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Wild Strawberries: “Where Is the Friend I Seek?”

I was quite sure I was an unwanted child, growing out of a cold womb.
—Ingmar Bergman, from Images: My Life in Films

No writer likes to think of himself as aging, but it is fifty years since, as a thirteen-year-old schoolboy, I first saw Wild Strawberries (1957). The movie left an indelible impression on me. The screening took place in a film club in the remote wilds of Yorkshire, organized and programmed by kind Father Augustine. Though thirteen-year-olds, by definition, don’t know much about life, many scenes in this very adult film caught my imagination. One in particular stands out: it is the flashback about two-thirds of the way through where the married couple Evald (Gunnar Björnstrand) and Marianne (Ingrid Thulin) sit in their motorcar in the rain arguing about whether and how to start a family. Marianne, who is pregnant, wants one. But Evald does not; and it is the reason he gives, combined with his manner of giving it, that I can never forget from that screening. He says it would be irresponsible to bring a child into the world, the world being what it is. He doesn’t say this timidly, either; he says it with vehement conviction—the conviction, shall we say, of a pessimistic atheist. These are his words: “It’s absurd to live in this world, and even more absurd to provide it with new wretches!” So people—certain people, anyway—really thought and spoke like that, did they? They said such things? For me, it was a moment of moral revelation—a first glimpse, from my sheltered upbringing, of the intransigence of the adult world.

The lively shock to my innocence that I experienced at that point finds an echo, as a matter of fact, in another memorable scene in this movie—the episode in which the travelers Marianne and Isak give a lift to a middle-aged couple whose oncoming vehicle (driven with maniacal carelessness) they have narrowly avoided hitting, and which has subsequently overturned in a ditch. To say that the Almans (Gunnar Sjöberg and Gunnel Broström) don’t get on is to put it too mildly; evidently, they passionately loathe each other. As their sarcastic bickering swells to a pitch of fury, Marianne, who is driving, stops the car and throws them out. Their quarreling, she explains coldly, could only upset the younger passengers, a trio of student hitchhikers (Bibi Andersson, Björn Bjelfvenstam, and Folke Sundquist) whom she and her father-in-law picked up earlier that day, and whose hitherto high-spirited exuberance has visibly drained from their faces in the course of this marital onslaught.

The just and vivid portrayal of different generations, from childhood to old age, via all the stages in between, is one of the most beautifully wrought aspects of Wild Strawberries, and we will come back to it. But before doing so, we should perhaps linger a moment more on the character of the driver, Marianne, and specifically on the beauty of the actress Ingrid Thulin, who plays her. She is not, I suppose, the most important figure in the movie; that role is necessarily occupied by old Isak Borg, her father-in-law (famously played by the celebrated Swedish film director from the silent epoch Victor Sjöström). Even among the other woman characters, Marianne has a less conspicuous part than those of the two Saras (both played by Andersson). Yet she can also be seen as the linchpin of the movie: in a strange way, she—or rather, Thulin’s portrayal of her—gives it its “tone.” Ingmar Bergman’s films are famous for their psychic violence; it is a commonplace to say that they are peopled by characters who are neurotic (the viciously argumentative couple in the scene we have just glanced at is a good example of this). But Wild Strawberries, taken as a whole, is not at all a neurotic movie. Its final cadences, on the contrary, communicate a wonderful, warm sanity, and Thulin’s beauty—often in reaction shots, where she is not saying anything but merely listening serenely and responsively—is a not negligible part of this humanism.

And yet the film is, of course, about dark things—the viewer can’t miss this. It’s there from the opening, that extraordinary postcredits sequence (surely, in its detail and particularity, one of the finest evocations of dream in the whole of cinema) in which a coffin that has fallen from a broken carriage opens up to reveal to the passing Professor Borg his image and likeness—a classical doppelgänger that, stretching out an arm, attempts to drag the old man down into the darkness of the tomb. The screen goes black at this point. Cut to our protagonist shaking his head and awakening. We are back in the world of normality—a normality in fact already established in the precredits sequence, where we have seen Professor Borg in his home environment, seated comfortably at his desk, smoking a cigar and ruminating over family photographs. A distinguished (if fussy) old emeritus, he is shortly to make a journey to the southern city of Lund to be honored for his lifework in medicine.

