Through A Glass Darkly
(Såsom i en Spegel)
"It's so horrible to see your own confusion and understand it."
In most instances, I have nothing but great things to say about Ingmar Bergman's films. Unfortunately, this will not be one of those instances. Despite the fact that Through A Glass Darkly (note the absence of the comma) won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Picture in 1961 (the second Bergman film to do so, after the Virgin Spring), I sometimes get the feeling that it was thrown together rather quickly with little regard for the audience and that most people who claim to like it only do so out of a slavish desire to not seem 'pedestrian' or 'bourgeois' in their tastes. Although I would hardly count this as a personal favorite, it's not a bad movie, and it's an important one in Bergman's canon as it represents atransformation in both themes and style. Through A Glass Darkly has only four characters, in stark contrast to Bergman's earlier films such as Smiles of a Summer Night or the Seventh Seal. Three of these four characters are played by Bergman regulars: Harriet Andersson stars as Karin, a woman on the edge of reality who hopes to cross over to join "the Others" someday; Max von Sydow puts in a restrained performance as Martin, a doctor and Karin's husband; and Gunnar Björnstrand appears as Karin's emotionally distant father David. Rounding out the cast is Lars Passgård in his first screen role as Minus, Karin's 17 year old brother.
Allegedly, Through a Glass Darkly is the first film in a trilogy that was followed by Winter Light and the Silence. I say "allegedly" because while there are similar themes throughout all three movies, they are not as cohesive a whole as Bergman had probably hoped they would be. When you add the fact that Bergman has apparently recanted his original characterization of the movies as a trilogy (and in some cases even denied that he made such a suggestion) this is at best a broken series of loosely related concepts. The main theme throughout all three movies was supposed to be man's interaction with God, specifically through language. This film was supposed to be optimistic, the second was supposed to be pessimistic, and the third was supposed to be nihilistic. I'll leave it to people more learned than I in the ways of Bergman to decide if he was successful or not.
The film opens with a view of the ocean that soon dissolves into a long shot of four figures about 30 feet out in the water, laughing and cavorting. Many Bergman films start with an establishing shot in which the characters seem to emerge from the landscape, which is an effective way of making the audience feel as if it hasn't missed anything; by watching them materialize, as it were, we feel that we have been with them since their very inception. David and Martin go to tend to the fishing nets while Karin and Minus go to fetch the milk. David and Martin make small talk about the former's latest novel in conjunction with his latest ulcer. Clearly, David's new book isn't going as well as he'd like, but he pretends that everything is under control. In a show of seeming banality, they discuss the weather and they conclude that it will probably not thunder and rain.
As they walk to get the milk, Karin asks if Minus can hear the birds in the distance. When he replies that he cannot, she casually remarks that "it must be the electric shock therapy" that makes her so sensitive to light and sound. Returning to the others, Martin then asks David if he received his letter, which he evidently did not. The gist of the letter, he says, is that Karin's "condition" is virtually incurable and that he feels a heavy burden on his shoulders due to the fact that he is Karin's anchor in life. David absorbs this information. Karin and Minus then get into an argument in which Minus says he cannot stand women or their meaningless displays of affection, but the true reason for his sudden outburst of teenage angst becomes clear: he finds their father, David, utterly unapproachable, and wants nothing more than for David to sit down and talk to him.
The family regroups for supper and David announces that he will be going to Yugoslavia for a month or so. An uncomfortable silence falls over the table and Minus reminds him that he had promised to stay in town for a while after his return from Switzerland (where he had been for some time and from where he had only recently returned). Caught off guard, David weakly passes around presents to everyone and goes inside to get his tobacco. While in his study, he has an emotional breakdown and in an effort to support himself, he stands in a lit windowsill and extends his arms horizontally to touch the walls, looking in some ways like the victim of a crucifixion. In the context of the movie, this signifies two things: first, it is naturally a symbol with religious significance; but more subtly, it is a clue to the conflict that is at the very heart of the film -- the confused question of identity and context (is David a father or is he a son? Is he both?). More on this later.
He composes himself and returns to the table, where Martin, Minus, and Karin thank him for the presents they didn't really like. They then tell him that they have a surprise for him. They stage a play that Minus has written called the Artistic Haunting or the Tomb of Illusions. Minus stars as a poet/prince who thinks his true love is the character portrayed by Karin, the ghost of a princess who died in childbirth at the age of 13 (she comments that her husband had formerly been her playmate, another example of confused relations as well as a foreshadowing of events to come). Minus' character then proclaims that his art is his life and while he pontificates, he loses his chance to be with the princess. He shrugs it off and says "well, that's life," saying that he'll just write a poem about it (another instance of foreshadowing). This hits David a little too closely to home, and though he feigns extreme enthusiasm for the production, he is obviously mortified by its implications.
Later, Karin mentions to Martin that she noticed her father's negative reaction to the play (has her perception really improved?) but he says he's sure there's no problem. She then talks about her fears and troubles and Martin tries to placate her like a child, referring to her as "Little Kajsa." Again, the theme of confusion between Karin and her relations is highlighted, with her husband speaking to her as if we was her father. This is underscored minutes later when she sleeplessly visits David, who is revising a page from his manuscript, and he too refers to her as "Little Kajsa." Before she goes to see her father, however, she wanders upstairs into an empty room with cracked wallpaper. She begins convulsing, and it's unclear if she's in pain or having an orgasm.
