Published on December 26th, 1957 | by Padraic Coffey0
Wild Strawberries (1957)
Though it would be crudely reductionist to assess the discrepancies between European and American cinema by a simple comparative study of one example from each industry, contrasting Orson Welles Citizen Kane with Ingmar Bergman’s (very) superficially similar Wild Strawberries does show how different a story can be approached. Citizen Kane deals with an elderly man, on his deathbed, recalling his life (or, strictly speaking, having his life recalled) and the decisions that lead to his isolation in old age. Likewise, in Wild Strawberries, widowed Professor Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström) drives across Sweden to collect an honourary degree from Lund university, commemorating fifty years since his graduation. Though his is chastised by his daughter-in-law Marianne (the strikingly beautiful Ingrid Thulin) and housekeeper Agda (Jullan Kindahl) for being “selfish” and “ruthless”, flashbacks and extended dream sequences give an indication of the once generous man he was, and the events that led to his current icy demeanour.
Stylistically, Citizen Kane and Wild Strawberries are worlds apart. Welles’ film is fast-paced, and effortlessly flits between decades. Wild Strawberries is much more languid, and utilises Isak’s surreal reveries, as well as memories from his formative years, to convey how his misanthropy has formed, a misanthropy that has been inherited by his son, Evald (Gunnar Björnstrand). Indeed, though Wild Strawberries has a reputation as one of Bergman’s most accessible works, its stately tempo might pose a challenge to contemporary viewers. Though it may not be traditionally considered as such, Wild Strawberries is also a road movie, with Isak and Marianne collecting both a trio of youths travelling to Germany, and a clearly unhappily married couple. The trio are comprised of brothers Anders, a physician in waiting, and Viktor, a future minister. Both vie for the attention of Sara, a forerunner to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl cinematic archetype. Sara is also the namesake of the cousin whom Isak was besotted with in his youth, only to have her marry his brother, Sigbritt.
The clashes between the religious Viktor and the secular Anders allows Bergman to explore the theme of idealism versus rationality, quite progressive for a film from the 1950s. Similarly, a longing for the innocence of youth is palpable throughout. The ceaselessly cheerful Sara informs Isak, “I’m a virgin. That’s why I’m so cheeky.” Isak find solace is lengthy daydreams of the house in which he spent his childhood summers. He notes, in his precise opening narrative, that he has no grandchildren, which may have contributed to his sense of isolation. Still, though mortality is alluded to throughout Wild Strawberries, Bergman avoids an needlessly downbeat conclusion, and has Isak find some form of redemption through the observation of others.
Wild Strawberries is one of Bergman’s most popular films. It won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1957, an honour the previous winners of which include Sydney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear. It was featured as one of Sight & Sounds Critics’ Top Ten list of the greatest films ever made in 1972, though subsequently declined in place over the years. It was also reputed to be one of Stanley Kubrick’s favourite films.