B&W, 1957, 91m.
Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Starring Victor Sjöström, Ingrid Thulin, Bibi Andersson, Gunnar Björnstrand
Criterion (Blu-Ray & DVD) US RA/R1 HD/NTSC), Image (US R1 DVD), Tartan (UK R0 PAL)
Perhaps no other major international filmmaker has benefited more from the Blu-Ray renaissance than Ingmar Bergman, a filmmaker whose best work was often shown in muddy 16mm prints and wretched video transfers. The DVD editions from Criterion were a big step in the right direction, but the vivid clarity of HD has vaulted his films to a whole different level of appreciation for viewers who never had the chance to see pristine first run prints decades ago. Films like The Seventh Seal, The Magician, and Smiles of a Summer Night take on a new level of immediacy, with rich textures and often stunning lighting and compositions yielding whole new levels of appreciation.
You can also add Wild Strawberries to that list. Released in Sweden the same year as The Seventh Seal (incredibly enough) but taking over a year to reach most English-speaking audiences, the film was pivotal in establishing Bergman's reputation and was conceived by the filmmaker (during an extended, stress-induced hospital stay) to star his idol, the great Swedish director Victor Sjöström, in what would prove to be his final film role. Here Sjöström plays Dr. Isak Borg, an elderly professor about to undertake a road trip to receive an honorarium. The film is told through his eyes as he summons up nightmares (including a doozy of an opening involving a horse-drawn coffin in an almost empty street) and past memories involving his troubled, ultimately meaningless marriage. Accompanying him on the journey is his daughter-in-law, Marianne (Thulin), who is having marital issues of her own. Along the way they also encounter a pretty hitchhiker (Andersson, Bergman's real-life love at the time) and even a young Max Von Sydow pumping gasoline.
A truly wonderful film, Wild Strawberries is also one of the best introductions for those who might be hesitant to jump into the deep cinematic waters of Bergman's filmography. Virtually every emotion gets a workout here, and while Sjöström is superb in the lead role, it still leaves plenty of room for the rest of the cast. Thulin is especially strong here; though she had been acting onscreen for over a decade, this was her big breakthrough role, easily placing her as one of Bergman's best leading ladies. (Check out Cries and Whispers to see her really shine alongside Bergman's other major female muse, Liv Ullmann).
As mentioned above, the prior Criterion DVD of Wild Strawberries was certainly admirable, but this is one case where an upgrade makes all the difference. There's really nothing to fault here; the sense of depth and clarity is often startling, and the dream sequences now have a crispness that sometimes feels akin to what Luis Buñuel was aiming for around the same time. Apart from ditching the modest stills gallery from the DVD, the extras are all replicated here including another audio commentary from Peter Cowie, the go-to guy for Bergman titles, who does another thorough, scholarly job of dissecting the film's themes while pointing out recurring visual motifs and regular actors. There's also a somewhat dry but rewarding 90-minute documentary from 1998, Ingmar Bergman on Life and Work, with the filmmaker talking to the camera about his pivotal life experiences and how they shaped some of his most famous films. New to the Blu-Ray are a vintage video intro by Bergman and a great 16-minute reel of behind-the-scenes footage (presumably shot on 16mm). The insert booklet also contains an eloquent essay by Mark Le Fanu, who offers an insightful walkthrough of the film (albeit one you shouldn't read before watching it). An essential release.
Reviewed on May 31, 2013.