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.
- 1 Corinthians 13:12i
The scripture above has been a kind of haunting spiritual muse for numerous artistsii, among them, Ingmar Bergman. Berman’s 1961 Through A Glass Darkly is the first in an unintentional trilogy of films focusing on spirituality (followed by Winter Light and The Silence). Bergman has called the trio (and Persona) “chamber films iii,” and describes them as “chamber music–music in which, with an extremely limited number of voices and figures, one explores the essence of a number of motifs. The backgrounds are extrapolated, put into a sort of fog. The rest is a distillation."
Chamber music is often referred to as a conversation or as the “music of friends.” Johann Wofang von Goethe described it as “four rational people conversing.” But these assume the best of circumstances. What if the four players are not rational? What happens when the friendship is marred? Cellist David Waterman, writes of chamber music, “For an individual, the problems of interpretation are challenging enough. But for a quartet grappling with some of the most profound, intimate, and heartfelt compositions in the music literature, the communal nature of decision-making is often more testing than the decisions themselves.”
So it is in Through A Glass Darkly. The movie takes place within 24 hours on a remote Swedish island, where four family members are vacationing together. The father, David, is an emotionally stilted author who continues to disappoint his children by the frequency of his absences. His son, Minus, has just entered the challenges of adolescent sexual frustration. David’s daughter Karin has just returned from the hospital for an “illness” that is never named, but is clearly schizophrenia. As she slips in and out of madness, her husband Martin, still hopelessly in love, is powerless to stop her from unraveling. Like Waterman’s description of chamber music, the challenge in Through a Glass Darkly may be less about the illness itself than how each character decides to react to it. Their relationships to each other are fraught with misunderstanding, miscommunications, or outright rejection. This isn’t the music of friends; it’s the discordant sounds of a family that has no clue how to talk to each other.
In Through A Glass Darkly, everything is stripped to its barest parts. Bach’s Suite No. 2 in D Minor plays with unaccompanied melancholy in the background. The setting is as isolated and remote as the characters that inhabit it – a shipwreck, a small fishing boat, and a dilapidated house all float on a rocky island. In this land of disconnect, we see the fragmentations between the characters. Karin discovers her father wants to “use her” illness for his own literary pursuits. Martin grapples with his wife’s rejection of his affection. Minus is tormented by the physical teasing (and what’s later implied as a sexual assault) of his sister. And Karin grapples with herself, with the two realities that are segmenting her life.
Karin’s madness is unpredictable. She floats on the surface of one world as she sinks into another, moving rapidly between lucidity and possession. She believes voices call to her from behind the wallpaper. They tell her to read her father’s diary. They tell her to grab her brother. They tell her that God will come soon.
But when Karin meets God at last, He is not a God of salvation. She sees God as a spider that tries to penetrate her iv. It’s a God she must defend herself from, must escape from. “All along I saw his eyes. They were cold and calm,” Karin says, “when he couldn’t penetrate me, he continued up my chest, up into my face and onto the wall. I have seen God.”
Karin sees through the dark glass of a tormented mind, but when she comes face to face with God, it is as clear as a nightmare. Unlike scripture, her world is all the more confusing. Reality and fantasy cave in on themselves, leaving only confusion and terror.
Despite the horrors in Karin’s mind, the film’s epilogue takes a shockingly optimistic turn. Karin has just made her deepest descent into madness and has been whisked away to the hospital by helicopter. Minus is scared. He tells his father that reality was revealed to him when he and Karin were in the shipwreck, that he felt himself collapse. “Anything can happen,” he says, “I can’t live in this world.” David tells his son he needs something to cling to, that love exists in the human world - that love is either proof of God’s existence or God itself. God surrounds Karin, they realize, because they love her. As his father leaves, Minus speaks the film’s final lines: “Papa spoke to me!”
Berman himself is unsure what to make of the final scene, saying he feels “ill at ease when confronted with the epilogue today. v” He believes there’s a “false tone” that runs throughout the film, but admits the film set out as a “desperate attempt to present a simple philosophy: God is love and love is God. A person surrounded by love is also surrounded by God.” It was what he calls “conquered certainty.”
The final ending does provide a certainty of love, one that could conquer the darkness of the rest of the film. But not entirely. How can we reconcile the two endings? In her mind, Karin comes face to face with God, but the world is no clearer for it. Even seeing face-to-face is rife with shadows. But if God is love, as David says, then coming face to face with those we love the most is like coming face to face with God. Then when Minus utters in amazement, “Papa spoke to me,” it’s as if the father figure of God had spokenvi. His love may be God’s, but it’s a brief moment of direct communication in a film where characters are otherwise incapable of seeing eye to eye. Perhaps that fleeting moment is enough. Enough to prove that love exists. Enough to make music in dark and tiny chamber. Enough to squash the spiders we see crawling in the shadowy reflections of darkened glass.
My Life in Film, by Ingmar Bergman (1990)
Ingmar Bergman: His Life and Films by Jerry Vermilye (2006)
Ingmar Bergman, Cinematic Philosopher: Reflections on His Creativity by Professor Irving Singe (2007)
Roger Ebert’s review of Through A Glass Darkly (2008)
Reviews and commentary on Through A Glass Darkly at Bergmanorama.com
Review of Through A Glass Darkly by Richard Shaw at Bright Lights Film Journal
i King James Bible
iii Berman learned about chamber music and found his chamber play form through his then-wife Käbi Laretei, a pianist. He believed the forms were very deeply connected, stating “The borderline between the chamber play and chamber music is nonexistent, as it is between cinematic expression and musical expression."
iv Through a Glass Darkly has been described as Bergman’s own wrestling with his Lutheran upbringing and spiritual unrest. In Images: My Life in Film, Bergman writes, “A god descends into a human and settles in her. First he is just an inner voice, a certain knowledge, or a commandment. Threatening or pleading. Repulsive yet stimulating. Then he lets himself be more and more known to her, and the human being gets to test the strength of the god, learns to love him, sacrifices for him, and finds herself forced into the utmost devotion and then into complete emptiness. When this emptiness has been accomplished, the god takes possession of this human being and accomplishes his work through her hands. Then he leaves her empty and burned out, without any possibility of continuing to live in this world.”
v In Images: My Life in Film, Bergman writes of the epilogue, “I suppose that was written out of my need to be didactic. Perhaps I put it there in order to say something that had not yet been said; I don't know. I feel ill at ease when confronted with the epilogue today. Throughout the film runs a false tone, hardly detectable to others, which may account for the scene."
vi For what it’s worth, Ingmar Bergman’s father was a Lutheran priest
Kristen Bialik works in public relations in Milwaukee, WI. When she’s not doing that, she’s trying to learn Korean, trying to write short stories, or trying to scheme up ways she can work for Conan O’Brien in Burbank. They’re works in progress.