DIRECTED BY: Ingmar Bergman
PLOT: An aging professor has dreams of death and flashbacks to his youth as he drives to a university to accept an honorary degree.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not weird enough. Only the presence of a couple of dream sequences, and the fact that the story emerges from the mind of semi-surrealist auteur Ingmar Bergman, make this character study worthy of a footnote in weird movie history.
COMMENTS: Incredibly, Ingmar Bergman released Wild Strawberries in the same year as The Seventh Seal, and although the overriding theme of both films is death, the approach taken in this quiet character study could hardly be different than the bombast of Seal‘s epic medieval fantasy. Wild Strawberries is an intimate, internalized movie about an ordinary man coping with regret at the end of his life, and, without a couple of dream sequences that Freud-obsessed Bergman couldn’t resist adding, it would belong to a tradition of quotidian dramatic cinema that stands directly opposed to the world of weird film. Many people deeply identify with Professor Isak’s pre-mortem ruminations, but I confess I’m not one of them. This is the kind of realism-based movie that conjures no magic for me, although I can appreciate the craftsmanship and understand why others with different predispositions rate it so highly. The dreams depicted here err towards psychological realism rather than mystery. The initial nightmare comes in quickly, taking pride of place directly after the credits. Featuring a withered man with a squashed face and a hearse accident, it’s obviously Isak’s death-anxiety dream, an easy slam dunk interpretation for any amateur psychotherapist. The second trip into Isak’s psyche takes place after we’ve been exposed to some flashbacks to his youth, and digs a bit deeper, although the symbolism is still fairly simple to grasp. It’s actually a series of dreams, beginning with another flashback to his youthful love. That turns into a common examination dream; Isak has shown up for a test, but he’s not prepared. He looks into a microscope and can’t see anything, he sees only nonsense words scrawled on the chalkboard. (At least he remembered to wear pants). After failing the exam, the experience morphs into a guilt dream; the test is revealed as a trial. The sequence ends on another memory, this time of his wife, and a tryst that may or may not have occurred as depicted but which nevertheless reveals his ambivalence about the woman who fathered his son. There is a conundrum in Wild Strawberries; Isak seeks forgiveness, but he seems rather a good egg than a terrible sinner. We are repeatedly told Isak is cold and unfeeling, but the warmth that emanates from behind Sjöström’s sad and crinkly eyes contradicts that narrative. When his daughter-in-law tells him he’s a selfish old man who only thinks of himself, we are immediately on his side; we know that he’s been misunderstood. Bergman surely could direct cold and unfeeling—see the performances of Jullan Kindahl as the buttoned-up housekeeper and Naima Wifstrand as Isak’s harridan mother—so perhaps the idea behind our instant fondness for Victor Sjöström’s grandfatherly professor is that we, the audience, see the doctor as he sees himself, not as others see him. The movie seeks to redeem a character with whom we begin in sympathy; a strange emotional arc, but one that works for many people. Ultimately, although Wild Strawberries is doubtlessly an excellent movie, I do find it a tiny bit overrated—but perhaps that’s only because it’s being compared to the author’s other masterpieces, like The Seventh Seal and Persona. This is a different species of film, a ruminative and elegiac movie that is focused narrowly on a perfectly realized individual rather than grand existential allegories. One of Bergman’s gifts is that he was comfortable working either on an epic stage or in a small chamber. He could bring a sense of warmth to the one and an echo of universality to the other. Wild Strawberries is clearly on the realistic chamber drama end of his range, and the “recommended” rating here is for general cinema enthusiasts, not lovers of the weird.
The Criterion Collection’s Wild Strawberries DVD includes a commentary by film scholar Peter Cowie and a ninety-minute Bergman documentary/interview, Ingmar Bergman on Life and Work. The 2013 Blu-ray upgrade (buy) adds a short introduction from the director and new behind-the-scenes footage.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…so thoroughly mystifying that we wonder whether Mr. Bergman himself knew what he was trying to say. As nearly as we can make out… the purpose of Mr. Bergman in this virtually surrealist exercise is to get at a comprehension of the feelings and the psychology of an aging man.”–Bosley Crowther, The New York Times (contemporaneous)