Dr. Isak Borg is a 78-year-old professor and will be receiving an honorary degree tomorrow. We know this because he tells us. Borg also tells us about his son, his career, and the wife that died years ago. He tells us everything we need to know about him, but the most telling thing he reveals is this, “Perhaps I should add that I am an old pedant, which at times has been rather trying for myself and those around me.”
Writer/director Ingmar Bergman needs only 157 words of narration to open Wild Strawberries and tells us everything we need to know about Dr. Isak Borg. In less than two minutes, we know who Borg is, what he’s accomplished, where he’s been, and where he’s going. Lesser directors need entire trilogies to convey that information. Bergman gets it in before the opening titles roll.
Wild Strawberries (Smultronstället) was Bergman’s 18th feature, but it remains one of his best in a six-decade-long career littered with masterpieces. Dealing with similar themes Bergman would explore throughout his career, Wild Strawberries takes place on a road trip Borg and his daughter-in-law, Marianne (Ingrid Thulin), take to the Cathedral in Lunds where Borg will receive his honorary degree. To play Dr. Borg, Bergman turned to famed Swedish director Victor Sjöström to play the aging scholar. Sjöström brings dignity and old-world charm to the role of Borg. He is a man who has devoted his life, for better or for worse, to his work.
Along the way, Borg and Marianne travel to Borg’s childhood home, pick up hitchhikers, narrowly avoid a car crash, and say more to each other in one day than they have their entire life. This trip is a necessity—both as a culmination of Borg’s work and as a reflection of Borg’s choices.
Bergman plays fast and loose with realism, indulging in a wide range of expressionism as he weaves Salvador Dalí-esque dream-sequences and flashbacks in the narrative so seamlessly that the memories are as real and vivid as the present. For a man nearing the end of his life, the search for meaning bounces back and forth without discrimination. The only thing that matters is finding meaning. Where that meaning might be hiding is irrelevant.
Three years after Wild Strawberries was released, Victor Sjöström died. He lived 80 years and directed 50-plus movies. Bergman, on the other hand, was just taking off, releasing both Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal in 1957.
Ingmar Bergman was a prolific artist—directing no less than 35 feature films as well as writing and directing for TV, the theater, and the opera. He would continue to search for the same meaning and truth Borg sought, a search that would shape and mold his career over the next 50 years. He found it many times and in many movies, but none quite as arresting as the final image of Wild Strawberries: Borg, pleasantly and eternally, wrapped in a memory.
Wild Strawberries / Smultronstället (1957)
Written & Directed by: Ingmar Bergman
Produced by: Allan Ekelund
Starring: Victor Sjöström, Ingrid Thulin, Bibi Andersson, Gunnar Björnstrand, Jullan Kindahl
Svensk Filmindustri, Not Rated, Running time 91 minutes.