Wild Strawberries Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: A Beautiful, Complex, Symbolic Film

I am 37 years old. With luck, I’ll live another 37 before I die. At the middle of my life, I try not to partake of the crisis that effects so many at this age, but I do admit to periodic bursts of looking back – at the things I’ve done, the places I’ve seen, the accomplishments I’ve achieved, and the people I’ve known – and comparing them to where I thought I’d be when I first began. The man I dreamed I would be as a child is many fathoms away from the man I became.

I do not possess any graduate degrees, nor great wealth. Any career I imagined having went off the rails years ago. I have no trophies to place on my mantel, no awards have been granted. I have a wife, and a child, and a few friends, not much else to call my own. Most days that is enough. Some nights though, I lie awake at night and wonder what I might have done differently.

I am not alone in this of course. Most people, nearly everyone who reaches a certain age have moments where they look back at their life and wonder what might have been. It has certainly been the muse for many an artist’s work.

Ingmar Bergman made more than a few films where his characters do much the same. Perhaps most magnificently so in Wild Strawberries. In it Isak Borg (played masterfully by Victor Sjöström) travels by car from Stockholm to Lund to receive an honorary degree. Traveling with him is his daughter-in-law Marianne (the beautiful, mesmerizing Ingrid Thulin) who has spent the last month visiting Isak (though she admits in the car she finds him rather coldhearted and is really there to be away from her husband.) Along the way, he picks up two sets of hitchhikers, visits his decrepit mother, and encounters several vivid flashbacks and dream sequences.

Isak is outwardly successful – he is a well-known doctor and professor, has great affluence, and the respect of the community – yet he has failed in his personal life. His wife, now many years dead, humiliated him in life, his only son hardly notices him, and while he is respected in the community for his profession, he now lives alone save for his aged, maternal housekeeper and is rarely visited by anyone.

Wild Strawberries is a road movie for the soul. Each encounter with persons real and imagined along his journey tests Isak to his very core; smashes his isolated, cold existence; and in the end makes him a better human being.

As it is a Bergman film, it is full of emotional darkness, symbolic imagery, and extraordinary craftsmanship. In the present-day sequences, riding down the road, Isak encounters numerous people from nearly every chronological age. His riding companion is his daughter-in-law, who is beautiful and kind but in the midst of her own emotional turmoil having recently left her husband over whether or not she should have the baby that is inside her. Early on, they pick up three teenagers filled with youthful energy and exuberance. Later, they nearly crash into a sneering, sarcastic, middle-aged couple who simply loathe each other and who are eventually kicked out of the car for the dark shadows they cast upon everyone else. Before the end, Isak visits his mother who is very old indeed and whose bitterness and emotional frigidness makes even the seemingly uncaring Isak shiver. Each of these characters reflects the different natures of humankind and causes Isak to look deeper into his own self.

The flashback sequences create the more darker and symbolic aspects of the film. On several occasions, Isak remembers moments from his childhood and adult life, giving the viewers insight into how he became the lonely old man that he is. We see how he lost the love of his life to his brother due to his inability to open up and share his emotions. We see his wife embrace another man and scathingly discuss Isak’s cold nature. In each of these scenes, Isak (and the viewer) ponders whether it was this moment or that one that created the empty shell of a man who is at the center of the film.

The dream sequences are the most foreboding of all. Early on, just after the establishing opener, Isak finds himself walking on a brightly lit but empty street where the clocks have no hands and a coffin opens to reveal Isak’s exact double, who then reaches out and tries to pull him into the coffin. Later, characters Isak has met on his journey put him on trial for the crime of guilt, and test him on his medical skills, all of which he fails, even though medicine is the one area in which he has succeeded in life.

At the film’s (and his journey’s) end, Isak has come to understand how cold and oft-putting he has been to those closest to him. He begins to show a bit of warmth and kindness to his maid, son, and daughter-in-law. Through this long car ride, he has seen the worst moments of his life, the effects of his attitude on his family, and finally, he sees himself as he really is, and for a moment we see that he had decided to change, and the film closes with a sense of hope. I could not hope for more in my own life.

Like most of Bergman’s films, Wild Strawberries is a heady experience. It takes patience, experience, and repeat viewings to fully understand. It is not a film to throw on while you are doing something else. One must use the full capacity of one’s concentration to even grasp at the depths of the film. Yet, it is a fully rewarding film, one with great emotional wealth and intellectual grace.

The Criterion Blu-ray transfer comes from the original 35 mm print and was cleaned up and fully restored. It looks absolutely fantastic. The gorgeous cinematography is well developed and the detail of clarity is a shining example of what can be done in high definition from older prints. The audio is crisp and clear though admittedly the film is mostly conversation with limited background noise and a subtle musical soundtrack.

Extras include:

  • Audio commentary from Peter Cowie: This is the same one that appeared on Criterion’s DVD release in 2002. Cowie offers an in-depth analysis of the film and production history though his constant referencing of other films grows tiresome after a bit.
  • Introduction: Bergman speaks briefly with Marie Nyrerod on the identity of Isak Borg.
  • Behind the Scenes of Wild Strawberries: 17 minutes of silent footage filmed by Bergman on the set with Jan Wengstrom providing commentary.
  • Ingmar Bergman on Life and Work: A 91-minute documentary about the director, which is really just a very long interview with him interspersed with photos from his life and some basic biographical information. It is very informative, though I have to admit after watching what is really a very heavy film for an hour and a half then listening to commentary and watching the other extras, I did not have the headspace to sit through the entire thing. Perhaps in a few weeks I’ll come back to it.
  • Booklet: A 16-page booklet is also included with a very interesting essay on the film by Mark Le Fanu.

Mat Brewster

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