Wild Strawberries Revisited

The past few weeks here in the United States, we have experienced  something of a stir about the publication of Harper Lee’s “new” novel, Go Set a Watchman, which is a sequel to Ms. Lee’s 1960 acclaimed novel, To Kill a Mocking Bird.  This much anticipated book has taken 55 years to finally appear—the reasons for which I will not go into here.  Much of the controversy about the book is not just literary; it has to do with the fact that it appears the central character (of both books), attorney Atticus Finch, is not the man we thought him to be, prompting more than one front page article on the subject in the New York Times.  Why should there be such an interest in a fictional character?   Well, maybe some of that interest has had to do with actor Gregory Peck’s superb interpretation of him in the 1962 film adaptation of the first book.  But beyond that, a lot has to do with the peculiar and rare phenomenon where a fictional character becomes much more than a fictional character; in fact, takes on a life of its own.  And what particularly intrigued me, as I have learned in following the controversy, is the fact that more has been written about the character Atticus Finch in journals aimed at the legal profession than in literary ones.  This non-literary fascination with Atticus Finch recalls to mind a similar such fascination with the character Isak Borg of Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film Wild Strawberries.

The name Isak Borg is probably not well known to the general public—and that also includes the film-going public.  But he is well-known to the mental health profession in America; and that is for two important reasons.  The first is because Isak Borg is seventy-six years old, which is unusually old for the main character of a film.  The second reason is that in America, mental health professionals (e.g. psychiatrists) are severely restricted in writing about their patients in professional journals.  Furthermore, they are usually prohibited from writing about the perceived mental problems of people they have never treated, particularly public figures.  So who can they write about?  Why fictional characters, of course.

The use of literature to illustrate an important theory is not new to the field of mental health: Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, used a character from ancient Greek drama, Oedipus, to formulate one of his most important theories—the oedipal complex.  Although Freud had no knowledge of the film Wild Strawberries—he died years before the film was made– the film made a distinct impression on three people who are/were practitioners  of the field that Freud helped pioneer: psychotherapy; I will recount some of those impressions now.

Dr. Harvey Greenberg in an article entitled “The Rags of Time” (1975) subjects Isak Borg to the rigors of psychoanalysis.  Characterizing his study as “psychoanalytic notes on Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries,” Dr. Greenberg pays particular attention to Isak’s childhood relationship with his mother, whose perceived coldness figured prominently in the psychological and emotional problems that plagued Borg throughout his life.   Dr. Greenberg also provides a Freudian interpretation to the many dreams of Wild Strawberries.  In particular, he points out that at least one of the dreams in the film was what Freud termed an “examination” dream, in which the dreamer finds himself taking an exam in which he is ill-prepared for ;  however, the purpose of such a dream is to reassure the dreamer of  his ability to handle and resolve current stress or neurotic conflict in his life.  This is perhaps a key to understanding Isak Borg’s character: for most of his life Isak had to overcome disappointment ithat he was ill-prepared for: e.g. his fiancée abandoning him, a loveless marriage and an unfaithful wife; but persevere he always did.  (It should be noted that in Swedish the word borg means fortress.)

Erick Erickson was another mental health care professional who saw in Isak Borg a promising teaching tool.  Erickson was more than just a health care professional: he was a giant in the field.  A renowned psychoanalyst and developmental psychologist, Erickson broke with Freud in the area of personality development.  Whereas Freud concentrated almost exclusively on the infantile development of the psyche, Erickson saw its development as a lifelong process.  Erickson divided this development into eight stages:

  1. Infancy
  2. Early childhood
  3. Play Age
  4. School Age
  5. Adolescence
  6. Young Adulthood
  7. Adulthood
  8. Old Age

In a chapter {A Life History: Revalidation and Reinvolvement ) from a book [Vital Involvement In Old Age (1986]] that he authored with two other people,  Erickson uses Borg’s life to illustrate the above eight stages.  Obviously the last stage, old age, has particular significance as it relates to Wild Strawberries.  Erickson explains that the word wisdom symbolizes the strength of this last stage of life.  It is indeed ironic to associate the word wisdom with Isak Borg, as wisdom was the one thing that escaped him for most of his life, despite his education.  Erikson, in justifying the use of a fictional character to present his theories and clinical findings, goes beyond the obvious need to protect the privacy of actual patients; he notes that “artistic works of greatness have a way of presenting in a convincing form some total truths about life, which rarely characterize other reports and abstracts of a human life, making it truly a life history.”

Dr. Bob Knight, in his book Psychotherapy with Older Adults (1996) also employs Isak Borg as a teaching example.  Dr. Knight stresses the cautions that need to be taken when employing a “life review” with elderly patients—and certainly Wild Strawberries was a “life review,” among other things.

The central aesthetic question pertaining to Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, as I indicated in my book The Screenplay as Literature, was whether or not Isak Borg undergoes any significant change after this “life review.”  My answer was that he did not.  Furthermore, I wrote, “Besides, from the point of view of dramaturgy, what would be the point of such a change anyway?  At the age of seventy-six, what effect on his own life and the life of others could such change have?”  I then noted that Isak’s wife was dead, and then there was the rather acrimonious relationship between Isak and his son.  However, where I may have seen a mellowed, somber stoicism as the  best outcome for Isak, Knight sees hopeful potential.  He points out that Borg still is mentally sharp and could practice his profession if he so chooses.  Then there is the fact that he soon will become a grandfather—so why shouldn’t he become a doting grandparent?  And as for romance, Knight reminds us that his cousin Sara, who is now 75 years old and still beautiful, is a widow: why not marry her?  Keep in mind that Sara rejected Isak when he was a young man and married his older brother.

Well, I don’t see any of the above as likely to transpire, particularly a marriage between Isak and Sara.  I still stand by my original literary analysis of the film and screenplay—rather than a psychological one.  But, then again, who am I to deny that where there’s life, there’s hope!

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