Criterion’s latest film class in a box covers another classic that helped spark Hollywood’s auteur movement of the 60s and 70s. Ingmar Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries” was made in 1957 and likely wouldn’t have seen the light of day, at least in its final form, if the writer and director had been part of Hollywood’s original studio system.
Like many of his other films, particularly “The Seventh Seal,” “Wild Strawberries” is a character study that moves at a slow, deliberate pace. Seemingly casual conversations between characters take on extra weight when the viewer considers the subtext of their words, and the resolution of the story carries with it a melancholy tone, as the main character comes to terms with the choices that have led to his present circumstances, and yet there is little he can do to change them.
“Wild Strawberries” follows Dr. Isak Borg, a retired professor who has been summoned to Lund University to receive a prestigious award. It seems like the prefect cap to an illustrious career, but as Borg drives through the Swedish countryside with Marianne, his daughter-in-law, she confronts him with a withering criticism of his cold demeanor, which he passed on to Evald, his son and her husband.
Shaken by this, Borg takes a detour to a childhood summer home. While Marianne goes for a swim, Borg discovers the spot where wild strawberries once grew, and he finds himself transported to his youth, when he pined for his beautiful cousin, Sara. (Such a relationship seems odd to us today, but we must remember that some things were once culturally acceptable, especially in another country.)
Soon Borg finds himself swept up by more memories from his large family and those carefree summer days. His brother Sigfrid also pursued Sara and eventually won her affections, much to his dismay. That loss seemed to haunt him his entire life, and it manifests itself in the form of another woman also named Sara (and played by the same actress), who is part of a trio of hitchhikers he picks up. The other two hitchhikers are men who constantly quarrel over the existence of God and who vie for Sara’s affections.
The hitchhikers become symbolic of Borg’s youth: He was the distant, intellectual one, while his brother Sigfrid was the romantic who eventually won their cousin’s affections. Later, he and Marianne pick up another set of hitchhikers, an ever-fighting couple who remind Borg of his marriage to his long-dead wife. They’re eventually expelled from the car.
Borg later visits his mother, a cold, humorless woman who seems to have passed her personality to her son, and eventually he arrives at Lund University after picking up his son at the train station. He’s left alone in bed that evening to contemplate a life that was full of accomplishments and financial gain but was yet devoid of meaningful relationships. I was reminded of James Joyce’s stories in “Dubliners” and their examinations of lives squandered on things that did not matter much in the end. I also thought of T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, who measured his life in coffee spoons.
Of course, my meager interpretation of “Wild Strawberries” can’t compare to the bonus features you’ll find on this Blu-ray disc, beginning with film scholar Peter Cowie’s scholarly commentary track. It was recorded in 2001, so it appeared on the previous DVD release of the film, but it’s well worth another listen. Like Cowie’s other commentaries, it functions as a film school lecture, which I didn’t mind – My first introduction to Bergman was in Mr. Truitt’s Great Films class at Cherry Hill West High School in the mid-to-late 80s, so I’ll take a scholarly commentary over a “Yeah, this film was fun to shoot” kind of track any day.
Moving on, we have a four-minute introduction to the film in the form of a brief conversation between Bergman and Marie Nyrerod, along with 17 minutes of silent behind-the-scenes footage shot by Bergman. Jan Wengstrom, who works for the Swedish Film Institute, provides insight into the latter. The final bonus feature is a nice 91-minute 1998 documentary called “Ingmar Berman on Life and Work,” which takes the form of an extended interview.
The obligatory booklet (I’m glad Criterion hasn’t gotten rid of those) features an essay by film class teacher Mark Le Fanu.