Normality on the surface, therefore, but a certain kind of anguish underneath. As the film progresses, further dream sequences reveal more of the inner life of this complex yet upright bourgeois citizen. His marriage, it turns out, was a sham—his now-dead wife, Karin, having deceived and humiliated him. Before that, in his youth, there was the love he conceived for a beautiful cousin, but she went off with his wastrel brother Sigfrid. Such deceptions of the heart have left him cold and isolated and enclosed in an impenetrable loneliness. Heredity, too, has played its part in the tragedy, as Marianne notices: of a large and lively family of ten siblings, only Isak survives—though, astonishingly, his ninety-six-year-old mother lives. In an extraordinary sequence midway through the film, Isak and Marianne pay a visit to this dowager. From the frosty atmosphere that greets them (directed at Marianne, especially), one discerns the many self-inflicted injuries wrought by pride and egotism, and how it is that such sins of the spirit might have descended to blight the life of Isak, and through him that of his only child, Evald.

But it is in the film’s dream sequences, as I say, that most of the backstory is carried, and that the theme of guilt—guilt, as it were, for mere existence—is explored most profoundly. Bergman was too much of an artist to subscribe to any single ideology of the unconscious; fascinated by psychoanalysis, he was nonetheless no reductive Freudian. And yet the scenarios that are played out in these multiple fantasies have the kind of sinister and mysterious rightness that one recognizes from classic case histories. Take, for example, the episode in which Isak, as he dozes off in the car after luncheon, returns in memory for the second time to the old summerhouse of his youth. Prior to this, in an earlier reverie, the place was dappled in sunlight; now the sky is dark and filled with the screeching of jackdaws. The ghost of Sara, his childhood love, is seated on the same patch of ground where previously we have seen her innocently picking wild strawberries and being flirted with by the interloping Sigfrid. Yet she seems to be a different, older person. Forcing Isak to look at his face in the mirror she holds up to him—and even, at one stage, to smile into it—she regales him with his inadequacies as a marriage candidate.

Her manner is far from compassionate. Yet it is not quite mocking, either; it is thoughtful and serious. Still, the contrast with her earlier and more vulnerable childish self couldn’t be more marked, and it reminds us of the extraordinary way in which, in dreams, people who are close to us present themselves, almost arbitrarily, in starkly different emotional registers: tenderly disposed and friendly in one part of the dream, distant and hostile in the next.

So it is that, having delivered her devastating verdict, Sara bestirs herself, telling old Isak (who is at the same time, of course, the young Isak) that she is going off to tend to her sister Sigbritt’s baby—another fascinating and intriguing detail, for we have no idea who this baby or its father is. As she stands at the edge of the wood, with the dark sky and shore in the background and the beautiful empty cradle beside her, there is a chilling atmosphere of melancholy and loneliness. It passes through our minds, momentarily, that the anonymous creature she is comforting at her breast stands in for the child who would have been born—haunted and cursed from the start—had she and Isak ever gotten married.

Like practically every one of Bergman’s more than fifty completed films, Wild Strawberries issues from an original script. The director wrote the scenario over a two-month period in the early spring of 1957, while recovering in the hospital from a breakdown brought on by overwork. His private life at the time, we learn from his autobiography Images, was as complicated and tormented as it seems to have always been. Specifically, his third marriage was breaking up—though apparently he still loved the woman concerned—while his partnership with Bibi Andersson (who would replace her in his affections) was not going particularly well either. Nor was he at all happy in his dealings with his parents, toward whom he found himself, during this period, in a position of painful rebellion. It is always tempting, when discussing cinema as obviously auteur-driven as Bergman’s is, to seek in the director’s private life some clue toward the genesis—or indeed the meaning—of the finished work of art. Yet this is never a simple matter. Wild Strawberries is not about illness (though it is certainly about the pain of old age); it is not, except as a minor excursus in the case of Isak’s mother, about different generations hating one another; and it is not—emphatically not!—about any problems that follow from having too many wives. No, the film tells a story in its own right; it has the dignity of third-person narrative. Isak Borg, the protagonist, and Ingmar Bergman, the director, share the same initials, but they are not otherwise linked in obviously discoverable ways—indeed, it is strange to learn, given how memorably the aged actor stamps the part as his own, that the role of Isak was not even written with Sjöström in mind. All great films have multiple miracles attached to them, the greatest miracle here perhaps being that this legendary actor-director—one can really call him the founder of Swedish cinema—should have still been alive when needed, that someone should have inspiredly thought of him, and that he should have been willing to take the part when it was offered to him.

These things can be said, then, without denying that the film is autobiographical; if we couldn’t guess it ourselves, we have Bergman’s word for it. Plainly, he believed that in some vital way he was the unwanted child of quarreling parents, and that no amount of talent and ambition could make up for this—it was a guilt he would need to carry to the grave. But I believe it is wrong to overemphasize these connections and what one might call the movie’s existentialism. There is torment aplenty in Wild Strawberries, but the film is not really about torment, I think—indeed, the contrary. Mention was made earlier of the calmness and sanity of its closing episodes, and it is time to dwell a little more on those qualities. Surely, all along, it has been impossible to miss the movie’s good humor. The viewer who is alert to tone can’t fail to have remarked the way in which courtesy, lightness, and gaiety govern so many of its major sequences.

