Wild Strawberries (1957)

Swedish title: Smultronstallet

Svensk Filmindustri, Sweden, 93 minutes, black and white, English subtitles

Director/Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman
Production manager: Allan Ekelund
Cinematography: Gunnar Fischer, Bjorn Thermenius
Editor: Oscar Rosander
Music: Erik Nordgren
Art director: Gittan Gustafsson
Costume Design: Millie Strom

Professor Isak Borg: Victor Sjöström
Marianne: Ingrid Thulin
Sara: Bibi Andersson
Evald: Gunnar Björnstrand
Anders: Folke Sundquist
Victor: Bjorn Bjelvenstam
Isak's mother: Naima Wifstrand
Housekeeper Agda: Jullan Kindahl
Alman: Gunnar Sjöberg
Alman's wife: Gunnel Brostrom
Isak's wife: Gertrud Fridh
Her lover: Ake Fridell
Akerman: Max von Sydow
Charlotta: Gunnel Lindblom
Sigfrid: Per Sjöstrand
The twins: Lena Bergman and Monica Ehrling

This 1957 Swedish film with its series of memorable dream sequences is one of cinema's great 'art house' classics. Unlike Spellbound, which like all of Hitchcock's work is commercial movie-making, this small-scale, low-budget film was never an international smash hit but is admired, even revered, by people who really know about cinema.

Its director Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007) won a deserved place as one of the most mature and adult film-makers of the twentieth century. His bleak, unsentimental view of the human condition contrasted markedly with Hollywood's sentimentalised candyfloss. His 1950s films were among his most accessible to modern cinema audiences.

Like Hitchcock, the director was haunted by childhood traumas, having been shut in a cupboard for hours on end by strict disciplinarian relatives - a punishment that helps explain the tortured cruelty of many of the human relationships in his movies.

Bergman's father, a Lutheran minister, also seems to have enjoyed a highly toxic relationship with the director's strong-willed mother and their discord is mirrored in the marital pain of many of the couples in his films.

Many Bergman films, especially those of his austere, minimalist period of the early 1960s, make difficult viewing but Wild Strawberries has an accessibility and warmth missing from works like Winter Light (1962) and The Silence (1963).

There are also powerful themes of reconciliation and forgiveness while the leading character's Scrooge-like realisation that he has lived an empty life devoid of human warmth creates obvious parallels with Charles Dickens' much-loved story A Christmas Carol.

Wild Strawberries was made immediately after Bergman's all-time classic The Seventh Seal, a gripping and pictorially magnificent mediaeval drama in which the Knight played by Max Von Sydow plays chess with Death, who appears in human form as one of the characters.

Although Wild Strawberries has many of the same actors as The Seventh Seal (Von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, Bibi Andersson), the lead role of Professor Isak Borg is played by 76 year-old Victor Sjöström (1879-1960), an eminent Swedish film director who had also made famous films like The Wind in Hollywood in the 1920s.

Wild Strawberries also features many of Bergman's favourite themes including marital failure, death and the existence (or otherwise) of God.

The script was written by Bergman while the director - then 37 - was attending a clinic to tackle a personal malaise following a failed marriage and problems in his relationship with his then partner Bibi Andersson. He was also 'feuding bitterly' with his parents and couldn't even talk to his father.

The inspiration for the film was a car journey made by Bergman to the Swedish town of Dalarna in the north of the country in 1956.

Unconsciously, he gave Borg the same initials, IB, as himself. Bergman later said Sjöström looked like his father but was meant to be his alter ego. Also symbolic is the fact that 'Borg' is the Swedish word for a fort.

Bergman also rowed with Sjöström during the making of the movie. Initially, the veteran director did not want to be in the film while the final scene in which he looks so serene was shot when, according to Bergman, he was in a huff over leaving the studio late and missing his teatime glass of whisky.

Bergman also claimed Sjöström put so much of himself into the part that he effectively hijacked the film. He wrote: 'There wasn't even a crumb left over for me. Wild Strawberries was no longer my film. It was Victor's!!'

