A mere ten months after he released what most certainly is his most famous film, The Seventh Seal, Ingmar Bergman, only forty years old, released a movie I consider to be even better, Wild Strawberries. The first time I watched Wild Strawberries, I was awake for the rest of the night (this happened also when I watched two other Bergman films: Winter Light and Fanny and Alexander). The imagery and the film’s pace insinuated into my waking dreams, which is fitting since much of this movie is a kind of waking dream of the elderly Professor Isak Borg, wonderfully played by director Victor Sjöström, in one of his few acting roles.
This movie takes place over the course of one day, a day which actually starts very very early in the light Swedish night (something like 3:00 a.m.). Professor Borg is going to be honored later that afternoon at Lund University, where he graduated 50 years earlier. He had originally planned to fly from Stockholm to Lund, but instead decided to make the trip by car, after a frightening dream:
His daughter-in-law, Marianne (Ingrid Thulin, who, like many other actors, will show up throughout Bergman’s oeuvre), decides to make the trip with him. She doesn’t particularly like her father-in-law, blaming him for some of the relationship problems she suffers with her husband, Evald (the great Gunnar Björnstrand). She sees in Professor Borg many of the things she doesn’t like about her husband: he’s stubborn, egotistical, and generally tough to be around.
Professor Borg might agree with her. He is now seventy-eight years old and hasn’t really had a happy life. He didn’t marry the girl he loved, and his professional success moved him away from people who cared about him most. On this road trip with his daughter-in-law, he gets closer to where he once modestly practiced medicine. There people remember and honor him, including Max von Sydow’s character, Henrik Åkerman:
But Professor Borg eventually moved away from this small life and specialized in bacteriology. One gets the sense he’s infected. At seventy eight, he is weak and looks around to see how he’s infected those around him. As the trip goes on, Professor Borg drifts in and out of sleep and nightmares — what is this thing called life, and how did it get away from him? And can he possibly help those with more time than he has?
Presenting hardened characters at their most vulnerable and sympathetic (some may say too sympathetic, but I find it’s hard to accept that anyone ever found anything not to like in Sjöström’s Professor Borg), this is one of my favorite films of all time.
Looking at my post above, I realize I may have portrayed Wild Strawberries as some kind of rendition of A Christmas Carol. While this movie is optimistic — by Bergman’s standards — it is grounded in harsh reality. Professor Borg will never get back the time he lost, and there’s no reason to think he’d use it any better if he did. His son may fare better, but you can’t take back the kinds of things he and his wife said to each other, and their views of the world are essentially hopeless. It’s as likely Professor Borg’s wasted life simply reaffirms Evald’s sentiment: “This life sickens me.”
So, for me, while there is a hope in this film, it is also a film about the swift passage of time that takes life right along with it, and some of the characters only wish it could be swept away faster.