Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Thirty-Seven

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#37 — Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)
Ingmar Bergman wasn’t yet forty years old when he directed Wild Strawberries. He’d be toiling at the hard art of making movies for about twenty years at this point, but surely that professional lifetime doesn’t fully account for the heavy mortality that infests the work. Well, mortality is not quite the issue, as that can be found threaded through much of the great filmmaker’s efforts. Instead, it’s agedness, the sense that the end is far closer to the beginning simply due to the tyranny of the calendar, that is the piercing theme of Wild Strawberries. Bergman may still have been a relatively young man, but that doesn’t prevent him from demonstrating an empathetic understanding of his film’s central character, an elderly doctor (Victor Sjöström) journeying across the countryside for the purpose of receiving an award, presumably of the sort intended to provide a closing bookend to a life and career. Bergman’s intense attention to the fleeting pleasures of life creates a richly poignant vision, especially the way in which simple ill turns of fate can haunt an entire existence.

The thematic heftiness–Bergman’s stock-in-trade–is only a portion of what makes Wild Strawberries. The Swedish artist wasn’t a novelist or a painter working in a different form. He was a filmmaker, through and through. What’s more, he was an innovative, dynamic filmmaker, pushing against the boundaries of his chosen form with the same intellectual rigor he brought to the philosophical underpinning of his stories. Wild Strawberries is awash in interesting choices, such as the old doctor’s immersion into his own memories, walking through and observing incidents from his youth when he revisits the home where his family spent summers. Memory isn’t something the film fades to, retreats to. Instead it is something that surrounds the character, carrying him to back to moments of quiet devastation that he hasn’t been able to shake across the decades.

Similarly, Bergman provides a curious casting choice that similarly breaks rules. His regular muse Bibi Andersson plays the cousin that the doctor loved when he was a boy only to see her be claimed romantically by his brother. She also portrays, outside of the flashback, a hitchhiker he picks up in his travels. The resemblance (even the shared name of the characters) isn’t remarked upon, nor is there an indication that the lovely young traveler triggers the doctor’s powerful reminiscences. It undoubtedly carries some meaning, though it’s entirely possible that Bergman’s intent is purposefully nebulous enough to truly embed the meaning in the mind of the viewer. Maybe it is history repeating, or maybe it is the old man’s helpless projection of his lost love on every young woman he encounters. Bergman builds his layered tale with an apparent appreciation for the infinity of shadows that can be cast by the wrinkles he introduces into the structure, the characters’ motivations, and the ideas presented. Even as Wild Strawberries focuses on the pending loss of everything, it is best defined by its abundance of possibilities.

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