The scene of Uncle Aron’s birthday party—that initial flashback in the woods, during the course of which we revisit the old professor’s childhood home in summertime—provides a characteristic example of what I’m talking about. The extension of this sequence, as we have already discovered, takes a decidedly sinister turn, yet that doesn’t annul the force of the earlier part of the reverie, in which we are present at the preparations for this relative’s birthday breakfast. The youngest children, a pair of identical twins, are going to sing him a birthday song (a bit pointless, since Uncle Aron is deaf!). The sun is shining. A splendid spread lies on the table. The pale Scandinavian decor, of lace and pine, seems like an illustration from a turn-of-the-century fairy tale. How charming are these scenes of bourgeois revelry, where the girls are so pretty and the dandyism of the young men so innocent. The friendliness toward young people shown here, and the delight in their boisterousness, is picked up, of course, and transferred to the spirit of the three young hitchhikers in the episodes that follow on from this festive scene, and maybe those characters, too, require mention, as their presence is so central to the story.

This little band, then, consisting of the pipe-smoking Sara and her two male companions, have “ambushed” Marianne and the professor and managed to wheedle a lift from them (Lund, their destination, turns out to be on a direct route to Italy, where the young people are headed). Installing the trio in the back of their vehicle, the professor and his daughter-in-law, charmed by their cheek, in due course offer them lunch, and they stop off at a convenient terrace restaurant. The meal, we are told in the professor’s voice-over, is a success, and the five of them linger afterward in the open air, over port and coffee. The two young men, rivals for Sara’s affection (one of them, in fact, is engaged to her), have been quarreling good-naturedly about theology; the fiancé is planning to become a minister. Asked by Sara to adjudicate the intellectual merits of the argument, old Isak Borg smilingly declines. After a few moments of silence, he proceeds instead to recite a beautiful poem that starts, “Where is the Friend I seek where’er I’m going?” At different times in the recitation, different listeners take up the thread of the verses; evidently, among Swedes, the poem is well-known. Its author is a nineteenth-century poet-archbishop named Johan Olof Wallin (1779–1839), but we needn’t be aware of this historical context to grasp and appreciate the yearning, idealistic tenor of its discourse. Harmony and peace descend, as if by a miracle, on the assembled company. It seems, momentarily, as if God himself is present in their midst! This quiet and modest scene, to my mind, belongs among the great epiphanies of cinema.

The film’s conclusion offers yet another epiphany—or possibly it would be better to say a series of miniature epiphanies that seamlessly feed into one another to make the end of this movie one of the most beautiful and emotionally satisfying in the whole of Bergman’s oeuvre. First, there are the reconciliations—Professor Borg with his housekeeper, Fru Agda; more crucially, Marianne with Evald (how delicately the love between the pair, “despite everything,” is communicated to us in gestures of fleeting elegance and reticence; how beautifully Thulin shines in her ball gown!). In the midst of these acts of forgiveness, there is, of course, the sequence of the award ceremony itself, with its grand fanfare, solemn procession, and moving encomiums in Latin summarizing the professor’s achievements. Finally, there is the aftermath: the hitchhikers’ lovely nighttime serenade and the dream that closes the movie, during which Borg, back again on the grounds of the family summerhouse, is guided by Sara to a spot where he can see, across the lagoon, his parents relaxing with their fishing rods, as they turn in the sunshine to wave to him.

That really is some cadence to end on! Six ascending chords of the harp accompany the closing images. The music throughout the film, composed by Erik Nordgren, has been consistently wonderful—from the sequences just spoken of, one could single out the little cello phrase that hovers in the air behind the professor’s ruminations in the cathedral as he’s crowned with his honorary doctorate. As with all good film music, the effectiveness increases in direct proportion to the discretion with which it is used—and Nordgren’s most telling touches are subliminal. Wild Strawberries possesses, then, the kind of unflashy lyricism that is the property of many of the best films of the fifties—one might cite such near-contemporary works as Sansho the Bailiff (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1954), Pather Panchali (Satyajit Ray, 1955), or Ashes and Diamonds (Andrzej Wajda, 1958): films of the time that are not quite avant-garde but cannot really be said to suffer from this. There seems to be an agreement among film critics to label the decade in question “conformist”; yet one needs to remember how many of the greatest achievements of world cinema belong to the period I’m talking about. Far in the future for Bergman lay searing dramas like Persona (1966), where we could say the grammar of cinema is “dismantled”—brilliantly, of course, yet at the cost, perhaps, of a certain human coherence. In Wild Strawberries, and in its companion piece of the previous year, The Seventh Seal, the reigning conventions bespeak a quietly confident classicism.

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