Through A Glass Darkly, Ingmar Bergman’s 1961 black and white Oscar winning classic, offers a compelling portrayal of mental illness and family relationships. Bergman lets us in to the lives of just four characters during the film’s 89 minutes. In his book, Images: My Life In Film, Bergman describes, ‘It is my first real small ensemble drama and leads the way for Persona. I had made a decision to compress the drama. This is immediately apparent in the first scene: four human beings come out of a roaring sea, appearing from nowhere’.
Karin (Harriet Andersson) has returned to her family home for the summer after some time at a mental hospital where she has undergone electric shock therapy. Her illness is incurable and her mental state unravels throughout the film. Set on a Swedish island, Karin stays with her loving but increasingly desperate husband, Martin (Max von Sydow), who is in torment watching her mental decline. Karin’s father, David (Gunnar Bjornstrand), is an author – a struggling artist striving for brilliance – who finds himself recording her illness with a stark emotional detachment that he becomes ashamed of. The final character, Karin’s brother Minus (Lars Passgard), endures his own emotional strains as he deals with his sexual maturity. ‘I wonder if everyone is caged in,’ says Minus in a poignant line that highlights his emotional confinement.
All of Bergman’s characters compartmentalise their emotions to some degree and have differing relationships with each other. Bergman invites us behind closed doors to see his characters share intimate details of their lives with their chosen confidants while putting on a mask of pretence to others. We see Minus share his confidences with Karin, but not his father, while Karin shares her fears with her husband Martin, but the details of her hallucinations only with Minus. David, on the other hand, seems emotionally distanced from everyone, having departed to Switzerland after the death of his wife. At a family meal outside on the terrace, David gives his family gifts, retreating inside alone, where he is able to sob openly. David is a distant father and his family appears to lack the strong emotional bonds necessary for a happy existence. A great deal is left unsaid but the stunning performances, combined with Bergman’s long takes and lingering close-ups give the viewer a sense of intimacy with his characters.
In Through A Glass Darkly, Bergman worked with trusted actors who had delivered in some of his earlier films. Harriet Andersson (Smiles Of A Summer, Dreams) gives an outstanding performance bringing a youthfulness and allure that makes Karin’s illness even more tragic, while convincingly portraying her anxiety and instability. Max von Sydow (The Virgin Spring, The Seventh Seal) gives a strong performance as the desperately in love but hopeless Martin, despite being given relatively little space in which to convey this. It’s also difficult not to feel drawn in by the complexities of Karin’s father, David, and Gunnar Bjornstand (The Magician, The Seventh Seal) brings an honesty to the role that makes his outburst of sorrow in the farmhouse kitchen very moving. As Minus, Lars Passgard is given some difficult subjects to work with, particularly in terms of his relationship with his sister but Passgard succeeds in giving us a tense young man whose emotion and lust powerfully fizz beneath the surface.
There is a strong spiritual undercurrent in Through A Glass Darkly, retrospectively thought of as the first in a trilogy of religious, philosophically themed films from Bergman that also includes Winter Light and The Silence. The title, Through A Glass Darkly, comes from a passage in Corinthians that describes how we know God in life – only coming to know the real God after death. In her hallucinations Karin believes she sees God, but he is not as she expected, sparking one of the most dramatic scenes in the film. Karin is also fearful of her own condition, ‘sometimes we are so defenceless,’ she utters, suggesting earthly despair and a powerlessness be fore God.
So much of Bergman’s drama is delivered through his philosophical dialogue – his poignant writing was nominated for an Oscar in 1962. The film’s ending, a discussion about who or what God is, has been accused of feeling ‘tacked on’ and Bergman admitted, ‘I feel ill at ease when confronted with the epilogue today’. But what this final scene delivers is an optimism that is strikingly absent from the rest of the film, offering a hint at rebuilding the future. Without this, Through A Glass Darkly would be a relentlessly sombre film.
Bergman’s choice of remote location on the Swedish coast of Faro along with its minimal farmhouse makes a stark setting for the film that works in drawing attention to the emotional intensity of his characters and their relationships. From the shipwreck where Karin’s descent intensifies, to the long pier that takes her father out to sea, the natural elements play a large part in underlining the fragility of human existence. Bergman shoots many of the film’s scenes from within the farmhouse looking out, using the natural light to illuminate the rooms. As Karin hears whispers through the wallpaper, the wall is bathed in light reflected from the ocean, rippling and moving across the wall as if it were alive. Bergman’s use of shadow and darkness is compelling, emphasising his characters’ internal struggles and despair.
Through A Glass Darkly is an intense and intimate drama that explores family relationships, mental instability and spirituality. Beautifully written and directed by Bergman with powerful cinematography, Through A Glass Darkly is a compelling and persuasive film. Watch the superb trailer below if you need any more convincing to see this Bergman masterpiece.