The strange coincidence of two of post-war Europe’s great film makers, Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, dying within 24 hours of each other appears to have instantly inspired a wave of revisionism of their relative importance to cinema history by the critical mass. In particular, New York Times critic Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote a particularly scathing assessment of the great Swede’s legacy, entitled “Scenes from an Overrated Career”, arguing that Bergman’s body of work is no longer relevant or indeed loved by audiences any more, in comparison to the enduringly popular likes of Hitchcock, Godard and Welles.
I would argue that Rosenbaum’s aim is a little shy of the mark; if the legacy of any filmmaker is on the wane, then surely it is Antonioni’s? While his films may still be considered masterpieces by an oligarchy of critical opinion, who actually watches the likes of L’Avventura or L’Eclisse these days apart from film students? Notably, flicking through the obituaries of the two filmmakers, Bergman’s oeuvre is always described in more hushed, reverent tones, while Antonioni seems to be more frequently described as merely ‘the director of Blowup‘. No-one would ever dare reduce the Swede to simply ‘the director of The Seventh Seal‘.
Of all of his great films, I find the most rewarding to be Smultronstället, roughly translated into English as Wild Strawberries. In many ways it is one of this more straightforward films, but the elegance with which it presents us with its themes and subject matter render it also one of his most profound, and most deeply moving. For a director accused of being morbid, even by many of his admirers, here is a film about the fear of death, but from which a man can reclaim his love of life. At the centre of the film is the elderly Dr. Isak Borg, a highly regarded professor who is about to travel across Sweden to accept an honorary degree from Lund University. The night before he travels, he has a strange, vivid dream full of Jungian symbolism: clocks with no hands, a strange man-like dummy, a driverless horse-drawn carriage containing his own coffin. The nightmare troubles the waking Borg, surely a reminder to him of the ever-nearing inevitability of his own death, given his advancing years. Regardless, he is in good spirits on embarking on his journey, and we see glimpses of him as a charming, avuncular old man.
Accompanying him on the journey is his daughter-in-law Marianne, who initially seems a little cold towards him. As they set off, we begin to see why; Borg, while a distinguished man of intellect has a rather brusque, unfriendly manner about him. The confines of the car prove to be too much, Marianne finally has enough and admits she doesn’t particularly like him. This proves a surprise to the old man, clearly too contained in his own academically smug bubble to realise how emotionally distant he is from others. As the film and the journey progress, further characters join and then leave our travelling party, and Borg has a further series of dreams which hark back to his youth which force him to confront the emotional and personal failures in his life, and attempt to find some kind of reconciliation with them.
Bergman made Wild Strawberries on the back of the extraordinary success of both Smiles of a Summers Night (1955) and The Seventh Seal (1957). The success of these films in a sense allowed Bergman the creative and artistic freedom to explore more personal issues, and there is no denying that the film is intensely so. Borg’s emotional failings and his lack of interpersonal skills are autobiographical of the director himself, and many have interpreted the film as an attempt to apologise and to an extent justify himself to his parents. There is a clear thread of generational conflict throughout the film; Borg’s son casually disregards his father, implicitly as a result of years of the same reversed. Yet Borg himself also has a strained relationship with one of his parents, his cold, emotionless mother who appears to treat all with the same disdain. This contextualisation, midway through the film, allows us more sympathy with the ageing professor, as much sinned against as sinner.
Wild Strawberries is one of only a handful of films that movingly portrays a man’s reflections on his own life, in particular his youth, both with a melancholy wistfulness but also a determination to try to atone for his misguided ways. The obvious parallel is Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952), in which an ageing bureaucrat conforonted with death comes to realise how he has lived his life so unthinkingly, and tries to find some meaning in his final months. More recently, Theo Angelopoulos has broached the subject in the wonderful Eternity and a Day (1998), starring the incomparable Bruno Ganz. But there is something unique about what Bergman does in Wild Strawberries. It almost seems a cousin of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), particularly with its overtones of redemption, rebirth almost. The central idea of both films is that life is best appreciated when shared with others, not solely for one’s self.
The harsh Swedish winters meant Bergman had only limited time to shoot exterior shots for his films during the year, and often worked on theatre productions during the off-season with his ‘Bergman’ troupe of actors, which numbered the likes of Max Von Sydow, Bibi Andersson, and Ingrid Thulin, all of whom feature in Wild Strawberries. Being regular collaborators allowed Bergman to extract the best out of this group; Thulin, in particular, puts in a wonderfully elegant performance as Borg’s thoughtful but rather haunted daughter-in-law Marianne. Von Sydow, off the back of his career-defining performance as Block in The Seventh Seal, is confined to a cameo here, but Bibi Andersson stands out in her unusual double role as Sara both in the past and in a new incarnation in the present.
But the film belongs to ageing Swedish actor Victor Sjöström. Once considered the most handsome man in all of Sweden, he was practically a living legend, having been one of the most significant European directors of the silent era, most famously making the Lon Chaney classic He Who Gets Slapped. Bergman had to coax the great man out of semi-retirement in order to get him onboard the project, but what a reward! One can watch the film examining just his range of facial expressions alone, and one can still feel the depth of the character completely; at first self-satisfied and content in his self-constructed bubble, then a complex mixture of horror and melancholy as he reflects on his failures in life, before finally achieving a kind of peace with himself in the films final scenes. Astonishing. As much as this is Bergman’s film, it is unimaginable without Sjöström’s central performance.
Although this is primarily a spiritual journey, there is also the road movie dimension to proceedings offering a backdrop for the existential angst on display. The beautiful Swedish countryside is constantly present, almost a character in itself, serenely observing the problems of men. As mentioned above, Wild Strawberries is an elegant but not exact translation of the original title, Smultronstället, which actually refers to the patch where said strawberries are found growing. And this presents a neat metaphor for the film, and indeed life itself; one of Borg’s early flashbacks shows him in his youth observing as his brother courts a girl whom Borg himself has taken a fancy to, as her to him. As he watches in dismay as his more suave, if rather over-the-top brother succeeds in having his wicked way with her, a liason which later leads to their marriage, Borg remembers the intense smell of the fruits he is surrounded by. His recall of this, years later, is initiated by the same smell, by the same patch of strawberries, still there after all of the intervening years. The field has seen life come and go every year just the same, observing with the same knowledge that life is brief; beautiful yet transitory.