An early road movie, it is about the 400-mile car journey of Borg from Stockholm to receive an honorary degree at the University of Lund in the extreme south of the country in recognition of his 50 years' work as a doctor.

On the surface, he is admired and successful. In reality, he is cold and reclusive, pausing only to spar with his crotchety old housekeeper (Jullan Kindahl). The trip becomes a spiritual journey as he reflects on the failure in human terms of his life and his impending death.

Narrated by Borg, the film starts with a nightmare in which he imagines being dragged into a coffin - by himself. This scene is shot in bright sunlight (unlike the Dali dream in Spellbound) and contains the image of a watch with no hands. (Borg later finds a real handless watch at his mother's house - a chilling moment).

He then sets off on the journey accompanied by his deeply unhappy daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin) who is anxious to be reconciled with her husband Evald (Gunnar Björnstrand), Borg's son. Describing himself as the 'unwanted child of a hellish marriage,' Evald is almost as cold and distant as his father. Marianne, meanwhile, tells Borg: 'All along the line there is nothing but cold and dark and loneliness.'

The characters pick up three young hitchhikers, the exuberant and charming Sara (Bibi Andersson) and her two suitors, Anders, a would-be clergyman and Viktor, who wants to be a doctor. Sara rekindles Borg's memory of his youthful sweetheart, also called Sara and also played by Andersson in the dream/memory sequences.

Next they are joined by a couple whose car has overturned during a quarrel. This neurotic, warring pair have one of the all-time toxic marital relationships, of which Bergman spares us little. They are so unpleasant Marianne asks them to get out and walk but both later re-appear in different, sinister guises in one of Borg's nightmares. (To appreciate Bergman's stature, imagine these scenes filmed by directors like Hitchcock, Sergio Leone or John Ford).

Then they encounter Max von Sydow as a petrol pump attendant. Considering he had just played the lead in The Seventh Seal, his brief cameo shows how the Swedish cinema in the 50s was the antithesis of the status-obsessed Hollywood star system.

As a thunderstorm approaches, Borg visits his 96-year-old mother only to find they are light years apart emotionally. 'Nobody bothers to visit me unless they want money. I've only one fault. I don't die.' she tells him.

This scene is immediately followed by another light-hearted moment as Sara's suitors scrap comically over her.

Borg, meanwhile, keeps on nodding off and has a disturbing and humiliating nightmare in which he is forced to sit a medical examination (he fails!) and is charged with the crime of guilt (perhaps he has been watching Spellbound).

He also dreams of key moments of his life, appearing at first as an observer who cannot be seen or heard and later as a participant. The Sara of his youth tells him: "You know so much and you don't know anything." Later he watches his wife's infidelity, during which she describes him as 'cold as ice.'

After this, the real-life degree ceremony in Lund is a phoney anti-climax, bearing little relation to Borg as we have come to know him.

Now at their destination, the young people bid adieu to him. 'It's you I really love, professor, today, tomorrow, always,' says Sara the hitchhiker, cueing the deceptively simple but exquisitely moving scene in which, having been through his redemptive journey, he dreams of reconciliation with his youthful love and his parents.

Bergman later said of Sjöström in these final moments: 'His face shone with secretive light as if reflected from another reality... it was like a miracle.'

Bibi Andersson, however, later said her acting in the film was clichéd and superficial. In fact, her dual portrayal gives the film much of its gaiety and spontaneity, her character representing youthful purity.

Cinematographer Gunnar Fischer said that because Sjöström was old and frail, the scenes in the car were filmed using back projection, which he felt was a big failing of the film.

He shouldn't have worried. The back projection does not ruin Wild Strawberries, which often finds its way into critics' best 100 movie lists.

And the strawberries? The Swedish word Smultronstallet refers to both a wild strawberry patch and to past happy times in one's life, possibly in childhood.

Quote from Bergman: "Film as dream, film as music. No form of art goes beyond ordinary consciousness as film does, straight to our emotions, deep into the twilight room of the soul."