Though on this blog I’ve already covered four of Ingmar Bergman’s films from the 1950s, my personal introduction to his work was a series of films he began in the early 1960s, what has been called his Silence of God Trilogy (alternately, Faith Trilogy or the God and Man Trilogy), consisting of Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1962), and The Silence (1963). These quiet, minimalist films, sparsely cast, lonely, were the most intense film experiences I had ever had, being the first films to keep me up at night, tortured and enraptured. Their moodiness and portentousness is exactly what most people think of when they think of Ingmar Bergman.
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
Through a Glass Darkly is one of the most isolated and minimalist pieces of cinema I can think of. It takes place in a span of less than 24 hours, over a long, eerily light summer night on a Swedish island. The film has only four characters, three men and one woman. The woman is Karin (played perfectly by Harriet Andersson). As the film opens, we get a few, slightly varied shots of gray waters reflecting a gray sky, underscored by Bach’s somber Sarabande from Cello Suite No. 2 in D minor. Then the music stops and the group comes up laughing.
When we meet Karin she’s almost imperceptible and completely indistinguishable as she emerges from the sea with her father David (the great Gunnar Björnstrand), her husband Martin (the great Max von Sydow), and her seventeen-year-old brother Minus (Lars Passgård, a weak link in a cast of four, but in the company of three of the strongest actors in cinema history we can forgive how staged he makes some of his scenes feel).
Splashing and teasing one another, they come to a rickety jetty attached to their vacation cottage where they’ve come to pass the few warm days that don’t end since the sun doesn’t quite set. If it weren’t for the dark opening sequence, we might think all is well, particularly as Martin and David test each other’s virility:
Later on the four come together at an outdoor table for a delicious meal. David, who’s just returned from an extended stay in Switzerland, hands out presents, and after the meal, Karin and Martin help Minus put on a play he himself has written.
As we witness these banal scenes, the mask of happiness keeps slipping. A history of tragedy and disappointment emerges and threatens to push everyone over the edge. Each smile is carefully placed to lighten an excruciating mood. We have learned that Karin suffers from schizophrenia and has only just been released from a mental institution. Now David, who recently promised that when he returned from Switzerland he would finally settle down and stay with the family, has just announced he will soon be leaving again.
The film moves into the night and no one looks like they’ll get any real rest. Martin and Karin lie down together, but after he’s fallen asleep, dejected and exhausted, she hears a bird and wanders off into the cottage’s empty, rundown attic rooms. At the wallpaper, she listens to voices:
Karin has not been cured. In fact, she’s getting more and more tired of crossing back into reality after the ecstasy she encounters in her alternate world, where her visions are becoming more and more clear; God is approaching, promising to reveal himself to her very soon.
And why shouldn’t she prefer this other world? All the pleasure and joy we thought we were witnessing as the film opened cannot adequately cover the emptiness and isolation these characters are feeling nor the sadness they feel when they wonder why. And oh how well does Berman capture the weight these characters feel. Here’s Max von Sydow, after his wife has turned away from him yet again:
How long can he be with and support someone who denies him intimacy? He says he will always be there, but David, inappropriately and in an effort to counter one of Martin’s own accusations, says he knows Martin has imagined how much easier it all would be if Karin just died.
Here’s Gunnar Björnstrand when he leaves the family for a moment after giving them his sham gifts and telling them he’s leaving again:
Martin is afraid that history is repeating itself. And yet . . . and yet, perhaps this is an opportunity. Martin is an author. He’s acknowledged to himself how tempting it is to remain close to Karin so he can use her sickness as a source of inspiration.
Minus is suffering too, though at first it appears he’s just suffering from the angst of being young and pent-up at a time when his sexual awareness is peaking. For some time, the only flashes of what seems to be genuine closeness and warmth happen between him and Karin as they apparently share one another’s burdens. Bergman always has them in each other’s personal space:
Naturally, this closeness itself becomes a burden:
It’s getting to be too much for each:
The relationship between each person as they attempt to walk around each other is reason enough to watch the movie and, indeed, it’s what I’m most attracted to. This woman is, in a way, threatened on each side by a man who wants her for some purpose or other, though they do genuinely love her. Still, Karin (and this could not have been done were it not for Harriet Andersson) will be her own.
Of course, there is much more than that going on as Bergman uses this situation as an opportunity to examine that verse in 1 Corinthians 13. These four characters cannot help but wonder why they are going through what they are going through, and no answers are forthcoming. Only Karin thinks that she’s getting closer to God, but his appearance is one of the most disturbing scenes in a film filled with disturbing scenes. David himself could be the creator, in a way, using Karin for all she’s worth, yet he is the one who, in the end, can still say God is love.
I’m delighted that after around ten viewings this film is still an enigma that just when I think it’s becoming clear dissolves into grayness.