Once widowed doctor and daughter-in-law hit the road to a degree ceremony, he comes to terms with his past failings rather than succumbing to the guilt and regret they generate
Ingmar Bergman first had the idea for this cerebral road movie while standing at the door of his grandmother's house and wondering whether he'd re-enter childhood by stepping inside. The influence of Strindberg's Dream Play and Shakespeare's King Lear pervades proceedings, but the action is also full of personal details, with Isak Borg's mother being played by Bergman's ex-wife, Else Fisher, and many of the professor's character traits being inspired by Bergman's pastor father.
Bergman also quotes from Victor Sjöström's past by recalling his 1921 masterpiece, The Phantom Carriage, in the opening nightmare, which contains some of Bergman's most famous images. But this celebrated sequence is much more than a rattlebag of Expressionist symbolism. It establishes the tactic of anticipating events to come and reveals that, for all his ego, petulance and intolerant aloofness, Borg is a vulnerable figure who is worthy of our compassion. This becomes clear once he sets off for Lund with Marianne, the daughter-in-law who shares his self-obsession and irritability and is anything but intimidated by him after spending years with his equally querulous son, Evald. However, they are not merely worthy foils for each other, they also represent birth and death, as Marianne is pregnant. This doubling recurs when Borg wakes from his dream of idyllic summers past with his adored cousin Sara to meet her virtual reincarnation in Sara the hitcher, whose two pals remind Borg of himself and the brother who won Sara's heart. Borg's unhappy marriage is mirrored by the feuding of the Almanns, whose bickering finally drives Marianne (doubtlessly reminded of her own domestic discord) to turf them out of the car. However, they return along with the other principals to witness Borg's final subconscious humiliation, in which he is finally forced to accept the flaws that have marred his existence. Yet, he's rewarded for his debasement with a final reverie, together with Sara and his parents beside a placid lake. The winner of the Golden Bear at Berlin, Wild Strawberries now seems to creak in places. But its evocation of the nostalgia, dread and regret of old age remains as unsurpassed as Sjöström's miraculously sensitive performance.
Gunnar Fischers photography becomes ever more luminous and Sjöströms performance grows in greatness.