With nine Academy Award nominations, the Swedish son of a priest Ingmar Bergman is both among most successful European filmmakers and among the most renowned directors never to take home one of the prestigious golden trophies. Three of his movies won Oscars as Best Foreign Films, The Virgin Spring, Through A Glass Darkly, and the epic Fanny & Alexander, but Bergman himself always went home empty-handed. He received his first nod for the original screenplay for Wild Strawberries, and the 1957 drama still stands out as one of his finest ever among the many works in the director’s long career.
78-year-old physician Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström) is an excellent scientist. Yet as brilliant as he is in his professional life, as bad he is in dealing with people. He has alienated everyone around him except for his housekeeper Miss Agda (Jullan Kindahl), with whom he has a sort of platonic but intimate relationship. Isak is especially stern to his son Evald (Gunnar Björnstand). For that reason, his offspring and his daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin) treat him with contempt, or rather they take pity on him.
When the elderly professor is to be awarded an honorary degree because of the 50th anniversary of his doctorate, he and Marianne embark on a road trip from Stockholm to Lund. Along the way, they pick up three young travelers. During the breaks, Isak is constantly reminded of a number of events from his past, such as the summer house from his childhood, his equally coldhearted mother (Naima Wifstrand), or his erstwhile fiancée Sara (Bibi Andersson). The scientist begins to realize that he has wasted his entire life.
In Wild Strawberries, Ingmar Bergman narrates the story of a misanthrope who doesn’t really want to be one and hasn’t always been one, either, as Isak discovers on his voyage. Once in a while, he even tells the audience via voiceover about his experiences on the road. It never dawns on us, however, which parts of his tale actually happen(ed). Memories, daydreams, and reality melt into one, and we never know precisely on which level a given segment transpires.
The professor takes part in several eras of his life as if he were merely a spectator. He stands and watches inertly as his fiancée Sara decides against him and for his brother Sigfrid (Per Sjöstrand). From a distance, he sees how his wife Karin (Gertrud Firth) secretly meets her lover (Åke Fridell) and describes him as a stone cold hypocrite who considers himself divine behind his back.
Re-experiencing all these moments really hits the scientist hard, but he doesn’t only have painful memories. Some of his recollections are also afterglows. Wild Strawberries eventually ends on a high note. Thanks to the trip, Isak learns that there’s always a silver lining. The youngsters and his daughter-in-law are almost like a rejuvenating care for him. It’s never too late to turn your life inside out, and that’s exactly what the elderly professor does when all is said and done.
Movies about old men embarking on a big trip are but a rarity nowadays. David Lynch’s The Straight Story with Richard Farsworth, Roger Donaldson’s The World’s Fastest Indian starring Anthony Hopkins, and others tackle exactly the same issue. Victor Sjöström’s Isak, however, is an exception to the rule. He’s still very much alive and not quite moribund like the two retirees Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman in The Bucket List, yet he feels as if he were already lying in his coffin.
The physician is plagued by an emptiness inside. The crux of the matter is that this seems to be a generation-spanning family problem. His son Evald apparently echoes that sentiment, if we’re to believe his wife. Both males drive the women they love away by means of their cruel and distant behavior. Karin once left Isak for another man, and Marianne is about to do the same to the younger Borg.
When the professor and his daughter-in-law stop by at the materfamilias, it becomes obvious precisely how merciless Isak’s mother is. She actually describes the whole atmosphere she creates in a very apt manner when she mentions that it’s really cold in the room and that she has felt like that her whole life. The aging scientist desperately wants to escape from this vicious circle before he withers and dies.
In the course of the story, he and Marianne even become fond of each other. Not everything is perfect when the movie comes to an end, but it all seems to have developed in a positive direction. Likewise, Isak also leaves the impression that he has turned into a completely different person. Such a sunny conclusion of Wild Strawberries isn’t exactly the common outcome of one of the Swedish filmmaker’s works.
The drama also demonstrates that the director has a theatrical rather than a cinematic background. He focuses on the brilliant performances by his actors rather than on imposing backdrops and impressive visual effects. Even the smallest role in Wild Strawberries is played by an excellent thespian. Ingmar Bergman’s buddy Max von Sydow, for instance, only receives few minutes of screen time in the movie, but his cameo casts a totally different light on the unlikable professor. His Henrik Åkerman remembers the protagonist as a good country doctor.
Wild Strawberries is a sort of early road movie that simply employs the landscapes between Stockholm and Lund and its characters. Isak Borg may initially be a disagreeable misanthrope, and it quickly becomes clear why. Yet Ingmar Bergman never turns him into a completely unpleasant person. Instead, his mother is depicted as an ice-cold harridan, while the young Sara, whom Isak picks up, and Marianne bring new warmth into his life.
The movie isn’t merely important for the awards it once scooped at the Berlin Film Festival and at the Golden Globes. Wild Strawberries is also seminal in the way it combines realistic and surreal elements. It jumps in time and space without ever losing itself in its own complexity or surrendering any of its large-scale room for interpretation. The drama is both an internal and an external voyage. Isak has to go to the ceremony in Lund, but he also has to arrive in himself. He succeeds in both at the end.
All the while, Ingmar Bergman never puts his horses on fast camera movements or similar gimmicks. Instead, he gives the events the necessary time to unfold. The part of the professor was a starring role for the former silent movie director Victor Sjöström and the grand finale in the career of a man, who had already immortalized himself with his soundless masterpiece The Phantom Carriage in 1921.