Review Of Wild Strawberries
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 8/10/06
Watching Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries for the first time was an interesting experience because of three reasons. One, the film itself is terrific. Two, I watched it the same night as the 2006 Academy Awards, and was struck by how Bergman’s film never condescends to its viewer, unlike the major nominated Politically Correct films Hollywood churns out and rewards. Three, having always known of Bergman from the films of American filmmaker Woody Allen, I was struck at just how much Allen steals from Bergman in many of his films- from camera angles and techniques, to outright theft of scenes. Not that I am accusing Allen of wrongdoing, for T.S. Eliot basically admitted that if an artist is to steal, they should steal from the greats, and Bergman crafted a great film, rife for purloining, back in 1957.
The story the film tells is rather simple- it’s a road film that journeys into the past and psyche of a retired widower and Professor of Medicine named Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström). Sjöström was apparently a greatly influential actor and director in the first few decades of Swedish cinema, but by 1957 had spent a decade or more in declining reputation. This film and role sealed his immortality. It is a great performance, and one which a lesser actor could easily have gone over the top with. There is a perfect modulation to not only his performance, but to every aspect of the film, starting with Bergman’s stellar screenplay. I would be hard pressed to think of a great film, or even a good one, that lacks a good screenplay. This is one of the ironies of film, versus the other visual arts- it’s almost wholly dependent upon an art form, writing, with an entirely different paradigm.
As the film opens we are treated to a voiceover of Borg describing his life as a well-respected man, with a maid, children, a dead wife, and a few other things. Both the tone of the opening, and its placement before the title sequence harkened me back to Woody Allen’s 1988 dramatic masterpiece with Gena Rowlands, Another Woman. Although most critics seem to link Allen’s 1997 film Deconstructing Harry, a lesser comedy, as the film most influenced by Wild Strawberries, I disagree. Yes, the general arc of Deconstructing Harry- a man getting an honorary degree, hitting the road, and confronting his past- mirrors this film, but whole scenes from Wild Strawberries have been recreated in Another Woman, starting with the opening. Where the two films diverge is that the two main characters, Borg and Marion Post (Rowlands’ character; also an Academic- although not an M.D.), are at different stages in their lives. Borg is 78, and feels he is nearing death. The elderly are like a full hard drive, where nothing new remains, but the oldest memories unspool relentlessly. There is more of an Ebenezer Scrooge, or even George Bailey, like quality to his wistful recollections of youth, while Post’s dilemma is the dread midlife crisis of hitting the big 5-0. She has time to change her life. There are also steals from this film in other Allen films like Annie Hall and Crimes And Misdemeanors.
Both Borg and Post are accused of things in their lives, by others, mainly being cold and unfeeling, but while Allen leaves little doubt that Post is a ‘frigid bitch’ at that film’s start, Borg comes off as a sweet old man, one who seems less cold and unfeeling as merely deeply passionate, yet unable to express himself. We see a playfulness he exudes in his banter with his old domestic, Miss Agda (Jullan Kindahl), of the sort that belies a true affection, if not sexual attraction. When, early on, she thanks heavens that the two of them are boss and employee and not husband and wife, we sense a deep bond between them, that by film’s end suggests that even Miss Agda has always wanted something more, when, at his son’s house, she suggests that her bedroom door is always open, should he need something. That in the forty or so years of their relationship they have never gotten beyond calling each other ‘Professor’ and ‘Miss’, much less entered into a sexual relationship, does not imply that Borg is cold and unfeeling, merely prudish, shy or both.
This is reinforced, later in the film, where a dream sequence reveals that it is this shyness and prudishness that kyboshed his relationship with the girl of his dreams, his cousin Sara (Bibi Andersson), who later married his more frivolous and undeserving brother Sigfrid. Many of the actors in this film, such as Andersson, were long associated with Bergman before and after this film, part of his stock players in films and theater productions, and this has to be the main reason the actors work so well together.
