The old medical doctor Isak Borg (played by the great Swedish silent film director Victor Sjöström) travels by car with his daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin) to the university town of Lund, where he is to be honoured for his scientific achievements. On the way he falls asleep and experiences a series of dreams and nightmares in which his life passes in review. Thus, in a surreal cityscape a coffin plunges toward him; the corpse in it – which resembles him – tries to pull him into the coffin.
The scene constantly alternates between past and present. Near the summer house of his youth Isak comes upon the grove where he used to pick wild strawberries. He falls asleep there and dreams of Sara (Bibi Andersson), the love of his youth, who chose his brother instead of him. He is awakened from the dream by another Sara (also played by Bibi Andersson). Isak and Marianne give her and her friends a lift in the car.
During the drive Isak and his daughter-in-law begin to understand each other better. Marianne tells him how cold-hearted her husband Evald is: he doesn’t want any children – but she is pregnant. For Isak there are still matters in his past with which he has to come to terms.
SMULTRONSTÄLLET received numerous prizes and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Screenplay.