Through a Glass Darkly (1961)

Ingmar Bergman | 1hr 29min

Ingmar Bergman’s first film shot on his home island of Fårö is also the first in his unofficial Faith trilogy, though this does not mean that Through a Glass Darkly was the start of his efforts to confront humanity’s troubled relationship with God. The Seventh Seal and The Virgin Spring preceded it by a few years, after all. Still, this is a far more contained study than either. Perhaps this is to its slight detriment, given that those other films land with greater formal ambition and impact, but this chamber drama is nonetheless an impressive continuation of his long-running spiritual quandaries.

Gunnar Björnstrand’s biblically-named David is the lonely patriarch of the small family vacationing on the rocky Swedish isle where this story is set, becoming a flawed, God-like figure to his children searching for some divine connection. He suffers from severe writer’s block, and as such finds that his only source of inspiration comes from his daughter Karin’s mental illness. It is a major insecurity for him, especially when he sees how easily ideas for new plays and operas flow from his son Minus. He is envious and self-absorbed, and so he withdraws into his anxious mind, holding back the love his children so desire.

David is representative of God in this family, withholding the love which his children crave.

For Minus, it spurs on a desperate desire to hold a thoughtful conversation with his father, while for Karin it manifests even more severely as a schizophrenic desire to contact the voices in her mind – one of whom she is convinced belongs to God Himself. As the most volatile character, she is the centrepiece of Bergman’s drama, and yet it is David who is at the root of its family issues.

The final member of this quartet is Karin’s husband, Martin, played with intellectual grace by Max von Sydow. He is emotionally independent of David, and yet due to the abundant empathy he has to offer his troubled wife, he is drawn into conflict with her father upon discovering his secret diary entries chronicling her illness.

“You know how to express yourself. You always have just the right words. There’s just one thing you haven’t the slightest clue about: life itself. You’re a craven coward but a genius at evasions and excuses. In your novels you’re always courting some god. But let me tell you, your faith and your doubt are very unconvincing. All that’s apparent is your ingenuity. Have you written one word of truth in your life as an author? Your half-lies are so refined that they look like truth.”

Bergman’s dialogue can be eloquently cutting, but the emotions it is conveying can never be reduced to outright contempt. Beneath it all, these characters hold great affection for each other. The trouble comes in trying to express those feelings in the absence of paternal guidance, which is magnified to an even greater extent by the isolation of the island where they are vacationing. Its seascapes are tranquil yet sparse, composed of two vaguely distinct shades of grey divided by a long stretch of horizon, while thin wharfs stretch out into the negative space from stony shorelines. Small clumps of vegetation dot these images, while in the distance a lonely lighthouse stands atop a cliff.

This is Bergman’s first film shot on his home island of Fårö, and the scenery pays off beautifully in framing the family drama. These are isolated characters, and the scenes of them wandering stony shores carry a bleak beauty.

The interiors aren’t much more inviting either, with the torn wallpaper and wooden floorboards offering these characters little warmth. Inside a shipwreck that Karin and Minus escape into from the rain, Bergman even designs a set that could have been from Andrei Tarkovsky, crossing rotting beams across the frame at all angles and trickling water into its collapsed base. Pushed right into the back of the shot we find the siblings huddled together, essentially imprisoned inside a giant manifestation of Karin’s unstable psyche.

This shipwreck makes for one of the film’s most powerful scenes, offering feeble shelter from the rain to Karin and Minus and becoming a giant manifestation of her unstable psyche.

Such stark minimalism leaves a rich canvas open for Bergman’s typically superb blocking as well, underscoring the imbalance between characters in two-shots that subtly darken one face and illuminate the other, and frequently hanging on them for minutes at a time without cutting. Sven Nykvist’s lighting is incredibly precise in these close-ups, passing shade over one half of David’s face while deep in contemplation, and specifically highlighting Karin’s wandering eye as she lies next to Martin at night. Like a conductor playing multiple instruments, Bergman orchestrates his staging and performances perfectly, each hitting different frequencies yet harmonising them within a shared doubt in the existence of a caring God.

Bergman is never content to just shoot his actors’ expressions – he is always lighting them according to the emotion of the scene, and highlighting specific features of their faces.

Harriet Andersson especially benefits from such austere photographic treatment, frequently becoming the camera’s central subject as Karin’s condition worsens and her desire to meet God intensifies. What starts as her hearing the non-existent sound of a calling bird eventually develops into more sinister voices coming from behind a wall, instructing her to commit shameful acts and delivering warnings of God’s impending arrival. When the figure she believes to be Him finally does appear, the invisible sight she witnesses is mortally terrifying – a spider with “cold and calm” eyes, and a “terrible, stony face.”

Karins is a brutally complex character, writhing with fear and anticipation as schizophrenic voices fill her head. Clearly one of Harriet Andersson’s finest performances.

It is effectively a vision of religion that is brutal and unforgiving, but it is also one which is opposed to the representation of God in David. His love may be questioned at times by those who struggle to connect with him, but it persists nonetheless. “I don’t know if love is proof of God’s existence or if love is God himself,” he ponders to his son. “For you, love and God are the same,” Minus answers.

To the young teenager, the significance of this brief but meaningful discussion has less to do with its subject matter than the fact it happened in the first place. “Papa spoke to me,” he mutters in disbelief, rediscovering his faith in his father through a tangible demonstration of his love. For these children, it is life’s most fundamental necessity, driving them further from reality the more it slips from their grasp. Equally though, Through A Glass Darkly savours those moments of profound affection when they do appear in even the smallest demonstrations, recognising how such powerful connections lead its characters towards a pure, redemptive grace.

Bergman ends Through a Glass Darkly on the perfect scene and final line – “Papa spoke to me.”

Through a Glass Darkly is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes.


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