Wild Strawberries is a 1957 Swedish film written and directed by Ingmar Bergman, about an old man recalling his past. The original Swedish title is Smultronstället, which literally means "the wild strawberry patch", but idiomatically means an underrated gem of a place (often with personal or sentimental value). The cast includes Victor Sjöström in his final screen performance, as well as Bergman regulars Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin and Gunnar Björnstrand. Max von Sydow also appears in a small role. Bergman wrote the screenplay while hospitalized. Because it tackles difficult questions about life, and thought-provoking themes such as self-discovery and human existence, the film is often considered to be one of Bergman's most emotional, optimistic and best films. Grouchy, stubborn, and egotistical Professor Isak Borg is a widowed 78-year-old physician who specialized in bacteriology. Before specializing he served as general practitioner in rural Sweden. He sets out on a long car ride from Stockholm to Lund to receive the honorary degree Doctor Jubilaris 50 years after graduating from Lund University.
I’ve never been much of an Ingmar Bergman fan, but I have respect for much of his work. Wild Strawberries is the notable exception, often hailed as his best or second-best work (after The Seventh Seal). I frankly think it’s sub-par, overwhelmingly oppresive in its obvious imagery — crucifixion motifs and non-sequitur dream sequences — to the point where a legion of film students have been prompted to copycat its overt heavy-handedness for half a century. In fact, I keep thinking about The Big Picture, where the film students have produced such ultra-sensitive tripe but find heaps of praise piled upon them anyway. Presumably, the audience is stunned that it can understand the filmic metaphors they have created, and thus, they must be genius.
Wild Strawberries is exactly this type of film, a short but often unbearable production about an ancient doctor grappling with a death that is just around the corner. He ends up on a road trip, filled with false starts, wrong turns, and fantastic dream/fantasy sequences, all designed for him to confront death and question the existence of God. But nothing is really questioned, it is simply presented as bleak and nasty, with our hero facing the inevitability of a void in lieu of the afterlife. The film does not provoke any questions or debate about either death or God.
And it comes off as if Bergman never really wants this anyway. We are instead invited to notice how clever the film is, what with its clocks with no hands (oooooh, that’s deep) and ominous tree branches to spook us. But it’s not clever. It’s obvious. And in the end, it’s meaningless.
I’ve seen Wild Strawberries several times, most recently on the new Criterion DVD, which cleans up the transfer and provides a commentary. As expected, that commentary track, offered by one of those pundits (Bergman buddy Jörn Donner) who is far too familiar with Bergman’s work, is almost pathetic in the way it fawns over Bergman, offering praise for every scene (and every aspect of each scene), no matter how mundane it is. In a single sequence, he fawns over the plain lighting on a woman’s face as subtle and then goes on to state that no one can write dialogue as well as Bergman. He talks about having a meal with a minor actor in the film, a discussion that lasts for several minutes. And of course, all of this sounds as if it is read, not offered offhandedly, meticulously planned well in advance. It’s an altogether ridiculous addition to a ridiculous movie.
Let the hate mail begin!