David and Minus go to tend to the nets (the family is big on fish, if you hadn't noticed) and Karin sneaks a peek at her father's journal. She is horrified to discover the latest entry in which David writes that her condition is incurable (which she did not know) and that beyond that, he is perversely fascinated by it and that he intends to study her disintegration and see if it can be of any use to his novel. This can be taken in two ways: first, this is possibly Bergman's indictment of himself, in the sense that aspects of many of his emotionally rawer works are drawn from his early life (indeed, "Karin" is a name frequently used in his works, and was in fact his mother's name); second, and more powerfully, it is Bergman's indictment of God and his distant, observational manner that causes angst among the suffering. She goes to wake Martin and tells him that she read the diary, but tells him that he must ask David about what he wrote. Martin tries to be intimate with her, but she is not in the mood and, frustrated, he leaves to go on the boat with David.
While the men are away, Minus is supposed to be studying his Latin homework, but is instead looking at a porno mag. Karin catches him and light-heartedly jokes with him about it, but he spits in her face and yells at her. He apologizes and she helps him with his homework, asking him to explain what "constructio ad sensum" means. It's a grammatical concept in which sentence structures are changed to suit different contexts; this is a reference to Karin's ever-changing contexts as it relates to her role as a daughter, a sister, and a wife, and how she progressively confuses which role she is supposed to take on and with whom. At this point, Karin confides in Minus (and the audience) about the existence of "the Others." She takes him to the empty room and tells him that she walks through the walls and she exists in two worlds. She says that it's getting more difficult to live on the edge and that she is ready to sacrifice Martin to be with them because she desperately wants to be there for when "he" comes. She is unsure as to who "he" is, but she believes it's God. Somewhat terrified, Minus leaves, but returns to find Karin acting as if nothing happened.
Martin confronts David about the journal and he admits everything. Martin calls David a callous coward who has never loved anybody in his life. David confesses that in Switzerland, he attempted to kill himself by driving a rental car over the side of a cliff. As soon as he put the car into gear, however, the transmission blew, and he was saved. He jumped out of the car and realized that only when you have gone to the edge of losing everything, can you truly appreciate the reality of what you have. David then asks Martin if he ever hoped for Karin's death, and it's clear that while he denies it, he has dreamt of it. This conversation is interesting in that it demonstrates that Karin has been failed by her husband (representing science and logic) on the one hand and by her father (representing emotion and God) on the other.
Karin and Minus are outside painting a chair when Karin declares that the rain is about to start. Minus shakes his head, not seeing a cloud in the sky. She runs away anyway, and he follows her into a partially-scuttled boat. After a few tense seconds, Karin grabs Minus and pulls him on top of her, and they embrace in a most forbidden way. Karin has now taken her brother as her husband in the ultimate role confusal and the rain (obviously a symbol of Karin's ultimate transition to the other side) begins pouring down. Once they have finished, she asks for some water and Minus leaves to get her some. On his way out, he sees that Martin and David have returned from their trip and he leads them to Karin. She refuses to see Martin (who goes to call an ambulance) and instead talks alone to her father. He is concerned but perversely fascinated. She hints at the incest and he seems disturbed, but still listens intently, as though he's still laboring under the delusion that all of this will somehow form the basis of a brilliant novel. She asks to be committed to a hospital but she doesn't want to receive treatments any longer -- she wants to be fully in tune with the Others. He weakly agrees and expresses his regret at not being there for her more. She consoles him, referring to him as "poor little papa," taking on her final role as surrogate mother.
Everyone returns to the house to wait for the ambulance. Karin sneaks away from Martin and goes to the empty room. David hears her talking to the walls and follows her up there, but says and does nothing, continuing his bizarre observations. Clearly, he observes not so much because he gets any pleasure from it or because it's actually useful to him, but rather because he (as God) is ineffectual and can do nothing but observe. Martin rushes into the room and tries to talk her out of her delirious state, but she tells him to shut up, saying that "he" is about to appear and she doesn't want to miss it. The medical helicopter can be heard in the distance and the closet door flies open. She stands and prepares herself, but she soon begins screaming and running about the room. David, Minus, and Martin eventually grab her and sedate her, and she explains that when she saw God, he was a spider and he tried to rape her. They take her to the helicopter and she flies away. Minus and David have a conversation about the nature of God, hope, and love, and David tells his son that the proof that God exists is in love and that quite possibly, God is love. David leaves his son and Minus proclaims, shocked, "papa spoke to me."
As you can tell, there's a lot going on in this movie. The problem I have with Through a Glass Darkly is that it's too damned dense. There's too much craziness and melodrama for me to take it as seriously as Bergman had hoped. The ending is a little clichéd and seems forced; this is not an optimistic movie until the final two minutes. Still, it has a lot to say if you're willing to listen. Sum total: overrated but still above average.