The World Cinema series, which ran Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) last year, starts its multifilm salute to the late filmmaker with what is arguably his best work, Wild Strawberries (1957). For me, it’s always a toss-up—depending on mood—as to whether I’d pick Wild Strawberries or Seventh Seal as Bergman’s absolute best. Having just watched Strawberries, I’m currently leaning toward it—not in the least because it seems so relevant to Bergman’s death last week. It’s not just because the film is in a sense about death (so is Seal), but also because it’s such a reflective work. Bergman was just 40 when he made Wild Strawberries, but he shows much of himself in the character of 78-year-old Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström). The very fact that he cast filmmaker Sjöström—a pioneer in Swedish film who had an impressive career in Hollywood silent film as Victor Seastrom—is telling, as is the framing story about Borg traveling to receive an honorary degree (Bergman, himself, was just then becoming truly lionized on an international level). All Bergman films are personal, but this one seems especially so.
There’s more about the film than its connection to its creator. From the stark black-and-white dream sequence following the opening credits, in which Borg envisions his own death, to the wistfully happy memory on which the old man goes to sleep at the film’s end, there’s not a false moment to be found. Bergman is in complete control of the film: from the choices in film stock (the dream), to the lighting (old memories are often flooded with light), to the shifts from reality to fantasy to memory and back again, there’s a sense of seemingly effortless control. Bergman has here crafted a supremely reflective work in which an old man searches for self-realization through the present, the past and even the tenuous future. It’s poetic and richly elegant—and sometimes playful (but don’t tell anyone, because lots of people think of Bergman as stupefyingly serious). It also manages to be all these things in the space of 91 minutes. Think about that the next time you sit down to the bloated pretentiousness that all too often passes for profundity these days.