I Am Isak Borg


Have you ever seen Wild Strawberries? Ingmar Bergman spins a simple tale of an elderly Isak Borg taking a trip and looking back on his life, but its a story that continued to show me things about my own nature for weeks after my first viewing.

Bergman’s writing and film-making is subtle to the point of near-boredom and thus very open for interpretation, but Isak Borg is, I believe, a Scrooge archetype. He is an elderly widower, a well-respected scientist whose life’s work is to be recognized through an award ceremony far away. He travels to the ceremony by car with his daughter-in-law and along the way a series of location-based memories, daydreams, and encounters with other travelers provide him with a chance to contemplate his life and who he has become. He is not a cruel or evil man, but an intelligent and honest optimist whose life experiences have taught him that safety comes in callousness and pessimism. He remembers the young fiancé who left him for his less honorable, rouge brother. He meets innocent youths still eager to debate about God, science, and philosophy. He remembers finding that his wife cheated on him and realizing it had little effect on him because there was no real capacity for love in the relationship. He meets a violently destructive middle-aged couple who are full of animosity and lies. All along, he is thinking, pondering this life he has had.

I was left pondering by the end of the film. The next day I was nearly in shock as I realize its prophetic nature in my own life. I am Isak Borg. I have the capacity to be wondrously captivated by beauty, by people, by optimistic ideals. I make myself available to all kinds of people. I’m eager to be available. And I’m often hurt. I’m let down. My soaring Icarus expectations burn up and come crashing down. I expect to see good and I find evil. So what happens? I become a little less optimistic, a little more critical, a bit more cynical. And, if I’m not careful, I stop paying attention at all and I end up an elderly, wasted Isak Borg.

You hear about this every day. Jaded social workers and burnt out pastors. Angry scientists and self-destructive artists. They all hold something in common. They have all been eaten away slowly by family, friends, lovers, religion, and society at large. Most of them start out striving for something beautiful, for reconciliation, for truth, and for community. Like waves upon breakers, their hope is slowly diluted down, washed away from them.

This is Isak Borg. The young man who wants to care selflessly for others. The man whose kindness is constantly taken at advantage. The man who learns not to feel it anymore. The elder who looks back and realizes it all flew by without his feeling it.

Spoiler alert. Isak Borg changes. He cares no more for his science award. He does care for the young people he has met, and the housemaid he’s taken for granted, and the hopeful scraps of what family he has left, a small time to rebuild in his last days. He still has time to change.

I can only hope that knowing this horrifying alternative is a sufficient start at steering clear of such a future.

Basically, you should definitely watch Wild Strawberries.

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