The professor’s name is Isak Borg (played by Victor Sjostrom) and most of the film is about the car journey that takes place between his home town in Sweden, all the way to the university town of Lund, where Borg will be given an honorary doctorate for his services to the community.
This is a screenplay that Bergman developed whilst he was in hospital recuperating from an ulcer. It comes just after The Seventh Seal in 1957, and was at the time Bergman’s greatest critical success. The film had success in places such as Cannes and the USA, and for the first time he was being compared to other European directors like Fellini.
The idea came to Bergman when he visited his childhood town of Uppsala in Sweden. He walked up to the house where he was raised with his grandmother and had the urge to turn the door- handle and step into the house. He imagined what it would be like to re-enter the idyllic time of long ago. Isak Borg does this very thing in a number of dream sequences in Wild Strawberries.
Isak Borg travels to Lund with his daughter in law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin in her first Bergman film outing). Their conversation is at first strained. Both have stories to tell- Borg of his disturbing dreams and Marianne of her marital difficulties with Borg’s son, Evald. However both are self absorbed and not particularly interested in what the other has to stay. That will change as Borg has a series of real and imagined encounters that alter his attitude and thinking, culminating in genuine warmth between he and Marianne in the last moments of the film.
Professor Borg’s first dream takes place at the start of the film, but the most significant one is at the wild strawberry patch at the place of his adolescence. Unbeknown to those around him, he silently watches activities of his extended family that took place long ago and is able to see for the first time the courting of his beloved cousin Sara (Bibi Andersson) by his brother Sigrid, whom she’ll eventually marry. Sara confides in her cousin that she finds Sigrid ‘brazen’ and ‘exciting’ but she is emotional because of the goodness in Isak who is ‘moral’ and ‘sensitive’ and talks often of sin. Listening to this dialogue stirs feelings of ‘emptiness’ and ‘mournfulness’ in Isak, and probably regret.
Borg’s second significant encounter takes place when he visits his elderly mother. She is cold, distant and unhappy. She complains about a lack of visits from her children and grandchildren. It is significant that she finds the room cold when nobody else does. It is as if she is almost a corpse, and her room is a tomb. Isak doesn’t stay long. Despite the time lapse in their seeing each other, it is not a happy re-encounter. Here we have a perfect illustration of a lack of warmth in Isak’s family.
This leads directly to Isak again evaluating his life, and again it is in the form of a dream from the past. This time Sara can see him, and she holds up a mirror to his face and tells him ‘You’re an anxious old man who will soon be dead.’ Later after she wanders off he sees an image through a window of the amorous couple, Sigfrid and Sara, about to enjoy a romantic meal, and watches on in pain. He has been unable to communicate those kinds of feelings to her.
The most surreal aspect of this sequence is when the Professor is forced to undergo a mental examination to see if he is capable of practising his profession. The lighting and interior of the rooms he enters reinforces the idea that this is going to be some kind of test or trial. Borg notably stumbles on the question of what the principle duty of a doctor is: to ask forgiveness. It is an answer that he is unable to identify.
When Borg, still dreaming, hears his deceased wife talk about his ‘utter coldness’, he discovers his punishment will be loneliness. This is another of the sequences that will lead to Borg’s redemption- and leads perfectly onto a scene in real life again in which Marianne talks about the coldness and emptiness inside her husband, Isak’s son, Evald. He has told Marianne ‘I feel the need to be dead- absolutely dead’ and castigates her for wanting to bring their unborn child into the world. This is the crux of the film- that Evald is a sad product of a sterile and unhappy upbringing, one that Isak must come to terms with for being the engineer of it. The theme is also explored in a play by Ibsen, one of Bergman’s favourite dramatists. In 'Ghosts' the sins of the father have a devastating impact on his young son as he struggles to make his own independent way in the world.
Isak has had his doctorate bestowed upon him at Lund. It is now late at night and Isak’s redemption has come in the form of a new found tenderness between he and his daughter-in-law. Things with Evald, however, are still problematic. The coldness and alienation that exists between them will not be so easily thawed. A final dream sequence is significant. Isak is back at his childhood home as an old man and with the youthful Sara. She takes him to see his parents who are fishing by a river. There is a beautiful new softness and tenderness in Isak’s features, which we haven’t seen before.
This scene was filmed in the late afternoon, beyond the agreed time that Sjostrom was prepared to work. Bergman was earlier able to coax him into playing the part of Isak Borg partly by promising the 78 year old he would stick to a deadline of 4:30 each afternoon so Borg could be home having a whiskey before dinner. A difficulty with the light meant that Borg was asked to stay on, and as Bibi Andersson leads Sjostrom down a hillside on his way to seeing his ‘parents’, Sjostrom was cursing and extremely irritable at the inconvenience of it all. A close look at the scene and his body language reveals a hint of the anger that Sjostrom felt as Andersson clutches him by the arm.
This is a key film in Bergman’s oeuvre. Woody Allen has sung its praises, claiming that Wild Strawberries, The Magician, The Seventh Seal and Cries & Whispers are the biggest moments of Bergman’s career. I would agree with the latter two, but would prefer to throw in Fanny & Alexander and Scenes From A Marriage before the first two. Of course it has great moments, and Sjostrom is a memorable character.
However there are a few things about the film that leave me a bit cold. First of all, I find Sjostrom very likeable throughout, which is a problem considering we are asked to accept the importance of the redemption of his character, and to find him disagreeable and irascible for the first half.
Secondly, there is a lighter, less serious strand in the plot that doesn’t work for me. The less successful of Bibi Andersson’s dual roles is the character (again called Sara) whom Borg and Marianne pick up hitchhiking with her male friends on the way to Lund. She is very playful and a bit silly and quaint, and her two doting companions often argue and wrestle, and take part in an unconvincing existential debate. Bergman dealt with this themes about the existence of God so brilliantly in his previous film, The Seventh Seal, that it comes across as trivial and unconvincing this time around.
Finally, as in the case to a lesser extent in The Virgin Spring, the whole film seems a bit too moralistic and obvious, almost as if Bergman is delivering a sermon based on lessons about the way you shouldn’t live your life. The heartening thing is, I suppose, is that it is never too late to learn these lessons and make amends.