Faith, family and femininity are put to the test in Bergman’s bleak meditation on religion and love
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Cast: Harriet Andersson (Karin), Gunnar Björnstrand (David), Max von Sydow (Martin), Lars Passgård (Minus)
Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly marks a new era in the Master’s filmography. It was the first of three thematically connected films about faith and religion (although you could argue The Virgin Spring really makes this a quartet). It saw Bergman make a firm commitment to seemingly theatrical chamber pieces, with small, focused casts of trusted collaborators handling complex (joke-free) and searching themes. It was also first of his films set on Fårö, a place that would become so associated with him it would effectively be rechristened Bergman Island.
Through a Glass Darkly (Bergman’s second consecutive Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Picture) is a brooding, intense chamber piece set entirely in a house and beachside jetty on Fårö. It’s a family reunion. Author David (Gunnar Björnstrand) returns to Sweden from Switzerland to see his children. They are 17-year old son and aspiring writer Minus (Lars Passgård) and Karin (Harriet Andersson), now married to respected older doctor Martin (Max von Sydow). The real purpose of the gathering is to monitor the recovery of Karin, a schizophrenic whose condition has (without her knowledge) been declared inoperable. Karin is drawn to obey the commands of voices only she hears which she believes emanate from an abandoned bedroom, covered in cracked wallpaper. There she believes God calls for her to join him on the other side of the wall.
There is much to admire about Through a Glass Darkly, not least the striking, haunting, cinematography of Sven Nykvist. In a film that takes place on an almost silent island – there is no music, other than a few bars of Bach on the soundtrack, and barely any natural sound, so much so that a late arrival of a helicopter seems (deliberately) like an almost demonic visitor – light becomes the main force. It beats down from the sun, wraps across rooms, seems to transform spaces in front of an eye (there is a beautiful stationary shot of it flooding an abandoned boat where Minus and Karin sit in shocked horror). It picks out every feature of the scarred wallpaper in Karin’s room and casts searching shadows and stark, interrogative beams across the character’s faces.
It greatly expands both the intensity and claustrophobia of a challenging chamber piece, exquisitely directed by Bergman. The acting of the four leads – three trusted collaborators and a newcomer – is faultless. Andersson, in particular, tackles an almost impossibly difficult character who we first meet as a carefree young woman and leave as a huddled, shattered figure hiding from the light behind sunglasses. Andersson’s raw and searching performance avoids all overblown histrionics, becoming a detailed and compassionate study of a woman losing control over her actions. Bergman holds the camera on her for long takes, while Andersson lets a multitude of emotions play across her face.
Björnstrand is equally impressive as a (disparaging) Bergman stand-in, an artist neglecting his children in a quest for perfection, coldly distant to others, guilty at his selfishness (at one point he excuses himself to privately weep at his inadequacy as a father, then returns unchanged) but quite happy to take what he can from his family to use in novels. von Sydow takes a quietly restrained role as a sombre, somewhat dour man, hopelessly in love with his wife but clearly little more to her (and he accepts this) than a surrogate father. Passgård more than matches them as a depressed teenager, yearning for approval and frustrated at learning how difficult life is.
Bergman’s family follows this complex and challenging family, which becomes a filter for understanding if love is where God is in our world. The family is distant and uncommunicative with each other – the opening scene sees them laughingly return from a swim, but the second any of them split into pairs for conversations, resentments about the others come bubbling out. Is any love here real or performative? And if it’s performative, where is love and therefore where is God?
In this world, has Karin’s schizophrenia may have emerged as an attempt to insert an acceptable love that is otherwise missing from her life. Her father is a cold-fish, who immediately announces at their reunion dinner he will soon leave for Yugoslavia, then produces a series of gifts “from Switzerland” all too obviously purchased at an airport and unsuitable for the recipient (such as gloves that don’t fit Karin). Her husband overflows with desire for her, but she can hardly raise a flicker of interest in him sexually and behaves him with more like an affectionate daughter.
The most affection filled relationship she has is also the most inappropriate. She and Minus have a relationship of physical intimacy, and she kisses and strokes him with an affection that from the start feels uncomfortably close. They confide in each other emotionally in a way they never would do with others, and Minus is the first witness of one of her schizophrenic breaks, invited by her to view the room she believes is a passageway to God. This unhealthy intensity builds, through confidences and whispered confessions into a terrible encounter in a ruined boat, where Karin is commanded by her voices to seduce Minus into crossing a terrible line.
Perhaps this is a search for love and meaning “to see but through a glass darkly” as St Paul wrote. Karin is searching endlessly for love – and therefore God – but her search seems fruitless. Her family only slowly adjust, she shatters her closest relationship and eventually even her visions in her wallpapered room tip into nightmares. Bergman never lets us see the visions Karin witnesses or hear the voices she does (this places more pressure on Andersson whose controlled and measured performance is more than capable of delivering on) but we see all the traumatic impact on her as they prove as incapable of delivering confirmation of love in her world as anything else.
It’s surprising, for a film which starts as a family drama and becomes a quietly nihilistic drama, that Bergman ends on a moment of hope as David and Minus share a moment of closeness. Bergman later said he regretted this, and the moment does feel forced at the end of a downbeat drama. It may be a reflection of the fact that Through a Glass Darkly, intriguing as it is, is perhaps a little too serious and leans a little too heavily into artistic intensity. It lacks the touches of warmth, hope and humanity that makes Wild Strawberries a masterpiece and at times hits its notes of intense brooding a little too hard (its more or less from here that the Gloomy Swede label stuck).
It’s frequently an artistic triumph, but in some ways I find it less complete than other Bergmans. It’s exploration of its themes of faith and love don’t always coalesce quite as sharply as I would wish. It strains a little too much for profound importance at the cost of some of its humanity and the characters – brilliantly performed as they are – feel a little too much like puppets in the hands of God-like Bergman, going as and when according to his needs. But then, a Bergman film that doesn’t quite make it, would be the crowning achievement of other directors – and Through a Glass Darkly haunts the mind, turning over and over again in your thoughts, for days after you’ve seen it.