1955's Smiles of a Summer Night is a no-two-ways-about-it masterpiece, as far as I'm concerned, but it's also a light bauble: tinged with melancholy and hard-won worldy wisdom, but still mostly a sex farce. 1957's The Seventh Seal is similarly a no-two-ways-about-it masterpiece, but it's also a strange pageant-like work of dense symbolism, unafraid to toy with medievalist kitsch and warped comedy. Wild Strawberries, director Ingmar Bergman's second film from 1957, is, that's right, a no-two-ways-about-it masterpiece, his third in a row, but it's also the first one that is distinctly and insistently an Ingmar Bergman film, taking place entirely in the generic wheelhouse and cultural milieu of almost all his no-two-ways-about-it masterpieces to come. This is it: we're now fully and irrevocably in Bergman Country, and from this point forward, every one of his films from now until his death shall be the work of A Major International Director With An Extraordinarily Recognisable Style And Thematic Preoccupations, even if any given title might not bother itself with that style, or those themes.

Let us begin with a practical, helpful matter, and pin down that title. It's almost a straight translation: Smultronstället actually means, literally "the wild strawberry patch". And a wild strawberry patch appears in the film, so we could go on with our lives here. But! It's also something like an idiom in Sweden, referring to a place that has little intrinsic importance, but carries great emotional value to the individual discussing it. I have just essentially provided the film's plot, in brief.

Less briefly, Wild Strawberries is the story of retired professor and physician Dr. Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström), who at the age of 78 is going to receive a special degree in celebration of his 50-year career. We meet him as he sits alone, quietly, in a room in his house, quickly sketching out his situation in voice-over; he then tells us of the troubling dream that woke him up at 5:00 AM on the morning of the day that he and his housekeeper Agda (Julian Kindahl) were going to fly to Lund from Stockholm for the ceremony. Inspired by being up so early and oddly energised by the dream, Isak decides to spend the day driving there instead - Agda is appalled and refuses to join, but Isak's daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin), apparently going through a rough spot with her husband, his son Evald (Gunnar Björnstrand), who has been staying there, overhears the conversation, and asks to ride along.

And so they journey into the rural backroads of southern Sweden, stopping along the way by a few sites of particular importance to Isak, including the summer home where his heart was broken when his cousin Sara (Bibi Andersson), the love of his life, left him for his brother (Per Sjöstrand) - an event that plays out in the present tense, as Isak watches, seemingly losing track of the difference between "now" and "almost 60 years ago". Shortly after this, Isak and Marianne cross paths with a trio of college-aged hitchhikers - the boys, Anders (Folke Sundquist) and Viktor (Björn Bjelfvenstam), don't really matter at all, but the girl they both have the hots for certainly does. For one thing, she's also named Sara, and for another, she's also played by Bibi Andersson, and while Andersson puts such effort into playing the two characters as such distinctive personalities that it almost doesn't register that it's a double role, Isak can't help but notice the striking similarities between the energetic, passionate young woman in his car and his long-lost love.

One of the customary knocks against Bergman in general is that his films both show and tell. That is, after crafting a story that generates a certain set of ideas, and then moving his invariably talented casts towards performances that dive into those ideas in complicated, probing ways, and setting up visuals that allow us sink into those performances, Bergman commits the mistake of overstating in dialogue what has been implied all the rest of the filmmaking. If this is indeed a sin, it is one that Wild Strawberries certainly commits. That's to say, though, that I'm not entirely convinced it is a sin, and I'm less convinced still that it's a sin in the case of this specific movie. We have here, of course, a story about memory, with nostalgia bubbling up and thrusting itself into present awareness, and of regret coming along to poison that nostalgia with a sense of loss and self-loathing, and loathing everybody else, too. It is a story about being damned old, and being very irritable and prickly about that fact; being the kind of old person who takes it out on younger people by treating them with arch condescension and passive-aggressive cruelty. And the thing is, I think the film's way of strongly overstating its themes works into that, a little bit. I don't know if I can articulate it - it's something more like a mood or impression I get - but part of what I feel with Isak Borg is the idea that subtlety and sophistication are for young people. We all know this about the elderly, I imagine: they are often blunt in stating what's on their minds. So a film about the mental state of being old would tend towards that bluntness.

