Cinematic Cliffs Notes - Wild Strawberries

Wild Strawberries is one of my absolute favourite films. It's one of the headiest, most enriching ruminations on regret and consequence ever committed to celluloid, and since its release in 1957, it's wormed its way into the hearts of many cinephiles. Unlike actual heart worms, however, Wild Strawberries rarely kills you by burrowing its way out of your chest after a three day gestation period.

Phew. That was grim. Anyway, Bergman was confined to a hospital bed in '57 for gastric issues and the kind of stresses an auteur as prolific as Bergman is prone to suffer from. He'd previously made something of a sojourn through the town where he grew up, Uppsala, and began to spin a tale in his head about a reality in which you could open the door to your childhood home, then wander back in time to the way things were. It's the kind of narrative that makes sense given his surroundings; worn thin and confined to a bed, he clearly began to turn his eye inwards. If it sounds like Wild Strawberries is, as a result of this, a tired, yawning dirge, it isn't. It's an exceptionally thoughtful, warm and generous film.

Wild Strawberries is graced by a bevy of Bergman regulars, but it revolves around a superb performance by Victor Sjöström. Sjöström died after the film was shot, and gave his final superb performance as professor Isak Borg, a reticent grouch of a man setting out on a road trip of sorts, at the end of which he'll be presented with an award honoring his fifty years as a doctor. Upon viewing Wild Strawberries, you'll reach a point where you realise you're watching a metaphysical road movie with an old professor as it's hero. At this juncture you'll likely tear up, grin like an idiot and pace around the room a bit. Do not feel bad about doing this.

You see, Bergman revels in bringing out the most human moments he possibly can. Whether his characters are dragging themselves across a plague-stricken medieval wasteland or battling sister to sister in a small stark bedroom, they're always deeply, deeply flawed and exasperatingly real. What makes Wild Strawberries such a fundamentally vital study of human behaviour is that it manages to be uplifting and profound without succumbing to the urge to be cloying and overly sentimental. Don't get me wrong; Wild Strawberries is fantastically sentimental, but because Bergman goes to such lengths to make the professor and those he meets so complex, it never seems forced. Every scrap of personal discovery feels like a mile of vast, untrammeled road that you're just longing to sprint down.

Because we're dealing with a very old man here, the film is peppered with glorious moments of almost magical realism, in which Isak Borg wanders into various tableaus from his childhood and reassesses the way he's lived his life. Watching an old man lie on a dreamlike lawn in the middle of a long-passed summer, and watching him talk to his sister (a little girl), is incredibly cathartic. It manages to imbue you with a truly sound sense of Bergman's beliefs; that closure, honesty and resolution are a great source of power and good. Borg manages to slough off just enough of his accrued emotional dross to give you actual goosebumps. You'll find yourself rooting for the old man who everyone hates, but treats with a modicum of respect that he brusquely accepts at every turn. 


My recommendation? Turn off all the lights, lock your phone in another room, and don't turn the TV off until the credits roll. Wild Strawberries is a truly important film of proper weight and genius, and should be treated the same way you'd treat Isak Borg if he asked you for a lift: with respect, then, eventually, adoration.

/Paul
profile of Paul Verhoeven