Continuing to wend my way through the Sight and Sound Top 250 Greatest Movies of All Time. This week, it’s #066 on the list, Ingmar Bergman‘s Wild Strawberries. For a longer introduction to this series and a look at the full list, just click here. And if you want a heads-up on what I’ll be watching for next week in case you want to watch along, just head on over to the Facebook page or follow me on Twitter (both of those links are in the sidebar) where I’ll generally be posting that info later in the day.
Like any truly great road movie, Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film Wild Strawberries works on two different levels, and only one of them is really about the destination.
The film opens with Professor Isak Borg (portrayed by legendary Swedish actor Victor Sjöström in what would prove to be his final role) , our narrator and protagonist introducing himself as he finishes a journal entry explaining that the next day he is to attend a ceremony celebrating his 50th year as a doctor at the Lund University from which he first received his doctorate.. He then goes off to sleep and has a nightmarish dream during the course of which he encounters the image of himself in a casket, which reaches out, takes his hand, and draws him ever closer, until the professor finally awakens. He then informs his live-in housekeeper, Agda (Jullan Kindahl) that rather than fly to the ceremony, he is going to drive. At first, Agda objects, but finally realizing that there is no changing his mind, she tells him that he can drive if he wants, but she will ot be going with him. His daughter-in law Mairianne (the gorgeous Ingrid Thulin) does, however, ask if she can ride with him. She is returning to attempt to reconcile with her husband, the professor’s son Evald from whom she has been estranged for reasons that shall be made clear through the course of the film.
Thus, the stage is set, and the road trip begins.
I stated above that this is a film which works on two very distinct levels. The first, of course, is the actual trip from the professor’s home to the university. Of course, this trip, which seems as the pair sets out, as though it will be a fairly leisurely drive, since they have plenty of time to arrive at their destination, is not without its hazard, nor is it one without tension. It quickly becomes apparent that although there is a measure of affection between Dr. Borg and Marianne, there is also quite a bit of tension, and also, it becomes clear that – as we have already seen to some degree in his interaction with Agda – the doctor, though on the surface at times quite likable, is a haunted and withdrawn man, who, while he may crave more affection and interpersonal relationships, is simply not very good at showing that or at relating to others at all.
Along the way, the professor decides to make a side trip to his childhood home, a decision which will prove fateful in two ways. First, it causes him to reflect on his younger days and his childhood love. Secondly, it leads him into a meeting with a young girl named Sara – also the name of that former love, and both of them portrayed by the alluring and vivacious Bibi Andersson – and her two traveling companions who are hitchhiking and whom Borg agrees to take along with them. They also encounter a very antagonistic married couple when the two almost crash into the professor’s car, and they also wind up riding for a while with the professor and his group.
Eventually, after another stop for Borg to visit his aged mother, the group arrive in Lund in time for the ceremony, which actually turns out to be a lot of pomp without any real meaning for the professor, and is actually given only a couple of minutes of the film’s time. Indeed, on this level it is much more the journey than the destination which is important.
The second level, however, the inner emotional journey that Borg is also taken on, is actually the one which is more important, and in this case, it is one where the final destination actually does seem to have some consequence. And it is this factor which raises Wild Strawberries from being simply a good movie to one of the greats.
Throughout the series of encounters that occur along the physical journey from one place to another, Dr. Borg is forced to confront a number of truths about himself, and this is accomplished in two ways, both through his own memories about his childhood, and through a series of dreams and imaginings which Bergman manages to pull off in ways that, while on the surface are quite surreal still manage to speak to the inner turmoil going on with is protagonist and never stray so far into the void that they lose sight of what the film maker is trying to communicate with his audience. Unlike some of Bergman’s other films, it truly seems as though he is in complete control of every image that appears on the screen and that each of them has something to say about the evolving emotional state of his characters.
Bergman also takes advantage of all of the nuance that black and white, as opposed to color, film can bring to bear to create not just a series of very striking images, but an atmosphere that varies depending upon what he is trying to evoke at the time, whether it is the garish whiteness of the first dream sequence or the more lush tones which accompany the latter parts of the film.
In the end, Wild Strawberries pays off in a way that is very satisfying, and it is a journey that the audience, as well as Dr. Borg, is well rewarded for having taken.
Here are two very different trailers for the film, the first of which emphasizes the more surreal aspects of the film, while the second provides more images of the actual journey of the characters.
So what are your thoughts on Wild Strawberries? Is it a movie that you’ve seen or would like to? If you have seen it, is it one that would make your own Top 10 list? Or would it not even crack your Top 250? Also, I’m curious about what you think about my argument that some movies simply have to be seen on the big screen before one can even really judge them. And if you agree with it, what films you would put into that category. Let me know in the comments below.