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Wild Strawberries: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review

Wild Strawberries (Smultronstället) original 1957 Swedish movie poster Wild Strawberries (Smultronstället)

US Theatrical Release: June 22, 1959 / Running Time: 93 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Writer/Director: Ingmar Bergman

Cast: Victor Sjöström (Professor Isak Borg), Bibi Andersson (Sara, Sara), Ingrid Thulin (Marianne Borg), Gunnar Björnstrand (Evald Borg), Jullan Kindahl (Miss Agda), Folke Sundquist (Anders), Björn Bjelfvenstam (Viktor), Naima Wifstrand (Isak's Mother), Gunnel Broström (Berit Alman), Gertrud Fridh (Karin Borg), Sif Ruud (Aunt Olga), Gunnar Sjöberg (Sten Alman, The Examiner), Max von Sydow (Henrik Åkerman), Åke Fridell (Karin's Lover), Yngve Nordwall (Uncle Aron), Per Sjöstrand (Sigfrid Borg), Gio Petré (Sigbritt Borg), Gunnel Lindblom (Charlotta Borg), Maud Hansson (Angelica Borg), Ann-Marie Wiman (Eva Åkerman), Eva Norée (Anna Borg), Lena Bergman (Kristina Borg), Monica Ehrling (Birgitta Borg)

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When the greatest filmmakers in the history of world cinema are considered, Ingmar Bergman's name inevitably comes up among the likes of Akira Kurosawa, François Truffaut, and Federico Fellini. Bergman was Sweden's master, whose importance and esteem among his nation's and truly any nation's directors is indisputable.
Bergman's filmography stretches from the mid-1940s to a 2003 television movie. 1957 appears to be the most productive of any year in that long, distinguished career, because it saw the release of Bergman's two best-known and highest-regarded works: The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries. I've bolded the latter because it is the film I'm reviewing today. One of more than twenty Bergman features admitted into The Criterion Collection, Wild next month joins the handful of those that have been upgraded to Blu-ray Disc.

This drama centers on Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström), a lonely, long-widowed 78-year-old professor who is to soon receive an honorary degree from Lund Cathedral. Isak is haunted by the past and worried about the future. Near the start of the film, in the early morning hours of June 1st, he experiences an unpleasant dream in which he gets lost in an empty town where clocks have no hands and the only person he sees dissolves before his eyes. A driverless horse-drawn carriage runs into trouble, dropping the casket it's carrying, which reveals the corpse to be Isak himself, though he's not quite dead.

In one of cinema's great disconcerting dream sequences, a casket falls off a horse-drawn carriage to reveal the hand of a corpse. A stop at his childhood home prompts Isak (Victor Sjöström) to daydream of his time there.

Thoughts of mortality appear to be weighing heavily on the old man, who decides to drive himself to his ceremony. He is joined on the trip by Marianne (Ingrid Thulin), his 30-something daughter-in-law with marital struggles who is planning to see her husband for the first time in a while. The journey brings Isak to an old childhood home, a place where the titular fruit grows and where he vividly and extensively sees events of the past, as his true love, a cousin named Sara (Bibi Andersson), abandons him for another relative she'll marry and start a family with.

A different Sara (also Andersson, then the director's mistress) now living in the same house adds to Isak's company, as do two men vying for her affections en route to Italy: her boyfriend Anders (Folke Sundquist) who's training to be a minister and her chaperone, atheistic doctor Viktor (Björn Bjelfvenstam). The road trip party briefly grows by two more, when Isak narrowly avoids a head-on collision with an apologetic Catholic man (Gunnar Sjöberg) and his hysterical actress wife (Gunnel Broström).

Isak and Marianne stop by the house of his crabby 96-year-old mother (Naima Wifstrand), who has outlived her other nine kids and goes unvisited by most of her twenty grandchildren. Marianne also opens up to her father-in-law about the source of her marital problems. Meanwhile, Isak continues to have troubling dreams, one involving a panel declaring him incompetent while dredging up the memory of his wife's infidelity some thirty years ago.

Marianne (Ingrid Thulin) reveals the source of her marital discontent in this rainy flashback scene. A young love triangle (Björn Bjelfvenstam, Bibi Andersson, and Folke Sundquist) headed for Italy takes the back seat on this road trip to Lund.

Wild Strawberries appears to be exploring the thoughts and fears of a man at the end of his life. Bergman was only in his late thirties when he wrote and directed this, but he possesses great insight into the human mind, conscience, and soul. He makes Isak Borg a kind of Ebenezer Scrooge who doesn't have three ghosts to guide him or one clear lesson to take away from his memories and visions.

In one town, a couple who runs a gas station insists that Isak fuels up for free, the least they can do for his generous life.
Meanwhile, Marianne confesses she and her husband (Isak's son) dislike Isak and with fairly good reason, based on how he dismissed their problems in a nasty way. Miss Agda (Jullan Kindahl), Isak's housekeeper for more than forty years, has a somewhat adversarial relationship with the doctor and refuses to dispense with formalities. Isak has been hurt by people in his life, but they are incapable of granting him the redemption he seems to crave.

