My father's theory explaining Ingmar Bergman's morose film-making was climactic: anyone living in a place where winter nights last pretty much all day long will likely be afflicted with melancholy. It was an esthetic of Seasonal Affective Disorder. I've traveled in Scandinavia in the summer -- in May and June and July, it's always daylight: you wake up with the sun high overhead and, at night, when you pull shut the curtains it is still bright and white outside. (My father's Bergman was the director of The Seventh Seal and Winter's Light; I don't think he had ever seen the sunniest of all films, Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night.) These considerations lead me to the thematic question central to Bergman's great Wild Strawberries (1957) -- what exactly is the nature of the rot that entered this bright, verdant world and eaten it away at its core?
Wild Strawberries is a road movie. An old professor, Isak Borg, must travel from Stockholm to Lund where he will be awarded some kind of prize for life-time achievement. (It's an underwhelming ceremony -- after much pomp and circumstance, the old man is bestowed a funereal black top hat.) Instead of taking a plane to Lund, the old man rises early after a night of uneasy dreams and, after bickering with his loyal housekeeper, sets off in his old hearse-like automobile with his embittered daughter-in-law. The great Swedish director, Viktor Sjostrom, plays Isak Borg and his acting is startlingly life-like -- he captures perfectly the old man's cantankerous nature, his indomitable pride, as well as his child-like fears and anxieties. (The production was apparently horrific -- Sjostrom, who was 78, kept forgetting his lines and, then, punished his memory lapses by smashing his head against tree-trunks until blood was flowing.) The old man intends the road trip as valedictory -- he wants to bid farewell to places that were important to him and, further, intends a visit to his 96-year-old mother. Along the way, the professor, Isak Borg, meets three young people excited about traveling to Italy, a beautiful girl and two boys competing for her affections. After a near collision, the travelers pick up a husband and wife whose squabbling has escalated to physical violence -- hence, the crash that has destroyed their VW Beetle. Borg sees his mother, an ancient and profoundly dignified woman who seems icily indifferent to the emotional needs of others. (In flashbacks, we see her as matron of the household, imperiously ordering her children around and humiliating them in the process -- "People are weak today," she sneers, noting that she bore ten children and, apparently, disliked intensely all of them.) At Lund, there is a tense reunion with between Borg's daughter-in-law and her estranged husband, Ewald, a cadaverously handsome man. The clash between husband and wife arises from Ewald's demand that his wife, Marianne, have an abortion -- "how could anyone bring a child into a world like this?" he argues mercilessly. As a kind of explanation, another flashback shows us Borg spying on his wife with her lover -- in the vision, Borg stands in the ruins of burnt house and watches as his wife first rejects, then, embraces, then, appalled and revulsed, again rejects her lover. (What is the cause of all of this embittered hysteria in Bergman's women? Unfortunately, the obvious answer is not flattering to Bergman.) The old man gets his top-hat and goes to bed, haunted by premonitions of death. His housekeeper, Agda, refuses to allow Borg to use her first name -- she refers to him as "the professor." But in an extraordinary final scene, the buxom old woman notes that she will keep her door open should Borg "need anything from her." It's pretty clear what she means and there is a distinctly bawdy aspect to her invitation -- perhaps, she knows that the old man is now sexually incapacitated and that the offer is intended to humiliate him, although, probably there is something more, something even steadfast and abiding in her proposal.
Wild Strawberries is most noteworthy for the various dream scenes that comment on the action. (In my view, these scenes are also a weakness in the film in that they are often overly allegorical and explicit -- one of them has Kafkaesque elements: Borg is accused of being guilty of guilt. And are there "long shots" in dreams? I don't think so.) In an early sequence, Borg wanders a street on which the clocks have no hands, encounters faceless specters, and, finally, watches a hearse catch its wheel on a lamppost, the casket spilling onto the starkly white paving stones and the corpse sprawled out obscenely on the road -- the dead man turns out to be Borg who is somehow also alive. (These scenes are brilliantly shot and derive from Sjostrom's silent fantasy film, The Phantom Carriage -- in fact, the entire movie is a commentary of Sjostrom's classic picture, a touchstone to Bergman and a film that he screened each year on New Year's Eve.) Images premonitory of death are intercut with radiantly beautiful scenes depicting Borg's childhood. These sequences center around the family's summer cabin on one of Sweden's fjords and, of course, dramatize the abundance of nature, an aspect of the world that Bergman embodied in his voluptuous young blondes and the "wild strawberries" that give the film its title. The question that the film raises is a simple one: in the midst of such beauty and sensual abundance, why do human beings make one another so miserable? Agda and Borg bicker incessantly, although one can detect an element of comic interdependence in these encounters -- after all, this is the only way that they can really interact. But why has Ewald damned the world as being unworthy of his child? What malign spirit has caused the husband and wife in the VW Beetle to be so violently enraged with one another that, ultimately, Marianne -- a woman who is no glowing picture of happiness herself -- has to bar them from the vehicle so that their rancor will not poison the trio of young people? Certainly, people's loves are thwarted -- flashbacks show us that Borg seems to have lost the love of his life to his brother Sigfrid. (He was in love with Sara, a cousin, who ultimately married Sigfrid, resulting in her giving birth to six children.) Presumably, the same pattern of lost love and regret will afflict the young people departing on their trip to Italy -- of course, the girl will choose one of them, or, perhaps, someone else and there will be a lifetime of regrets, although one would hope that those regrets would not be psychically crippling. (The parallel connecting the two rival suitors and Sara with Isak's competition with Sigfrid for his Sara is made palpable by casting Bibi Andersson in both roles.) Is the infection in the world merely death? Or is the world infected at its source by the ice-cold mother with her glacial contempt for the children to whom she has given life. She is the one who made Borg and she will unmake him as well -- dispersing the family toys, the old woman ask Borg take these souvenirs that she never cared much about, including a clock notable for having to no hands. Far from being a dark or shadowy film, Bergman shoots Wild Strawberries across the length of a single radiant day -- Borg opens the curtains and the sun is high in the sky already shining; in the final scene, the old man goes to bed and has a vision of a sunny afternoon at the family's lake cabin, men and women in resplendent white garments fishing in a rock-girt bay. If our lives are swaddled in brightness, from whence comes the darkness?