I might go about it another way, as well: this is a film about Bergman's awestruck relationship with Victor Sjöström, one of the masters of silent cinema. Prior to Bergman's ascent in the 1960s, Sjöström was almost without question the best-known and most highly-respected of all Swedish film directors, and even now there are critics who would still reserve for him the title of Sweden's greatest filmmaker. The story of how Sjöström was attached to the film has been told different ways: the first way Bergman told the story was that he thought of casting Sjöström after the script was complete, and the second way was that he never thought of casting Sjöström, but that his producer made the suggestion early in pre-production. Near the end of his life, in an interview with the director Marie Nyreröd, Bergman told yet a third version of the story, in which he always had Sjöström in mind even as he was writing the script. Whichever of these is true, the point on which Bergman always agreed with himself is that casting Sjöström fundamentally changed the fortunes of the movie: he flatly declared that it became a Sjöström film rather than a Bergman film.

I presume that what Bergman meant by this is that Sjöström controlled so much of the rhythm and tone of the film through his performance, especially the way he recites dialogue: there's a slow thoughtfulness as he chews over the words, making everybody around him adjust to his speed by virtue of not even for a moment pretending that he'll adjust to theirs. It's a very thinking performance, as well: several times throughout the film, Bergman and cinematographer Gunnar Fischer cue up a medium close-up of Sjöström's almost cherubic round face and bushy mustache, as he works his mouth and his eyes to let us see how Isak takes in information, lives with it, and only replies to it once he's ready. It is Isak's film, and Isak is Sjöström's creation through and through, and this one sense in which it is Sjöström's film.

But it also feels, somewhat, like a film made with a thought to the kind of idiom Sjöström worked in at his peak. There are the very obvious touches, most especially the dream sequence of the second scene. It's probably mostly famous for being the moment that symbolic dream imagery became chic in European art cinema (Fellini was an avowed fan, for one), leading to more sequences of heavy, quasi-Freudian images than you could shake a phallus at. But it's also, a bit more simply, an example of a filmmaker trotting out German Expressionism some 30-plus years after German Expression had ceased to be part of the standard toolkit. And Sjöström was of course not German, nor an Expressionist, but he modified their approach in many of his Swedish and Hollywood films alike, creating vivid, painterly compositions full of striking lighting and geometric relationships between objects. Bergman is simply un-modifiying it a bit, creating a collage of strange, overtly symbolic nightmare images that are first and foremost horrifying, soaked in death and disfigurement, shot by Fischer in grating over-exposed bright white tones. It's silent film experimentation, not even really updated for sound cinema, and just to make sure we don't miss it, Bergman makes the connection to Sjöström's silents explicit by making the climax of the dream sequence an encounter with what we can only call a phantom carriage.

If the dream sequence is an overt nod to silent art cinema, I do think I detect a bit of a more general, implicit throwback vibe throughout all the rest of the film. Does the film overstate its themes? Well, perhaps a more generous way of phrasing that is to suggest that the film is remarkably expressive, far more so than most films of the '50s would be comfortable with. It has a presentational staginess that feels less cinematic than anything in The Seventh Seal or even in the avowedly theatrical Smiles of a Summer Night, but this presentational approach to character-building is very much in keeping with the broad, expressive strokes of acting and storytelling in silent melodramas. It's not at all like this is a stylistic throwback: that is, in fact, part of what makes it a work of genius. The overstated expansiveness of silent cinema is yoked to tight, modernist filmmaking, with lots of murmured dialogue in merciless close-ups, and built into that flashback-oriented story structure that makes the entire film a psychological exercise in teasing out the difference between reality, memory, dream, and vision.

