Ingmar Bergman: Wild Strawberries (1957) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Ingmar Bergman: Wild Strawberries (1957)

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Each Tuesday Andrew will be going through every available film of Ingmar Bergman.

Andrew COMMENTARYProfessor Isak Borg is approaching his death without many friends.  He faces it alone in his dreams with his old shell, hearing nothing but the sound of his heartbeat and the far off gong signaling the passage of time.  But Isak realizes that it's not simply his age that's put him in proximity with death.  Much later he encounters it the same way, instead seeing himself in a little baby, cradled by a mother as she attempts to protect him from the darkness.  Wild Strawberries is about Isak's slow realization that he has nothing to fear from death, and that he's been waiting for it his whole life.

Wild Strawberries is Ingmar Bergman's most gentle film to date.  Coming quickly off the heels of the terrifically bleak The Seventh Seal it's something of a surprise.  In many moments it seems more like a domestic drama than the various crisis of faith and conscience that mark his earlier films.  It also contains one of the only moments in Bergman's filmography where he comes to some sort of peace with death.  Death is no longer a pale adversary to be staved off and feared for as long as possible, but is simply the cost that we pay for enjoying this existence.

Bergman's approach to this story is a powerful mix of nightmare, nostalgia, pain and hope.  He wanted to get these emotions out the best way possible and sought out his old mentor, Victor Sjostrom from Bergman's earlier To Joy, to help him tell the story of this man who's lost his way.  When we open with the Professor, he indicates that he is happy he has withdrawn from the world of human contact because all they are ever doing is judging and evaluating one another.  He begins to regret this decision after the nightmares start, and he finds himself alone on a harsh street trying to stay away from the darkness and hearing nothing but his heart fighting for the right to exist.

The Professor's many dream sequences frame him as an oppressive white standing alone against the dark.

The Professor is being conferred with an honorary degree from a prestigious church, and is spurred by these dreams to leave for the ceremony as quickly as possible.  He is joined by his daughter in law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin) who is not particularly fond of the old man.  Eventually they'll pick up stragglers in his beat up car, such as a quarreling couple and a trio of bohemian intellectuals (who argue very amusingly about the existence of God), as he slowly allows the past to overtake him in one of many flashbacks.

It's in these peeks into his past where Wild Strawberries begins to make the case for the Professors rehabilitation.  He is not remembering the past as it likely happened, partly because there are some event he recalls that he was not present for, and is placing rose colored glasses on everything that happened.  Bergman alters his visual approach to gently guide us into each flashback.  The use of white light and film stock is harsh and grainy when we are viewing the present through the Professor's eyes, but those same pervasive white areas become gentle and inviting in the past.  By contrast, his nightmares turn up the contrast between the dark spaces and patches of white.  In these times, death is the price the professor pays for existence, and both are too horrible to tolerate and comprehend.

Death is treated more like the inevitability it is in Wild Strawberries.  Gone are Bergman's surrealistic touches in mixing the fantastic with the natural, as was the case with a physical manifestation of death in The Seventh Seal, and those moments of fantasy are treated far more subjectively.  It's clear that most of the film is taking place from a fixed perspective, and we're asked to determine what is real and important to the Professor as he travels towards his degree.  We will see the same sort of frankness with time and spiritual understanding with his later Cries and Whispers, but it won't ever again be this tender.

Bergman fills his scenes with many wonderful touches, like the way the dead branches of the tree threaten this mother and her child.

When Wild Strawberries finishes, it's seen that Bergman's film has had a strong impact of many of the so called "road movies" to come.  Those being the films involving a single or pair of characters that set off into the great expanse of roads to find themselves.  Bergman does not disguise the Professors quest in zany jokes or needless chase scenes, he simply let's the conversations, recollections and dreams flow in naturally as they come to the Professor.

At the very least, Wild Strawberries deserves special mention for having one of the most wonderful endings of any Bergman film.  The Professor has settled in to bed, satisfied and full on the taste of strawberries.  He's accepted his place in the grand cycle of death, and the sound of harps slowly creep in to the soundtrack.  The camera cuts into darkness suddenly as the harps continue playing and, we can only hope, that the Professor finally has the answer about death that he no longer needs.

All of Wild Strawberries led to this peaceful moment.  It can happen at any time, we round the corner and encounter ourselves from twenty years ago.  The past is never far behind, with the implication that death is never too far ahead.  We need only find the taste of something sweet with loved ones to share it with.  Anything else is up to us to discover, and not fret about in the meantime.

It will be a long time before we see Bergman this cheery about death again, though I may end up being surprised by next weeks film The Magician, as it is one of the few by Bergman I have not seen.  See you next week!

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The Films of Ingmar Bergman

Wild Strawberries (1957)

Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman.
Featuring an ensemble cast led by Ingrid Thulin and Victor Sjostrom.

Posted by Andrew

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  1. It was only when I saw this film that I finally started to understand Bergman’s influence on other directors (with the notable exception of Woody Allen, of course!) The street scene clearly influenced Cameron Crowe in the opening scene of “Vanilla Sky.”

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