparseness of the first scene, the car windows turning to black ominous signs are everywhere. Notice the clues that point to Bergman's existential philosophy (the twins write a song for a deaf man as futile as Sisyphus' labor!) and the redemption themes (Izak pierces his hand as he looks into the window, or the line: `A doctor's first duty is to ask for forgiveness.'). Notice also the outright defiance of the divine presence that he has bred into his son (`I will not be forced to live one day longer than I want to.').
Izak is ready to die, but it seems that, for him, life is more forbidding than death. He is a living corpse, dead already in nearly every way. All of these factors conspire to create a masterwork of pure art, and one that gets richer with each repeated viewing.
The film is also cathartic in the sense that Greek drama was cathartic a warning to the men of ancient Greece to avoid the tragic flaw that undoes the hero - and may be a fateful knock on the door of your undoing as well. Have we answered the question that Izak has not? If not, Izak is us. Look hard - very hard - at Izak. Do you like what you see? To quote a line from the film: `Is there no mercy?' `Don't ask me.' I hope that all of us will fare better when confronted with the film's important question.
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