• Director: Ingmar Bergman
  • Writers: Ingmar Bergman
  • Starring: Victor Sjöström, Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, Gunnar Björnstrand, Julian Kindahl, Folke Sundquist, Björn Bjelfvenstam, Naima Wifstrand, Gunnel Broström, Gunnar Sjöberg, Max von Sydow, Ann-Marie Wiman, Gertrud Fridh, and Åke Fridell
  • Accolades: 2012 Sight & Sound Top 100 list (#63), Golden Bear at 1958 Berlin International Film Festival, shown at 1958 Venice International Film Festival, 1 Oscar nomination (Best Original Screenplay)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming on Kanopy (library app), stream with subscription on HBO Max and the Criterion Channel, buy or rent on Amazon Video or Apple TV

I know this has taken a while to come out, and it might be a few days before the next one. I don’t talk that much about myself on this site but I have been having kind of a hard time lately from a mental health standpoint. I know that lots of the people in my life and around the world are surely worse off right now, but that’s not always how these things work, it seems. Anyway, I appreciate everyone who has kept reading this site the past few years and I’ll still be posting here as best I can. There may just be moments where it’s not as often.

There are aspects of human experience that there are lots and lots and lots of great movies about, and some that there are only a few, for various reasons. One of the latter is movies on the subject of getting old and feeling the feelings that old people feel. One reason for that could be that people, say, fall in love at a lot of different ages, and then they remember that afterwards, whereas in theory people only really know what it’s like to feel old at the end of their lives. Yet Ingmar Bergman wrote and directed Smultronstället (Wild Strawberries), which may be the most acclaimed cinematic work on the subject of being a cranky old dude, before he even reached the age of 40. Bergman later said that he was trying to make a movie about his father and ended up making a movie about himself. And I suppose you don’t have to be past retirement age to have the experience of getting lost in a specific world over a long drive, an experience that is at the center of this movie, especially the idea of driving past somewhere you used to live and being reminded of parts of your life you had almost forgotten.

As Bergman films go, Smultronstället is almost cheerful and uplifting. It seems to end, if not in redemption, at least in leaving open the general possibility thereof. Yet Bergman still cannot quite resist bringing in his bleak existentialism. This is, after all, a movie where two college students get into a fistfight over whether God exists. But it also has in spades what always makes Bergman work for me, which is basically this effortless cinematic quality. It lends a dream-like air to everything that can lend menace to things that are not otherwise particularly menacing, or alternatively make emotionally serious scenes seem somehow to take place in a magical world.

The story centers around an old man named Isak Borg, played, in a genius stroke of casting, by aging Swedish film director Victor Sjöström. We will likely come to Sjöström’s directing work at some point on this site, including several influential late-silent movies in Hollywood. You would never know he wasn’t a life-long actor, as he communicates volumes with just the looks on his face. In any case, Isak sets out on a long drive from his home in Stockholm to the university town of Lund in the far south of Sweden, to receive an honorary sort of “extra doctorate” they apparently give (or at least gave) to doctors in Sweden who practice for 50 years. He ends up taking with him his pregnant daughter-in-law Marianne (Bergman regular Ingrid Thulin), who doesn’t much like Isak and, we learn, is planning to separate from his son, Evald (Gunnar Björnstrand). 

Along the way, Isak and Marianne pick up a trio of much younger student hitchhikers, including, the wisecracking, tomboyish Sara (Bibi Andersson, another Bergman regular), and two boys who clearly are both in love with her and barely putting up with each other. Smultronstället is, in basic structure, a road movie, and along the way this group runs into various other characters and adventures. Among these are an unhappy married couple who swerve to avoid Isak’s car coming around a bend and end up with their own car upside-down in a ditch, who clearly remind Isak of his own, long ago unhappy marriage. Max von Sydow, the star of Bergman’s prior film Det Sjunde Inseglet (The Seventh Seal), makes basically a glorified cameo as a gas station attendant who remembers Isak from his younger days. 

Meanwhile, Isak has a series of dreams, nightmares, hallucinations, or any number of other things in which he recalls various incidents from his life and childhood that led him to where he is today, lonely and disliked by pretty much everyone despite his apparent professional success. Interestingly, Andersson plays not only Sara but also the lost love of Isak’s youth, who was also named Sara. The film isn’t being particularly subtle about the parallels here, but its reason for doing so is probably more complicated than it might seem at first. Maybe Sara is the only one who can really forgive Isak for his past actions, but that Sara’s not around, so a new Sara has to appear. Honestly, I confess that Andersson’s performance(s), and the different time periods in question, are such that it took me a long time to realize that it wasn’t just that the characters had the same name, they were played by the same actress. In one she’s basically in a hoop-skirts period piece, in another she’s a full-on mod rebellious teen. But the time span of Isak’s life is such that it makes sense, and somehow that contrast lends extra weight to Isak’s whole thing.

Smultronstället came fairly early in Bergman’s career, cementing his international reputation as a follow-up to Det Sjunde Inseglet, his big breakthrough outside his home country. His career ended up being long enough and varied enough that it seems to be sometimes forgotten (several other Bergman films are featured in Roger Ebert’s long “Great Movies” essay series, for example, but not this one). However, few would call it a “lesser” entry in his filmography, and it shows up at least as often as many of his other entries on “greatest films” lists over the years, peaking at tenth, for example, in the ongoing Sight & Sound poll in 1972. Perhaps more relevantly, it is has had so many imitators and influences in the years that in some ways it feels familiar even if you, like me, have never really even come close to seeing it before. I think I would recommend.

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