One of the things in this film that I have found misinterpreted by film critics is that they buy into the claims of others in the film that Borg is cold, when we see no evidence of that onscreen. The truer interpretation, it seems, is that Borg has simply bought into others’ misinterpretations of his demeanor, and suffers for it. He may be a man learned in Academia, but a naïf in life. For example, when he dreams of watching his dead wife Karin (Gertrud Fridh) cuckold him, he hears her mockery of his expected reaction to her faithlessness, and decries his lack of bitterness and jealousy over it. Yet, we viewers never really know if this act was really of extreme import, though, the fact is that Borg recalls the exact date of his wife’s infidelity, forty years earlier, which tells us, counter to the notion that he was unfeeling over it, that he would try to impute blame upon the victimized, himself. It seems far more likely to me that Borg’s real ‘existential dilemma’ in this film is not that he ever was a Scrooge-like man, for the worst sin we hear of his is when his daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin), a gorgeous Nordic goddess if ever one hit the screen, complains of his merely asking his doctor son Evald Borg (Gunnar Björnstrand) to repay some debts to him. Yet, from Borg’s reaction, we hardly see tyranny, merely a man trying to retain whatever little bit of constraint over a son we learn is very selfish and cold- the very qualities Borg, himself, is accused of. Should he not hold his grown son to his word? Marianne seems to have bought into others’ interpretations of her father-in-law, as well, yet over the course of the film she grows to have a deep affection for him, despite her initial scorn, including telling Borg his son hates him (another aspect Allen stole for Another Woman, where Post’s sister-in-law tells her her brother hates her).
As she, who is visiting Borg at his home, and he leave via car, to take the long drive down to the University of Lund to get his honorary degree, they stop near Borg’s family’s old summer home, where he notices a patch of Wild Strawberries that triggers his journey back to his childhood, and lends the film its title. The scenes of how Borg would lose Sara to his younger brother, while difficult for Borg, are deeply resonant for a viewer, in a positive vein. This is in stark contrast to the opening dream of the film, after the credits have done. Again, the way Woody Allen stole this scene and used it in several spots in Another Woman is telling. Borg wanders a deserted old Stockholm, has visions of death, then watches a horse drawn carriage hearse, without driver, get its wheel stuck on a street lamp. This causes the casket aboard to jostle loose and fall to the ground. Inside is Borg, the undead, who reaches up and grabs the dreaming Borg. Countless horror films, after this, have used such iconography, but as Wild Strawberries is not a piece of horror, the impact is all the more unsettling. Allen, however, reinterprets this scene in his film to affirm life in the face of death.
Death is not present in the revery Borg has at his old home, though. When it ends, he is wistful. Marianne has just returned from a swim, and it seems that a trio of youngsters, looking to hitch southbound, to Germany, have appeared. Bergman casts Bibi Andersson again as this latter day Sara , although her hairstyle and attitude are far removed from the prim, turn of the century Sara Borg so adored. Yet, like that Sara, torn between two brothers, this Sara has two suitors, as well. There is cynical, blond Modern Man, Viktor (Björn Bjelfvenstam), and shy, brunet wannabe seminarian Anders (Folke Sundquist). Marianne’s mood seems to lighten, knowing she will not be alone with her father-in-law, and the youngsters provide good company until a near accident occurs. The black hearse-like 1937 Packard that Borg is driving has to swerve off the road when a Volkswagen comes careening around the bend in the wrong lane, their right, when Sweden drives on the left, as they do in the U.K. Everyone is alright, and Borg’s passengers help the VW get upright, but it does not run. It seems the accident was caused by a married couple’s bickering. The couple, Sten and Berit Alman (Gunnar Sjöberg and Gunnel Broström), are an archetypal couple that love to hate each other. He tweaks her foibles, and she his Catholicism and insensitivity. After the near accident, Marianne has taken over the driving from the shaken Borg, but has little tolerance for the venom the duo exudes, to each other or the world, so asks them to get out, despite it not being her vehicle, after initially driving them to get help. The two meekly obey, as if they have experienced this sort of dual rejection many times before. The portrait of marriage is not a good one. While the Almans loathe each other, they feel they need each other to stave off the rest of an even more hostile world.
Soon, Borg hits his old town, and is warmly greeted by the local gas station attendant, Henrik Åkerman (Max Von Sydow). We hear of the many good deeds and favors Borg the doctor is fondly recalled for in the village, even many years later, and one gets a sense that perhaps it’s only Big City types, and those with their own agendas, like Miss Agda or Marianne, who have tried to convince Borg of his wanting nature. This digression is echoed in Another Woman, when Marion Post is confronted at a restaurant by a former student who gushes how Post’s class changed the student’s life. Leaving the youngsters behind, Marianne and Borg take a quick trip up to visit his 96 year old mother (Naima Wifstrand). Here we get some clear evidence of the biases with which Borg views himself. In a famous moment, Borg’s mother asks if the room is too cold, and the implication many critics perceive is that she’s an icy woman, yet, what few seem to notice is the understated delight with which she opens a box of her own children’s toys. It seems that Borg is her only surviving child, although she has many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She makes a comment that they only visit her when they need money, and even mistakes Marianne for Borg’s long dead wife, Karin, whom she manifestly loathed. Yet, here is an important critical element missing from most interpretations of the film. Since we know that both Sara and Karin have been faithless to Borg, is it any wonder the man’s mother disdains them? It seems reasonable enough a sentiment, yet she does not dwell on this fact. In the whole scene all we see is how she treasures her children’s mementos, and takes special care to preserve them. This hardly fits into the archetype of coldness that Marianne later misinterprets as running through the Borg bloodline.
While Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashoman is credited with being perhaps the first film to dramatically illustrate the schism between truth and reality as seen onscreen, a film like Wild Strawberries is no less subversive of the accepted truths that it purports to its audience. Most critics seem to have bought into the fact that the Borgs are cold, yet little evidence of this is seen. One might argue that the whole tale is a flashback by Borg, who consciously or not is trying to guide the viewer to believe what he believes, yet, even if true, this only reinforces the notion that Borg has been grandly deluded by others into buying into a false notion of himself. Those folks, like Åkerman, who have no agenda with Borg, see him in a far different light than those who have something to gain from him do. Indeed, the central dilemma of the film seems not to be how Borg comes to grips with his own objective failures as a human being, but rather how he comes to balance others’ flawed perceptions of himself with a growing sense by himself of who he really is, and has been.
Indeed, Åkerman is not the only unbiased observer of Borg. Sara, Viktor, and Anders all grow fond of the old man on their hours-long trip. While a bit ditzy, the younger Sara seems genuinely fond of Borg, who morphs her acceptance of him into that of the duplicitous older Sara of his youth, whose love he lost. They even cheer him on at his ceremony, and croon to him before they leave. This stands in stark contrast to Woody Allen’s Another Woman, where Marion Post’s life is laid bare in far greater detail than Borg’s ever is, as we see her affair with a married man, aborting a fetus without her husband’s knowledge, and general self-centered pettiness and fear of love. Borg loves all too easily, by contrast, and we see that he is likely the type all too easily stepped on. Not so with Marion Post, although Allen reworked key plot points from Wild Strawberries into other areas of his film- such as Marion’s abortion and regret being a reflection of Evald’s anger over Marianne’s pregnancy, the reason she left Evald and was staying with Borg. The dream that Borg has, while in the car, on the way to Lund University, where he is interrogated by Alman, as Sara, Anders, and Viktor look on mutely, forms the basis for several of Marion Post’s later dreams, as well.
As the film ends, the ceremony is done, and Borg waves to the crooning kids as they leave. He has had another bittersweet argument with Miss Agda, and seems reconciled with himself, ending with a dream sequence of seeing his parents on a far shore of the lake near their summer home. In his mind, all is bliss, for his remaining days are now not turbid with doubt, and even his son and Marianne seem to have reconciled, after a brief moment with both where Borg has had his say. Some posit that as Borg dreams away he has reached death. I don’t think so, but it does not really matter, for just as his life and the film started in the home of his family, it is ending there.
This is not the dramatic life altering event that Scrooge’s ghostly visitors brought, merely an illustration of the sorts of regrets, doubts, and worries, everyone deals with. Most cannot articulate and resolve their worries the way the wise Borg can, but this ‘reality’ means he is a far more identifiable character than the penurious curmudgeon Scrooge, or the almost saintly George Bailey. While death plays its part in Borg’s acceptance of things, I do not feel it is the primum mobile for the film. Bergman is not that simplistic. In a sense, the unasked question of Borg is ‘Why?’ I recall an episode of the great 1960s British television series The Prisoner, where Number 6 defeats a supercomputer by asking that simple question. Although never as baldly framed, that question is at the heart of this film, and is a far more profound and multivalent one than the reductivist notions of some critics who see everything in mere binary oppositions. Bergman is not a philosopher, but an artist. No, he is not a ‘poet’, as the cliché goes, but only an artist knows how to modulate the framing and approach to such ideas.
