Ranking: #80/111

Director: Ingmar Bergman (Sweden)       

Genre: Socio-Psychological Drama

This is perhaps Bergman’s greatest existential drama. That alone would make this film a milestone in the post-modern phase of cinematic history. The film is slightly gentler and more hopeful than his more austere works, such as in his so-called Faith Trilogy. Wild Strawberries displays a welcome modicum of humanism, which subtly offsets the austere, but necessary, process of the main character’s self-examination as he nears the end of his life. This self-examination leads to a deepening humanisation of his character, a journey which is delicately evoked by Bergman. It’s a moving film about confronting, and learning to accept, one’s self-evident human failings.

The story centres around the car ride undertaken by 76 years-old physician and widower, Professor Isak Borg, from Stockholm to Lund Cathedral. This is to receive the degree of Doctor Jubilaris, 50 years after obtaining his doctorate. Remarkably, playing Borg is Victor Sjostrom, the legendary Swedish film director, screenwriter, and actor in his final screen role. One of the highlights of his career was directing the poetic silent era masterpiece The Wind, which was released in 1928. It’s as if Sjostrom is Professor Isak Borg, with both the character and the actor himself looking back on their long and distinguished careers. It is a memorable, one-off kind of performance which is a privilege to watch.

The film’s narrative structure achieves an artistic unity of time, in which past and present freely intermingle in a delightful to-and-fro, leading to increased self-awareness and honesty in the main relationships of the story. This method of interweaving past and present is the perfect narrative strategy for embodying Borg’s journey of self-discovery at his advanced age.

When the movie opens, Borg has withdrawn from the wider human society. With him is the stern, but amazingly loyal, Miss Agda, who has been his housekeeper for 40 years and who has no illusions about the weaknesses in her grumpy employer’s character.

Shortly before the car journey to Lund, he has a disturbing dream. Bergman overexposes the scene of the dream to give it a bleached-out look, reminiscent of death. He also uses expressionistic techniques to reflect the distortions of the dream experience. The clock in town and his watch have no hands on them – he finds himself in a timeless, disorientating place. Is it eternity? If it is, it’s more like a Kafkaesque, existential eternity than the Christian after-life known as heaven. A hearse comes by and a coffin falls off it after becoming stuck at a lamp post. The dead person turns out to be…himself. He awakes and hears the clock ticking – he is back in reality, the reality of his life.

During an ensuing period of self-reflection, it’s clear he is being “self-accused” of being a selfish, egotistical old man: “Beneath your benevolent exterior you are as hard as nails,” his conscience is told.

On the ride to Lund, he’s accompanied by his pregnant daughter-in-law, Marianne. They don’t get on very well and she is planning to divorce her husband, Evald, Isak’s only son. He doesn’t want his wife to have the baby, even though it’s their first child. It’s a question of “like father, like son” and she’s struggling to navigate her way through her world of self-centred, indifferent men.

In one of the artistic triumphs of the film, Bergman impeccably blends the exterior journey and the old physician’s interior journey. Both journeys have ups and downs, highs and lows. On their way, they visit the old family summer house where wild strawberries once grew. Borg is overcome with nostalgia and has a flashback of the time when he was engaged to his cousin, Sara. After being wooed by his brother, Sigfrid, however, she marries the brother instead.

On the trip, he gives three young hitchhikers a lift, two young men and a vivacious woman named Sara, who seems to have an endless supply of joie de vivre. Their role in the story seems to be to remind the old man of the innocence he lost a long time ago. It’s like their youthful exuberance acts as a tonic to his soul, egging him on to find his lost faith in life and in humanity. By contrast, the stern accusers in his dreams and nightmares all find him guilty of being an indifferent, aloof, selfish and callous human being. Bergman becomes an omniscient narrator who uses positive and negative reinforcement to prompt his main character to undergo a long-awaited change of character. But change is hard to come by at this age; yet, not by any means impossible. The punishment for all these frailties of character will continue to be: loneliness.

Next, Borg and Marianne pick up an angry and embittered middle-aged couple, the Almans, after their vehicle almost collided with theirs. The couple argue so venomously that they are dropped off. It has brought back painful memories of Borg’s own failed marriage.

He finally arrives at this destination and becomes Doctor Jubilaris. Yet, such is the personal transformation he has undergone, that the academic ritual has become meaningless.  What is much more meaningful is the new peace he has attained, accepting the failures of his past, accepting the failures of others, including his son and daughter-in-law and his housekeeper. He is reconciled, too, to his approaching death. His life has come full circle and his internal journey is over.

It has been a life-changing road trip. Bergman ensured that both his fictional character, Borg, and the Swedish legend, Sjöström, after a magnificent final dramatic performance, could enjoy peace of mind towards the end of their lives.

A highly successful post-modern parable, Wild Strawberries is Bergman’s most nuanced and balanced existential fable.