Wild Strawberries is a rich and thoughtful film ahead of its time. It includes material you wouldn't find openly addressed in its American contemporaries, like a debate over the existence of God and an unplanned pregnancy. In adherence to the strictly-enforced Production Code, Hollywood films could only broach such topics in coded terms. Anyhow, American movies of the time wouldn't show interest in a daydreaming dying man's soul. They were more interested in telling stories of teenage rebels, Western heroes and villains, epic adventure, and frightening science fiction scenarios. While all those subjects remain in use to some degree today, they seem trivial next to Bergman's weighty reflection on life's end, which unfolds with creative editing, arresting fantasies, poignant flashbacks, and a present-day road trip.

Opening in Swedish theaters at the end of 1957 (ten months after Seventh Seal), Wild Strawberries made it to US theaters in June of 1959 and would go on to pick up an Academy Award nomination. No, it was not in the Best Foreign Language Film category, which had only recently been upgraded from an irregular award of merit to a standard competitive field, even though Sweden submitted a Bergman film more often than not in the 1950s and '60s (Seventh Seal was submitted, but not nominated). Instead, Wild Strawberries became one of the few foreign films nominated for Best Original Screenplay, an Oscar it would lose to the team behind the Rock Hudson/Doris Day comedy Pillow Talk.

The film may have ended up Oscarless, but it wound up making a big impression on many viewers, having much influence on Woody Allen and counting Stanley Kubrick among its biggest admirers. Wild won the Golden Bear award at the 1958 Berlin International Film Festival and it would share the final slot on the 1972 version of the BFI's selective, decennial Sight & Sound list of ten all-time greatest films. It currently claims #128 in the Internet Movie Database's Top 250 rankings, narrowly trailing Seventh Seal but otherwise faring better than the vast majority of European and 1950s cinema.

Wild Strawberries: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

1.33:1 Original Aspect Ratio
1.0 LPCM (Swedish)
Subtitles: English
Not Closed Captioned; Swedish Extras Subtitled in English
Release Date: June 11, 2013
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Suggested Retail Price: $39.95
Clear Keepcase
Also available as Criterion DVD ($39.95 SRP; February 12, 2002), Essential Art House DVD ($19.95 SRP; September 9, 2008), in Ingmar Bergman: Four Masterworks Criterion DVD Box Set ($99.95 SRP; December 4, 2007), and on Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

Criterion has delivered high quality restorations so many times and for so long that we've all come to expect nothing less from them. And yet somehow they still manage to pleasantly surprise by making this 1957 movie look so terrific. The pillarboxed 1.33:1 black and white presentation is a true delight, sharp, detailed, and void of any noticeable even minor imperfection. The 1.0 LPCM Swedish soundtrack doesn't merit much comment, but its recordings are of a gratefully high caliber and they are paired with clean, flawless English subtitles.

Ingmar Bergman discusses and introduces the film with Marie Nyreröd in the Blu-ray's most recent bonus feature. Some color footage takes us behind the scenes of "Wild Strawberries."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The bonus features of this single-disc Blu-ray won't blow you away, but they do provide nice and substantial company to the film and all of them encoded in high definition, though limited by source.

First up, we get a 2001 audio commentary by film scholar Peter Cowie. It is an academic, rehearsed, highly screen-specific track, relying equally on Cowie's research, encyclopedic knowledge,
and analytical talents. It's a lot more informative than it is enjoyable, but that isn't too strange or unwarranted for a classic film.

Video extras kick off with an introduction by Ingmar Bergman (4:04), which finds the director chatting in a screening room with documentarian Marie Nyreröd about the protagonist's similarities to his father, writing the film for Victor Sjöström and getting him to agree to play the part on one interesting condition.

"Behind the Scenes of Wild Strawberries" (16:54) isn't your typical making-of featurette, but silent 16mm footage Bergman shot on the sets and locations of his film. Swedish Film Institute archive curator Jan Wengström narrates the unexpected material (some of it even in color), which it's very cool to see.

Writer-director Ingmar Bergman talks about his life and his work in a 90-minute 1998 interview for Swedish television. Isak (Victor Sjöström) peeks out behind a tree on Criterion's simple but sufficient Wild Strawberries Blu-ray menu.

Next and last comes the feature-length 1998 Swedish television documentary Ingmar Bergman on Life and Work (1:30:38), which has the director speak with longtime fellow filmmaker Jörn Donner. The film considers Bergman's life and career at length,
finding insight in his own candid words (which downplay his achievements to a maker of products) and some looks at autobiographical elements of his films. Like Bergman's intro, this is in Swedish with English subtitles.

The menu simply scores a still image. The disc supports bookmarks on the film and is able to resume playback of whatever you were last watching.

Inside the clear keepcase, we find another one of Criterion's sturdy booklets. The bulk of this one is supplied by "Where Is the Friend I Seek?", an 11-page essay by world cinema historian and professor Mark Le Fanu. Le Fanu recalls the lasting effect the film had on him as a 13-year-old viewer half a century ago. He then dissects it in creative ways, giving passing notice to the events going on in Bergman's life during its creation to instead focus on the scenes and characters presented within.

Cousin Sara (Bibi Andersson) holds up a mirror to show Professor Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström) his old self in Ingmar Bergman's "Wild Strawberries."

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries is an evocative and thought-provoking drama from one of cinema's most treasured filmmakers. Full of layers and lending to revisitation, this film seems like the perfect embodiment of The Criterion Collection, which gives it a satisfying Blu-ray release that boasts a breathtaking restoration and a fitting handful of substantial bonus features.

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Reviewed May 31, 2013.



Text copyright 2013 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1957 Janus Films, Svensk Filmindustri, and 2013 The Criterion Collection.
Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.