Selecting Bergman’s greatest masterpiece is like trying to pick the best pistachio nut in a bowl. You can’t do it, although this tale of a doctor looking back on his life is as good a choice as any.
Some early viewers have alleged that Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries is symbolically enigmatic or otherwise obscure. They must be uncommonly serene people, for no one who has ever looked into himself with astonished disgust or rueful acknowledgment of the lateness of the hour can go seriously astray at this picture. Bergman (his more difficult The Seventh Seal was shown here several months ago) has learned everything the French and German experimenters had to teach of film magic, and uses symbolism and association with the fluent ease of mastery. But his evocations are never for sensation and they are never vague—he is a surgeon-poet.
A reviewer must exercise some tact in discussing this picture. It is a work of such high and subtle art that the temptation is to run in with a smother of adjectives and a display of analytical explanation. The picture will not stand the heaviness—it is not in the heroic or didactic mold. The appropriate reaction is gratitude, not ostentatious appreciation.
Wild Strawberries recounts a day’s experience in a shaken and desperately repining old man. The day has begun badly in a nightmare baleful with the furniture of estrangement, confusion and death. The old man travels by car all that day to attend an academic conference that will honor him for a half-century of distinguished contribution to science. The route carries him through the neighborhood of his youth and his hours are filled by half-dreamed memories and half-remembered fantasies. Old injuries inflicted by the cruelty of self-absorption or the inadequacies of sympathy and imagination torment him—death is his concern, but death of the heart more than death of the body. He accuses himself; worse still, he accses those who meant most to him: the nostalgia of wild strawberries now recalls a coldness of ultimate hell. And yet…
With him, in the persons of his daughter-in-law and three hitchhiking royers, ride life and love and the warmth of passionate concern. The travelers meet hatred on the road (a couple made mad by the existence of each other) and they put it from them. They fight and tumble, laugh, tell thrusting truths and force wild flowers and their terrors into the old man’s hands. Wonderfully enough, he does not seem dead to them. They would not believe his dreams and by evening he finds that he no longer needs to recount them. At the end, one vision comes to him—from very early in his childhood—that has escaped the ice.
I cannot begin to detail the apt and lovely devices by which Bergman conveys this excursion into a man’s spirit. Its evocations are never pretentious, never sentimental—though often tender and usually painful. It is a ruthless lyricism that does not despair. Wild Strawberries is the testament, I suspect quite directly personal, of a man who thoroughly understands how terrible it is to be a human being, and who is glad to accept the consequences. The screen has never been used with greater art or for more humane ends.