Avant-Garde / Surrealist cinema

Avant-Garde/ Art films/ Surrealist films/ French Impressionist cinema/ Films where boundaries between performance, art, surrealism and film are alienable.

Wild Strawberries (1957) by Ingmar Bergman [original title: Smultronstället]

Movie poster for Wild Strawberries (1957)

Wild Strawberries (“Smultronstället”, original title)-1957
Country: Sweden
Directed/Written by Ingmar Bergman
Produced by Allan Ekelund
Cinematography: Gunnar Fischer
Music by Erik Nordgren


Victor Sjöström as Professor Isak Borg
Bibi Andersson as Sara
Ingrid Thulin as Marianne Borg
Gunnar Björnstrand as Evald Borg
Jullan Kindahl as Agda
Folke Sundquist as Anders
Björn Bjelfvenstam as Viktor
Naima Wifstrand as Isak’s Mother
Gunnel Broström as Berit Alman
Gertrud Fridh as Karin Borg, Isak’s wife
Sif Ruud as Aunt Olga
Gunnar Sjöberg as Sten Alman

This 1957 classic was undoubtedly one of legendary, Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman’s, most proud possessions, and was written by Bergman while he was being hospitalized due to stress. They say that when a person is faced with imminent danger and their life is at risk, that it’s possible to perform super-human feats. Like the famous story of a mother lifting a car which was crushing her child. If this is true, then could this be what was happening to Bergman when he was admitted into hospital, prior to writing Wild Strawberries? Feeling his life was in danger, only a true act of brilliance would be enough to give him the strength to pull through? Whether you believe in synchronicity or not, that’s exactly what he produced. Generally regarded as one of Bergman’s finest works, Wild Strawberries is a hauntingly, spiritual film about life, death, regret and acceptance, which deservedly won the Golden Globe award for best foreign film of 1960.

We begin with the remorseless, insensitive Professor Isak Borg [played by distinguished Swedish director and star of the silent screen, Victor Sjöström (The Phantom Carriage; The Man Who gets Slapped)], who is a 78 year old widowed professor of Lund University. On this particular day, the university is about to award the professor the degree of Doctor Jubilaris, for 50 years achievement to the profession. It’s a very auspicious occasion, and his plans to make the trip to the city, to receive his award, were made long in advance. However, on the day itself, he is awoken earlier than planned by a disturbing dream, in which he sees his own death. This first dream sequence is filled with symbolism, e.g. clocks with no dials, a “rocking”, horse-drawn hearse, carrying Isak’s own coffin, from which a baby can be heard crying. All these images leave Isak bewildered and perturbed, and so he decides to change his plans at the last minute.


Victor Sjöström in Wild Strawberries (1957)

Instead of taking the train to Lund to receive his award as planned, he decides to go by car, much to the dismay of his over-bearing housekeeper, Miss Agda (played by Jullan Kindahl), who was all set to go with him by train. Although the two are not married, they both share a well-guarded fondness and affection for each other, which one can feel has very long and deep roots. The scenes between them are very endearing, as they act like an old married couple, bickering about the most trivial details. In one scene towards the end of the film, he asks her if they can’t call each other by first names, as they’ve known each other for so long. But she refuses, insisting that it’s only “proper” to address each other as ‘Professor’ and ‘Miss Agda’, for appearance’ sake.

We can only presume that the reason why he decides to go by car instead of the train is because, after his dream about death, he feels the urge to stop off at his mother’s place to visit the old lady, who by now is well into her 90’s. And this may not have been possible had they gone with the train. Nevertheless, Miss Agda is most displeased about this sudden change of plans, and lets him know, in no uncertain terms. When it’s finally decided that Miss Agda will meet Isak at Lund later that day, he sets off in his car, accompanied by Marianne, his daughter-in-law (played by Ingrid Thulin), who was visiting him at the time. Along the journey, the conversation between Isak and Marianne turns toward her relationship with her husband, Evald (played by Gunnar Björnstrand), the professor’s only son. Marianne reminds Isak how Evald is becoming “like his father”, i.e. emotionally immune. The exchanges between Isak and Marianne, much like those with the housekeeper, are quite ambiguous and entertaining, as one can feel that there is a deep fondness and affection for each other, yet either one is too proud to show it.

Professor Isak (Victor Sjöström) and his childhood sweetheart (Bibi Andersson) in a dream sequence from Wild Strawberries (1957)

While on the road, they decide to stop off for a break at the house where Isak grew up as a child. Here Marianne goes for a swim while Isak nods off to sleep. Another dream sequence ensues where we see Isak’s “ideal” childhood framed within an ethereal family life-style, looking very much like a scene from a Jane Austen novel. The arena is hazy and light, angelic-like, with everybody dressed in white in a white setting [At no point during the film did renowned cinematographer, Gunnar Fischer (The Magician; The Seventh Seal), need to use special effects to illustrate the surrealism of his dream sequences.  It was all skillfully executed using coloring, ‘hazing’, and infra-red lighting techniques.].

Isak’s earlier conversation with his daughter-in-law, where she accused both him and his son of being cold and insensitive, causes Isak to dream of how he lost his childhood sweetheart to his bolder, more passionate and less frigid brother. Regret and sadness sweep Isak over as he drifts into a slipstream of melancholy and self-pity.  This is further provoked when he is suddenly awoken by a pretty young girl, who is the spitting image of his childhood sweetheart [both roles played by the charming Bibi Andersson]. This young girl, and her two male friends, are welcome passengers to ride the rest of the way with Isak and Marianne to Lund. However,  their youthful passion and spontaneity are a constant reminder to Isak of what he once missed, which he cannot help but see as failure.

Scenes of an angelic family household in Wild strawberries (1957)

Through these different symbols, synchronicities and messages Isak receives throughout the day, he is made aware that he hasn’t always been fair to those who have loved him. What he thought was strength and rationale, had been perceived by others as uncaring and callous. However, his visit to his mother earlier that day revealed to him that perhaps these character flaws were not entirely his fault; that perhaps he had inherited these from his mother, who displayed the same emotional immunity, only worse. It’s  Marianne, his intellectual ‘sparring-partner’,  who  points this out to him.

By the end of the film, Isak has faced his demons, laid them to rest, and has learned valuable life-lessons culminating into, what is known in philosophical terms, as ‘Awakening’, or a ‘Satori’ experience. Nevertheless, he is still the grumpy old pedant we were introduced to at the start of the film. This is what’s so enchanting about this whole affair. On the surface, nothing really changes.  The process of his transformation has all been for the audiences benefit. Only we were privy to this voyeuristic peek into Isak’s heart and mind. Isak only had himself to convince of his innately kind nature. Everyone else knew it already. But as the final scene closes’ you do get the feeling that those around him have a sneaky feeling that the Isak retiring to bed is not entirely the same man that awoke that morning.

Final scene from Wild Strawberries (1957) by Ingmar Bergman. Simple infra-red lighting techniques were used on frames like this one to create the ‘ethereal’ appearance.

Video link working as of 02/01/15