For example, the film has many moments of real world humor, such as the defusing of a possibly ‘deep’ moment of angst that Borg is going through by having Anders and Viktor scuffle over whether or not they feel God exists. Sardonically, the young Sara asks the two of them, ‘Well, does God exist?’, as if the answer could really depend upon one or the other’s victory. The symbolism, too, is neither abstruse nor heavy-handed. There is the handless clock in the opening dream by Borg that is recapitulated when he visits his mother and finds a handless watch. Had the handless clock, in the dream, stood alone in the film, it would have reeked, but, by recapitulating its appearance in the ‘real waking world’ of Borg, Bergman lets it rise above symbolism and become synchronicity. And, as an eerie asides, I too once had a dream of a handless clock only to have my mother show me an antique watch from her father that was handless. The point is such synchronicities occur, and while one can take the heavily symbolic dreams as a filmic necessity, for real dreams are disordered and generally meaningless, the symbolism still cannot be forced. Another example of good symbolism comes from the film’s title, Smultronstället, in Swedish, or Wild Strawberries, or literally The Wild Strawberry Patch, in English. In America the term it does not resonate as it does in Swedish, for because of the short summers, strawberries represent youth and its brevity. There is also an issue over Isak Borg’s name, with his initials thought by some to represent Bergman himself, and literally meaning Ice Fortress in Swedish. Yet, I sense irony where others see the most manifest symbolism. Again, Bergman is too great an artist for most of the oversimplified claims of what this or that means in his work; as if a single notion were the only possible meaning.
The black and white cinematography of the film is also put to excellent use here, especially in Borg’s first dream of his own death, where the whiteness blinds, at times. Gunnar Fischer does an excellent job of subtly manipulating shades to dapple across faces at times of worry or despair. There is an old saying that we see in color but remember in black and white, and this is why many of the most effective films, merely visually, in film history, are black and white films. That said, the biggest flaw with this film is that the DVD I saw it on came only with white subtitles, which made some of it very hard to read on a black and white background. Yellow, at least, should have been used, especially since the film is full frame on the screen. Even better would have been the use of good dubbing. Were I a filmmaker, working in such a visual medium, I cannot think of why I would not insist on my films being dubbed for foreign distribution, for sometimes even a moment’s glance away, at text or anything else, can destroy a scene’s immanent or immediate visual power. Any perceived loss of acting power would be minimal, or even improved, if good actors were brought in to dub, but even in the old badly dubbed Godzilla films of my youth, such loss is very minimal, and slight in comparison to the loss of visual power the constant need to read inflicts.
Bergman was wise to have his film clock in at a mere hour and a half. It
is a small, personal film, despite its cosmic undertones and themes. In a sense
it balances the best of the dramas of Shakespeare and Chekhov, which is where
the plays of Ibsen and Strindberg, Bergman’s two greatest claimed influences,
reside. He also wisely fills the
detritus of Borg’s life with symbolism that others- in the film or out- can
interpret, but to Borg are just there. In a sense, the most important
scene in the film, the one which acts as a fractal refraction of the whole film,
is that where Borg and his mother pick through the old box of children’s
things as Marianne looks coldly on, misinterpreting both mother and son for her
own reasons. For this reason, Wild Strawberries stands out not only as a
great piece of cinema, but its screenplay as a great piece of literature. And
given the multivalence of such art as this, to skillfully combine great imagery
with great storytelling in a poetic vein, it’s no wonder that film has become
the dominant art form of the last half century, supplanting the novel and
painting, just as they had supplanted poetry and the romance.
Let me end this essay where I began, lamenting the greatness of this film juxtaposed with the supposedly ‘great’ films that Hollywood proffered for Oscars this year. It is like comparing a rich, diverse banquet with a greasy bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Period. One of the complaints that I have always found valid about great art is how it is usually always too expensive for the average person to enjoy- be it paintings in swank galleries, small books of poetry several times the price of novels, outrageously priced theater and opera tickets, or even foreign films on video or DVD. This was one of the major reasons it took me so long to watch this film, because the DVD I purchased, from The Criterion Collection, retails for $39.95, while your average Hollywood blockbuster can retail for a third that, or less. Is it any wonder, then, that the masses choose swill to fill their free time? In the name of raising up the filmic awareness and appreciation for the great films of the past, foreign or domestic, like Wild Strawberries, I urge companies that distribute foreign films to do their best to make good quality DVDs of such classics available more cheaply, for there is a market to be filled with great affordable art, and once a taste of greatness is given, the market will only expand, and justify the demotic impulse to lower prices with an increased quantity of sales making up for loss of high profit margins per unit. Dover Thrift Editions in America, and Wordsworth Editions in the U.K. have proven that great books cheaply distributed is an economically viable strategy, and I believe the same is true for great films. Why should films like Wild Strawberries remain only in the province of film snobs, and not made available to compete for viewership with contemporary schlock like Brokeback Mountain or Crash simply for economic reasons? Greatness in art may exact a price from its creators, but price should not diminish art’s reach. Great films like Wild Strawberries deserve to be freed to the masses, to be enjoyed and enlightened. Watch it and you will agree.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? website.]
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