Home Video Hovel: Wild Strawberries, by Scott Nye
Seeing Wild Strawberries for the first time, some six or seven years ago, was a real lightning-rod moment for me. It laid the foundation for my current belief that, if such a title were to be assigned, Ingmar Bergman is the finest film director who ever lived. In 92 minutes, he explored aging, regret, faith, the question of religion against science, young love, lust, misogyny, serenity, gender roles, familial tensions, marital strain, betrayal, pettiness, forgiveness, empathy, and a host of other ethereal concerns, all with a sense of humor, humility, and a simple structure that lends strong a narrative drive. In every manner I can possibly conceive, it is a perfect film, but not one overly stifled by its perfection. It seems to simply flow from the screen as do words from a pen, or a song from a flute. It’s at once spontaneous and intensely organized, brought to the screen with all the formal rigor Bergman would continue to develop, while feeling entirely effortless. Its immense warmth and certainty in the human capacity for compassion is almost overwhelming, and the sheer beauty of its finale in particular, and the totality of its achievement, never fails to move me deeply. Criterion’s new Blu-ray release provides a perfect introduction to the master filmmaker, in addition to a significant upgrade over its initial DVD release.
As I mentioned, the narrative couldn’t be simpler – retired physician Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström) is making a day trip to Lund to receive an honorary degree. His daughter-in-law, Marianne (Ingrid Thulin), who has been living with him for some time due to marital difficulties with her husband, Evald (Gunnar Bjönstrand), decides to come along with him. They come upon the house in which his family spent summers when he was young. They encounter a merry band of hitchhikers, and a decidedly less merry couple. They visit Isak’s mother, herself burdened by many of Isak’s same struggles, though neither really manages to say much about it. Isak drifts off into dreams. Eventually, they arrive in Lund, where Evald is waiting.
Bergman was already in his late thirties when he wrote and directed Wild Strawberries, and had made an indelible impact on the medium a year prior with The Seventh Seal, in addition to the sort of brash certainty only youth can provide in such films as Summer Interlude, Thirst, and Summer with Monika. Wild Strawberries is, by comparison, a much more relaxed and reverent affair, due in no small part, it would seem, by the presence of Sjöström in the lead role. An enormously accomplished actor and director in his own right, he was a massive influence on Bergman both stylistically (The Phantom Carriage and The Scarlet Letter have the roots of Bergman’s rigid shot construction and thematic concerns) and professionally (he was the director of the Svensk Film Industri and served as the production manager on Bergman’s earliest films). Bergman has since stated that he believes Wild Strawberries to be far more Sjöström’s film than his own, and in watching the film, once can feel that generosity must have pervaded the set – as much as Bergman was a consummate actor’s director, one senses through most of his films that they are indeed directed towards particular ends. Here, Bergman seems overjoyed just to be in Sjöström’s presence, and Sjöström in turn demonstrates that he has earned that affection.
Criterion has certainly won my affection with this new Blu-ray release. Being something of a character study without much in the way of those Bergman landscapes that would come to be so famous, it’d be easy to assume such a film would not benefit greatly beyond DVD, but boy are you in for a treat here. The real restoration work was carried out by Chimney Pot in Sweden, and their work exceeds any superlatives I could muster. Free from any blemish I could notice, but displaying amazing density with regards to the grain structure and depth of the imagery, it’s practically flawless. The first dream scene, so full of booming whites, and the latter one, drenched in inky blacks, look neither overcranked nor underserved, simply letting what light would spill from a 35mm projector come onto your screen. Everything in between is soaked in those tremendous Gunnar-Fischer-inflected grays. While my own personal taste would never allow me to say this looks makes the film look better than it does on 35mm, someone with a separate set of aesthetic concerns might. In any event, this is easily the best it will look outside of a theater, and I was absolutely bowled over by it.
While billed as a simple Blu-grade (in which the Blu-ray edition maintains the packaging and features of a previously-released DVD edition), there is more upgraded than simply the image and sound (which is similarly robust). Peter Cowie’s excellent, scholarly, perhaps a tad dry commentary is reproduced, though modern listeners should be advised that this was recorded over ten years ago, when Bergman was still alive, and Cowie makes reference to a state of living for the master that is no longer the case. Also ported over is the exceedingly dense, invaluable 90-minute interview with Bergman, conducted by filmmaker Jörn Donner. In saying this disc is a great introduction to Bergman, the movie’s a big part of that, but this interview is an essential capsule of, as the title of the piece alludes to, Berman’s Life and Work.
New to this release, though not to Criterion, is a short, 4-minute introduction Bergman provided for Swedish television. This was previously available on Criterion’s invaluable DVD release of Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, along with ten others. Obviously it’s quite light on substance, but provides a nice look at the film, as is the rare instance of an introduction on a home video release that can actually be viewed before seeing the film, without much worry for spoilers. Best viewed after the film, however, is the completely-new selection of behind-the-scenes footage, shot by Bergman, and arranged and commented upon by Jan Wengström, curator of archival film collections at the Swedish Film Institute. The footage itself is pretty wonderful, even if it is always a bit weird to see color footage from a black-and-white film, and Wengström’s comments are very much appreciated. This feature jettisons the stills gallery, one of those great features of early DVD releases that nobody ever looked at anyway.
Finally, the booklet gives us an essay by film scholar Mark Le Fanu, which replaces the short notes provided by Cowie in the DVD edition. Fanu’s is a much more engaging read, touching on how Wild Strawberries aided his own personal development, as well as an aesthetic and thematic engagement with the film. It’s quite good. While Cowie’s original notes weren’t exactly essential, it was such a short piece (taking up only two pages), that it might’ve been just as well to include it, though it is still available on Criterion’s web site.
Wild Strawberries is an essential film, with very, very good reason. The rare Bergman film that could be genuinely said to be a warm, positive one, it continues to astonish, engage, and move (certainly me) nearly sixty years after its release. Criterion and Chimney Pot have created a truly great transfer that will further ensure it is not soon forgotten.