It's also yoked to purely modernist acting - the best performances, across the board, in any Bergman film.  Sjöström's performance is a little bigger and more willing to ham it up than most of his co-stars, but this is presented more as a character trait than an element of acting style - it also seems like it might be the film's way of subtly making sure that we sense how the older characters inhabit the world differently, given that Kindahl (in a sparkling, snarky performance that makes me wish she did more films with Bergman) is the only person hamming it up even more. The biggest thing about the performance, though, is that it feels like Isak wants to fill every space with his personality: his arc in the film his from being a bit of an aggressive, arrogant prick, happy to cut people down as a way of making himself feel better about his own failures, to having a thoughtful, forgiving attitude and a willingness to embrace people for their qualities rather than mock them for their shortcomings. Muting himself a bit as the film goes along, sinking into a more naturalistic register, is a key way that Sjöström marks out that distinction

The rest of the cast is superb, but the stars are clearly Andersson and Thulin, both because they get the most screentime after Sjöström, and because they have both created such full, deep characterisations that they suggest the existence of a much bigger universe than Isak Borg and his complicated memories. This is the first great role Bergman gave to Andersson, who was persistently the most under-utilised of all his important leading women; he often seemed to hire her to play Harriet Andersson characters, only without the carnality. That certainly describes both Saras, youthful virgins both (Wild Strawberries is an exceptionally sexless film, for Bergman), but especially the 1957 Sara finds Andersson turning that apparent limitation into fuel for her character's freshness and enthusiasm. She is both a specific human and an idea, embodying all of the ideas of unsullied youth that Isak finds both appealing and revoltingly naïve, and this comes easily to Andersson; but she also has to be a real person who has her own reasons for finding this mildly grumpy old man interesting and worth talking to, and this requires much more from Andersson to fill in the gaps in the script where it can't break away from Isak's perspective. We get a strong sense of her as the sort of person who has decided that life is not good if its not fun, and so she chooses to be upbeat and energetic; it's not the richest characterisation in Bergman's career nor Andersson's, but it works to flesh out what could easily have been a human-shaped metaphor.

Thulin, meanwhile, gets to imply an entirely separate movie where we watch Marianne's experience of being in this car with her fake-cheerful, hostile father-in-law, relieved and also tired out by the bubbly kids in the backseat. This was the first time Thulin worked with Bergman onscreen (it is not clear to me if he ever directed her onstage), with eight future collaborations to come, and for my tastes, she might have been, pound-for-pound, the best actor he ever worked with. This first time out, he hasn't entirely realised what she can do for him; the impression I get is that he wrote the part with Eva Dahlbeck in mind, and cast Thulin later, for there's a definitely sense of a self-possessed middle-class woman in quiet crisis in the part as written that would fit right in with Dahlbeck's work for the director. But Thulin plays the part entirely her own way, immediately foreshadowing the performances to come. She is particularly great at playing people who are consumed with thought, for whom every conversation is a skirmish between antagonistic personalities, focusing a desperate nihilism into cast-iron willpower. I would go so far as to say that Thulin's performance is actually the key to Isak's character arc: it's easy to imagine a version of Marianne who isn't so sharp in her challenges to him, even if she's saying the same confrontational words. When Thulin launches into the speech, early in the film, where Marianne first confronts Isak with his passive-aggressive bullshit, it feels like a general launching a surprise attack against a superior force that she know she can't beat on even ground. The film doesn't require Marianne to be anything other than an immovable force for Isak to bounce against; Thulin gives her an entire identity and backstory that aren't apparent in the writing.

And that, ultimately, is the greatest strength of Wild Strawberries: not what it tells us about aging, not what it tells us about memory, and not its attempts at using narrative structure to get at both of the above. Simply that it puts us in a car for a long day's road trip with these three exacting performances of highly specific characters, watching to see how their personalities crash into each other, or even smoothly glide by each other. The film is full of capital-I Ideas, and it won't let you forget it, but it's also a celebration of the power of actors to create rich personalities for us to spend time with. This mixture of talky intellectualism and actorly guts would be the most important Bergmanian trait going forward, and while he would sometimes require the Ideas to take precedence over the acting, here that balance is reversed, much to the film's benefit. It is, in this way, Bergman's warmest and most humane film.