It’s a Different Kind of Road Trip in Ingmar Bergman’s Classic, ‘Wild Strawberries’

[19 June 2013]

By Sarah Boslaugh

If you’re suffering from vague dissatisfaction or open disgruntlement, if you’re faced with a problematic decision or are stuck in a rut, if you feel that something must change but you don’t know what, there’s a handy solution, at least if you take your cues from the cinema. You must go on a road trip, and by the end of your journey you will have found yourself and know just what you need to do.

Fictional road trips felt particularly apt in the optimistic climate of ‘50s America, where the nation’s rapidly expanding highway system, coupled with post-World War II prosperity, made long-distance travel possible as never before. If the travelers in the fictional version of this reality were mostly young, white and male—think On the Road or Route 66—they were still part of the national imagination. However, the road trip genre is sturdy enough to work in just about any culture, time period, or protagonist—even for a 78-year-old Swedish physician whose career successes can’t entirely distract him from his personal failures.

That physician, of course, is Isak Borg, protagonist of Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 masterpiece Wild Strawberries. The film’s action takes place over a single day, the very day Borg (played with great sensitivity by Swedish film pioneer Victor Sjöström) receives the Jubeldoktor from Lund University, in honor of having received his doctorate there 50 years before. Borg is both celebrated in his field and well-off financially, but leads a lonely existence—he’s a widower and estranged from his only son, with his daily needs taken care of by a businesslike housekeeper (Jullan Kindahl) who keeps him at arm’s length.

Deciding to drive rather than fly the 300 miles from Stockholm to Lund, Isak sets off on his journey accompanied by his daughter-in-law, Marianne (Ingrid Thulin), whose obvious beauty is hidden beneath a mask of bitterness. She’s unhappy with her marriage and life, but unlike Isak, is at least aware of that fact. She’s also willing to tell him exactly what she thinks of him: “You’re a selfish old man, uncle Isak. You’re utterly ruthless and never listen to anybody but yourself. But you hide it all behind your old-world manners and charm. Beneath your benevolent exterior, you’re as hard as nails. But you can’t fool us who have seen you at close quarters.” Rather remarkably, Isak doesn’t deny her reading of him—in fact, he seems a bit proud of himself and his life philosophy, which doesn’t including showing warmth even toward members of his own family.

No one ever accused Bergman of having a light touch with symbolism, and Wild Strawberries is no exception. Over the course of his trip, Isak will have a series of experiences that show him aspects of his past life and bring him to a realization of how he needs to change. But that’s an interpretation formed in retrospect—when you are watching this film, particularly for the first time, everything seems to happen naturally. Much of the credit belongs to an excellent crew of actors, many of whom Bergman had also directed in stage productions. In particular, they all have the ability to convincingly deliver complex dialogue in what is often very talky film (road trips provide the ideal opportunity for extended conversations, of course). 

The first passengers to join Isak and Marianne are a trio of hitchhikers on the way to sunny Italy: a free-spirited young woman named Sara (Bibi Andersson) and two young men, Anders (Folke Sundquist) and Viktor (Björn Bjelfvenstam). Andersson also plays Isak’s childhood sweetheart, Sara, in a series of flashback/dream sequences, and the two Saras could not be more different—modern-day Sara is bold and confident, smoking a pipe and teasing her male companions, while childhood Sara is wracked by doubts and guilt.

The second set of passengers to join Isak’s journey are a bickering middle-aged couple (Gunnar Sjöberg and Gunnel Bröstrom) who cause an accident because they were too distracted by their arguments to pay attention to the road. They continue their warfare in Isak’s car, to the horror of the other passengers, until Marianne finally orders them out. The wife says, as she is departing, “Forgive us, if you can,” and, in a rare long shot, we see them deposited on the deserted road, forced to cope with each other.

For all the dialogue scenes in Wild Strawberries, Bergman also includes several long dream sequences that would not be out of place in a silent film, and the work of cinematographer Gunnar Fischer looks particularly good in this restoration. The most notable of these almost-silent interludes is the opening dream, which includes both the famous clock-with-no-hands image (which will recur in a visit to Isak’s mother) and a perhaps too on-the-nose sequence in which Isak confronts his own corpse.

As you would expect from a Criterion edition, this one includes both an excellent transfer (using a newly restored digital version of the film, and an uncompressed monaural transfer) and a generous package of extras. The latter include an illustrated booklet with an essay by Mark Le Fanu, audio commentary by Peter Cowie, a four-minute interview of Bergman by Marie Nyreröd, silent behind-the-scenes footage with commentary by Jan Wengström, and a 1998 Swedish television documentary about Bergman by Jörn Donner.

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