The New York Times believes that Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957) is one of the Swede’s “most accessible films and one of the most influential European art movies of its generation.” But don’t let that scare you off. The black-and-white classic invites us to travel with Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström), a professor of medicine, and cynicism. He is an intriguing character. For Isak is a daydreamer, a victim of night terrors.
Moreover, the cheeky 78-year-old likes to travel on earth too. In many ways, Wild Strawberries is a physical and spiritual road trip. Physical because Isak decides to travel from Stockholm to Lund by car, in order to receive an honorary degree, at Sweden’s Oxford; spiritual because dreams, childhood memories, powerful symbols and religious images flood the screen.
Along the way Isak picks up needy souls, and there are seven in his car at one point. Of great importance, though, is the professor’s relationship with his daughter-in-law, Marianne (Ingrid Thulin). While some of the film’s car scenes are poorly shot (think awkward back projections), one is so focused on the characters that we are won over, or at least distracted from some technical lows.
On a lighter note, heavy issues, from relationship tensions to life-and-death discussions, never suffocate laughter. Even sex differences and smoking debates amuse.
Isak: Please don’t smoke. I can’t stand cigarette smoke.
Marianne: I forgot.
Isak: There should be a law against women smoking.
Isak: Give me cigars! They’re stimulating and relaxing – a manly vice.
Marianne: What vices are women allowed?
Isak: Crying, having babies and speaking ill of their neighbours.
The professor likes wine with his food and port with his coffee too. But is 2010 ready for Bergman’s 1957? Wild strawberries are associated with summer days (warmth) and bright sanctuaries in Sweden. They are obviously sweet too. But what fuelled Bergman’s masterpiece is hard to pin down. His famous Lutheran pastor dad? His history of broken relationships? Sweden’s romantic vistas? I certainly wouldn’t rule out the director’s penchant for teasing politically correct Europeans either.
Later, the “b” subject pops up again in a darker conversation when Marianne tells the professor how his son Evald Borg (Gunnar Björnstrand) is pressuring her to abort her unborn baby. Here we confront another life issue as junior associates unborn babies with “producing new wretches.”
Marianne: One thing I want to say right now! I’m keeping the child.
Evald: That’s plainly said.
Marianne: That’s right.
Evald: You’ll know you’ll have to choose between me and the child.
And when Isak picks up three young hitchhikers -Sara (Bibi Anderson), Anders (Folke Sundquist), and Viktor (Björn Bjelfvenstam) – we’re again exposed to age gaps but also age bridges. And we’re exposed to some interesting debates between an atheist and a Christian – or are they lyrical outbursts? At any rate, all the performances are strong, convincing, and in spite of the film’s age, fresh.
Sara the pipe-smoking virgin and blonde peacemaker states: “They started debating God’s existence and got so angry they started shouting. Anders twisted Viktor’s arm. Viktor said it was a lousy argument for God’s existence.” In another scene she says: “Aren’t they cute? I always agree with the last speaker.” But it is the professor who makes the best case for the existence of a God, with the help of his daughter-in-law through (oddly enough) a traditional poem.
To my surprise too, Bergman’s masterpiece still inspires many directors and actors, including some secular-minded stars. Even Woody Allen wrote, “Only in the late 50’s, when I took my then wife to see a much talked about movie with the unpromising title Wild Strawberries did I look into what was to become a lifelong addiction to the films of Ingmar Bergman. I still recall my mouth dry and my heart pounding away from the first uncanny dream sequence to the last serene close-up. Who can forget such images? The clock with no hands.”
Wild Strawberries is the kind of film that makes today’s leftwing Hollywood culture look passé – and it’s a relief to hear people talking about real-life issues on the screen. While viewers will take away many messages, one stood out to me: Time is God’s bitch. Not man’s.
However, Wild Strawberries is too important to forget for many other reasons. How many films star a septuagenarian? And when was the last time Australian audiences met unapologetic pro-life characters, in a film? The respect shown for the unborn and the elderly in Wild Strawberries is to be applauded. “I fell asleep, but my sleep was haunted by dreams and images that were utterly tangible and humiliating,” recalls Isak. “Nor can I deny that there was something compelling about the dreams which pierced my mind with a well-nigh unbearable purpose.” What a road trip this one is.