Wild Strawberries (1957)

(a.k.a. Smultronstället)

D: Ingmar Bergman
S: Victor Sjöström, Ingrid Thulin

An elderly Swedish professor travels across the country with his daughter-in-law to receive an honorary doctorate for his years of service to Bacteriology. On the way, encounters with people and places trigger memories of his past which both inform and interact with the present.

Despite the threat of boredom this scenario offers to the casual viewer, Wild Strawberries is a deeply affecting film which touches on any human soul. It begins with the fear of death and ends with an affirmation of life. It is a uniquely exhilarating journey not only through the labyrinths of the mind, but through the cinema as a medium of its exploration.

Centred on a superlative performance from then 78 year old Victor Sjöström, the film is peopled with resonant characters and situations, which though particular to the moment nonetheless speak to anyone who has ever thought about their lives and the experiences which have made them what they are.

Bergman combines nostalgic and tragic scenes from the past with scenes from the present, often using the same actors to play different parts in the different time periods. Sometimes the present characters enter the scenes from the past and discuss them in a theatrical exploration of the subjectivity of experience. The result is a particularly effective meditation on the nature and purpose of human memory.

Wild Strawberries was Bergman's third major critical hit in two years, following the massive success of Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) and The Seventh Seal (1957). Both films won international plaudits, and the release of Wild Strawberries was greeted with sycophantic enthusiasm by the world cinema community. But one unfortunate result was the elitist elevation of the director's work to the realms of a cinematic pantheon in which he would remain entombed, enshrined and unreachable forever.

This premature deadening of a great cineaste's ability to touch his audience gave rise to an unfortunate obsession with emulating the pace and perceived obscurity of Bergman's mise en scène among other European directors.

But taken within its own frames of reference, Wild Strawberries represents Bergman at his best. Its great power is in its simplicity. It has a very clear and stated purpose, established from the opening scene, to examine and challenge an old man's assumptions about himself and his life. All that follows fits perfectly within that framework, and while it engages most of Bergman's characteristic themes and concerns, it is firmly anchored by Sjöström's completely understandable performance.

Sjöström himself was one of Swedish cinema's great masters. His work as a director included The Phantom Carriage (1921) and The Wind (1928); the latter an American film with Lilian Gish. His collaboration with Bergman on this project had more resonance for both men than a simple actor/director relationship. Bergman was entirely conscious of Sjöström's influence upon his own career, and his exploration of the life and world of an older man clearly reflected his hopes and fears for his own later life. Sjöström, for his part, plays the role with the quiet reflection of a man living his character, and his performance ranks as one of the cinema's great portraits of old age.

No less effective are the supporting cast of familiar Bergman regulars. Ingrid Thulin would later feature prominently in Bergman's 'faith' trilogy of the 1960s, Bibi Andersson had moved from stage to screen with Smiles of a Summer Night, Gunnar Björnstrand and Max Von Sydow were both fresh from The Seventh Seal (the latter actor appearing here in a tiny role albeit).

But though clearly a product of a particular time and place and a particular combination of talents, fittingly, given its pointed concern with memory and aging, Wild Strawberries has that elusive quality of timelessness which identifies a great work of cinema.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.