Geezers and Grannies #1: Wild Strawberries

Wild Strawberries
Sweden, 1957
Written and directed by Ingmar Berman
Starring Victor Sjöström, Bibi Andersson, and Ingrid Thulin

Available to stream on HuluPlus

wild-strawberries-screen

Wild Strawberries is the story of Isak Borg, an old Swede on his way out of life, questioning who he has been as a human being. At age 78, he is being offered an honorary doctorate from a university in Lund. He scoffs at the idea (“They might as well make me an Honorary Idiot.”) but undergoes the journey to the city nonetheless, accompanied by his daughter-in-law Marianne. Along the way they stop at locations that Isak sees as being vital in his past. Through a series of flashbacks we see the moments that made Isak who he is.

The story is rife with symbolism and philosophical undertones. At times, we enter into Isak’s dreams, surreal and haunting, and get a glimpse at the madness that torments his final years. This is certainly not the easiest movie to figure out, especially in one viewing, but there is a wealth of wisdom within it, if you’re willing to look for it.

Wild-Strawberries-ImagerySometimes in order to understand a piece of art, you have to be familiar with the artist. Such is the case with Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, a story so connected with the personality of the filmmaker himself that it doesn’t take on its full meaning without some prior familiarization. And really the best way to get to know an artist is through their work. So if you’ve never seen a Bergman movie, I can’t actually suggest you make this your first. A better place to start would be Smiles of a Summer Night or The Virgin Spring, two infinitely more accessible movies. So, real quick, go watch one (or both) of those then come back and finish reading this. Or if you’d rather not, I guess I can try to fill in the blanks.

For me there are, at bare minimum, three things that must be understood about Ingmar Bergman to fully appreciate Wild Strawberries:

1. His doubt. Bergman was a man whose entire existence was filled with skepticism. He struggled with faith and religion. He struggled with love and marriage. He struggled with the value of his work. Despite being, perhaps, the greatest filmmaker in history, Bergman was very critical of his own work. In Wild Strawberries, these feelings are projected onto the character Isak, who is in constant doubt of what he has done, and what he has achieved. The story of Isak comes to life because Bergman’s own insecurities are injected into the character.

2. His honesty. In interviews, Bergman often referred to himself as a liar, a man who played with the truth. Watching his films, we realize the truth ought to be played with. Andrei Tarkovsky, a great Soviet director (and one of Bergman’s favorites) said that Bergman would arrive at the spiritual truth about human life that was important to him. Wild Strawberries is all about spiritual truth. There is nothing false about it. We are seeing things through the eyes of a deeply faulted, deeply disturbed man. We may not agree with his truth, but for the sake of the story, it’s all that matters.

3. His love of music. Bergman himself best described the connection between music and cinema: “I would say that there is no art form that has so much in common with film as music. Both affect our emotions directly, not via the intellect. And film is mainly rhythm; it is inhalation and exhalation in continuous sequence.” I watched Wild Strawberries again after reading this quote, and it took on a whole new freshness for me. The story has the same scope as a classical piece of music, with each period or decision in Isak’s life acting as a sort of symphonic movement. There are moments of delicate sweetness (hear those flutes and violins?) and moments of madness and nightmares (now, it’s the brass). Combined, this seemingly simple story of an old man becomes a deep reflection on life, with a scope greater than any Hollywood epic.

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