Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Are we supposed to pity Isak or feel for him?
Wild Strawberries is a very introspective journey by Dr. Isak Borg (Victor Sjostrom), an elderly, nostalgic man who is haunted by his fears of death. He’s on his way to receive an award, but that’s hardly the story. We spend the film following his path inward, and it’s hard even to tell if Isak pities or feels for himself.
The only family Isak has left is his son, Evald, and Evald’s pregnant wife Marianne, whom accompanies Isak on his drive from Stockholm to Lund. She doesn’t particularly like Isak, though, and he knows this. He’s not even all that bothered by it. Isak somehow walks a fine line between god/death-fearing and apathy. These two qualities are themes played with in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) and Persona (1966).
So Isak, at first, feels less like a unique character and more like an audience/Ingmar Bergman surrogate to ask the questions we might have. Early in the film we see a nightmare Isak has in which he comes across a man sitting upright but who soon falls over dead, sees a clock with no hands, and is then passed by a carriage carrying a coffin which collapses, letting the coffin spill onto the street. When Isak approaches the casket, he finds himself.
Now, this might be a little too on the nose, just as the knight playing chess against Death might have been in The Seventh Seal. Bergman’s characters are obsessed with death, it seems, even if they don’t know how they feel about it. Their confusion regarding their emotions towards such a thing mean they act out in different ways, but their behavior orbits death nonetheless.
Isak, as if in an effort to nearly posthumously give his life meaning, revisits old memories like Scrooge with the Ghost of Christmas Past. At first he merely observes, watching the woman he loved as a teenager begin to fall in love with his brother, whom she would later marry. We watch the two of them speak of Isak behind his back, but the elderly Isak never reacts. He just stands there, watching this all unfold with a serenity that implies some sort of wisdom from his long life. It might be that he recognizes these kids, and himself as a kid too, as foolish, so he doesn’t fret over their behavior.
Or it might be that he’s seeing this for the first time. It’s only later, from what I recall, that we learn that Isak’s young love interest married his brother. He says that she and his brother raised a nice family, and she’s still alive today. He speaks fondly of them, even in loss.
Later Isak will interact with the people of these past memories, and these memories are provoked by two encounters on the rode with Marianne. The first is when they pick up a group of three joyful, young hitchhikers, and the second involves a near collision with an arguing couple.
Marianne later forces the arguing couple out of the car, and she eventually tells Isak about the rift in her marriage to his son. Both strained marriages connect to Isak’s own, at times, painful marriage. He has another dream in which a doctor makes him perform a series of tasks, none of which he passes. The doctor seems to condemn Isak, and the point is to illustrate how guilty and lost he is.
During Marianne’s speech to Isak, about how Isak and Evald are both obsessed with death, we see a memory between Marianne and Evald. In that flashback, she tells him she’s pregnant, with his child, and Evald makes her choose between him and the baby. Evald’s reasoning is that this is no world into which to bring a child, and Marianne will tell Isak, recognizing Evald’s insanity, that Evald is as obsessed with death as Isak is. Perhaps she hates Isak for making Evald the way he is, and in one particular moment, Evald alludes to his parents’ disastrous marriage as a reason for his line of thinking.
After the brief ceremony for which Isak has traveled so far, we end with Isak saying goodbye to his three hitchhikers who thank him for the ride. The girl among them says she will always love Isak the most, and though this feels like an empty thought, one meant to appeal to pride more than the soul, it seems to provide Isak some comfort.
That night his son tells him that he has decided to get back together with Marianne, having come to his senses, and to raise the child with her. Isak goes to bed dreaming of a picnic from his childhood, and it finally feels like he’s found some peace.
Isak seems to be going through a lot, and yet from the outside he has such a calm demeanor. He’s old enough that it almost feels like he expresses as much as he can, and it’s just that, this being a movie, we are given a series of glimpses into his soul. Maybe the point is that we could never know so much about such a stoic stranger, or maybe it’s something about the universal nature of our fears and nostalgia.
Because Bergman’s themes are often presented through such on the nose imagery as the early nightmare scene and the chess scene from The Seventh Seal, it’s clear that he knows these fears and concerns are something everyone feels.
There are certainly some specifics in Isak’s life, but his ultimate journey is from a nightmare to a peaceful dream. It’s all about finding his center, even at the end of his life, and it suggests that this soul-searching he goes through his timeless and never ending. He’s as uncertain as he’s ever been, and he’s a man who’s had moderate success in his career and in family, granted we learn that not everything was so perfect.
So what’s the ultimate takeaway from this? It’s a film about fear and anxiety, but it’s also about addressing past sins. It really does feel like A Christmas Carol, but the film is genuinely eerie at the start. The nightmare sequence that nearly kicks off the story is very David Lynchian, and I think that helps make up for the film school-esque imagery of a man seeing himself in a coffin. The image helps set up the story, but the tone (the music, editing, etc.) helps set up the tone of the film.
Bergman wrote Wild Strawberries while he was in the hospital, and in some ways this film does feel like a young person’s perspective of aging and death. I’ve heard plenty of my young friends say something along the lines of ‘I don’t want to get old,’ and even one of the hitchhikers says the same thing in the film. But when I worked at a retirement facility, people there for the most part were terrifically happy. As you age you seem more able to find peace in the small things, whereas when you’re young you dream big but aren’t always able to follow up on those dreams.
Maybe Bergman could already imagine that his filmmaking achievements would mean little when everything else is stripped away and you’re near the end. And maybe that suggested to him that the only thing that mattered is finding a single source of meaning. More than anything, that meaning is probably found through family.
Isak hardly speaks of his son or his daughter-in-law at the beginning, and by the end the most important development, to him and to us, is that his son learned to grow up a little and get his priorities in order.