Ingmar Bergman

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.

Author Quotes – Ingmar Bergman, Worship, and Artistic Motovation


I love Hitchcock, Wes Anderson, Truffaut and Rod Serling. I have a handful of shining favorite film makers who stand far above the rest, and they are all very different from one another. One of the newer (to me) yet most deeply moving of the whole bunch is Ingmar Bergman. His film Wild Strawberries is the most deeply personally-revelatory film I have ever seen. It means a little more to me each time I consider it.

Bergman’s films have a common theme of fear facing the inevitability of death which stands at nervous odds with a perception that God is there but faith is not sufficient to bolster the soul’s confidence. His characters find death so overwhelming that they can find no solace in what they see as a less overwhelming faith. I read this quote from Four Screenplays Of Ingmar Bergman and found his perspective even more complex than his films make it appear.

“Regardless of my own beliefs and my own doubts, which are unimportant in this connection, it is my opinion that art lost its basic creative drive the moment it was separated from worship. It severed an umbilical cord and now lives its own sterile life, generating and degenerating itself. In former days the artist remained unknown and his work was to the glory of God. He lived and died without being more or less important than other artisans; ‘eternal values,’ ‘immortality’ and ‘masterpiece’ were terms not applicable in his case. The ability to create was a gift. In such a world flourished invulnerable assurance and natural humility. Today the individual has become the highest form and the greatest bane of artistic creation.
The smallest wound or pain of the ego is examined under a microscope as if it were of eternal importance. The artist considers his isolation, his subjectivity, his individualism almost holy. Thus we finally gather in one large pen, where we stand and bleat about our loneliness without listening to each other and without realizing that we are smothering each other to death. The individualists stare into each other’s eyes and yet deny the existence of each other.”

Even for a man so troubled by the idea of so much blind faith, art for no sake but the individual doesn’t click. It does seem quite a fair assessment to me.