Through a Glass Darkly (1961)

Dir. by Ingmar Bergman

Images: As in most of Bergman’s b&w films, the interplay of darkness and light is a critical motif here, as seen most obviously in the images of Karin’s outstretched arms in the hull of the shipwreck and in her decision to wear sunglasses near the end of the film. The light motif is also realized in Bergman’s frequent shots of windows that open onto a distant horizon across the sea. My favorite instance comes after a bedroom exchange between Karin and Martin, when she turns her back to him, and the camera pans slowly to the right, fixing its gaze on the setting sun. The film is also notable for its strangely erotic subtext, created by a number of shots, among them: David’s hand on Karin’s shoulder as she drifts off to sleep; the stationary, low-angle shots of Karin alone in the wallpapered room; and, of course, the charged encounters between Karin and Minus.

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The first of Bergman’s chamber dramas, Through a Glass Darkly concerns a family vacationing on the Baltic island of Fårö, where their alienation from one another is mirrored in the bleak landscape that surrounds them. The patriarch, David (Gunnar Bjornstrand), is a widower and best-selling novelist, whose life is marked solely by professional ambition and emotional detachment. His daughter, Karin (Harriet Andersson), is a schizophrenic plagued by rapturous voices that promise the imminent return of God. She is tended by her husband, Martin (Max Von Sydow), and by her younger brother, Minus (Lars Passgard), neither of whom is capable of offering her lasting comfort. Not surprisingly, Bergman constructs the film so as to allow his players to ruminate on his chief, career-long concerns: the struggle with inspiration in the life of an artist, the silence of God, and the potential redemption afforded by human love.

To begin at the end . . .

In the film’s final scene, David stands with his son before an open window, their faces mostly lost in shadow. Shaken by his sister’s most recent collapse and her subsequent evacuation by helicopter, Minus laments his loss of faith in God and man. The world has suddenly become torn open for the teenager, exposing its existential horror, and he can no longer imagine his place in it. “Give me a proof of God,” he begs of his father. David responds:

I can only give you an indication of my own hope. It’s knowing that love exists for real in the human world. . . . The highest and lowest, the most ridiculous and the most sublime. All kinds. . . . I don’t know whether love is proof of God’s existence, or if love is God. . . . Suddenly the emptiness turns into abundance, and hopelessness into life. It’s like a reprieve, Minus, from a sentence of death.

If we are to think of Through a Glass Darkly in musical terms, as Bergman encourages us to do, then David’s speech is a coda that resolves on a picardy third — that often surprising, but seldom satisfying moment when a piece in a minor key ends on a major chord. It’s one of only a very few instances in Bergman’s films that rings hollow to me. It feels, in fact, like a near desperate attempt to mask over the more honestly realized anguish and suffering that characterize the eighty minutes preceding. That the director was able to more satisfactorily resolve the problem a decade later in Cries and Whispers is perhaps evidence that here his ideas are still gestating, not yet fully formed.

What Bergman does get absolutely right in Through a Glass Darkly, though, is the very real horror of the existential crisis, the moment when Camus’s Sisyphus pauses, watching his stone roll once again down the mountain. In the penultimate sequence, Karin returns to the upstairs bedroom where, throughout the film, we have watched her communicate with the imagined harbingers of God’s return. Perhaps inspired by Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story, Karin’s delusional conversations are mediated by the room’s tattered wallpaper and are charged (as is much of the film) with a discomforting eroticism. When David and Martin discover her, Karin is ecstatic, her glazed eyes fixed on the door through which God will soon appear. In a beautifully rendered scene, she falls to her knees and asks her stoic husband to join her. Von Sydow’s remarkable face is a conflicted mess of sorrow and love and humiliation and desire. But he kneels beside her, impotent in his attempts to calm her as she waits.

What follows is one of film’s most terrifying moments: God’s arrival in the form of the ambulatory helicopter, greeted by a grotesque dance of fits and shrieks from Karin. She throws her body into a corner, howling in agony and recoiling at the advances of her family, who look on, hopeless. If the finale of Carl Dreyer’s Ordet is a cinematic document of genuine Christian faith, then Karin’s rapture is its funhouse mirror reflection: a hopeless portrait of abject nihilism. Once calmed and quieted, Karin describes what she saw:

The door opened, but the god was a spider. He came up to me and I saw his face. It was a terrible, stony face. He scrambled up and tried to penetrate me, but I defended myself. All along I saw his eyes. They were cold and calm. When he couldn’t penetrate me, he continued up my chest, up into my face and onto the wall. I have seen God.

Camus demands that “one must imagine Sisyphus happy” — that in his very recognition of life’s absurdity Sisyphus has made a heroic gesture toward freedom — but Bergman, except in the aforementioned coda, refuses to offer even that promise. Karin puts on her sunglasses, shutting out the light that she has quite literally and so desperately sought throughout the film, and willingly surrenders herself to the medics. Despite David’s closing words, and the apparent reconciliation with Minus that they engender, I experience little catharsis from the film, knowing that Karin’s surrender is complete and, ultimately, fatal.

Strangely, it’s Karin’s plight, and that of so many like her in Bergman’s films, that draws me again and again to his work. There is, in that dramatization of the existential crisis, something of what Christian aesthetician Frank Burch Brown calls “negative transcendence”: “God appears only as the Absent One, as that which is signified only by the depth of the artfully expressed yearning.” I’ve become quite fond of that concept, applying it repeatedly to Bergman and sharing it often with friends who are struggling to make sense of their admiration for supposedly Godless films like Magnolia. In Through a Glass Darkly, I think, Bergman stages that crisis more brutally than anywhere in his canon, and the film is better for it.