Ingmar Bergman: Through A Glass Darkly (1961) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Ingmar Bergman: Through A Glass Darkly (1961)

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Each Tuesday Andrew will be going through every available film of Ingmar Bergman.

Andrew COMMENTARYOne of the things that I've noticed in Bergman's films that is curiously absent in most analysis is how he treats artists.  Many of his films delve into the responsibilities of the artist, and what implications that art has for the world.  We saw hints of this previously in The Magician, where art serves a reaffirming purpose and in Sawdust and Tinsel, where it serves as a distraction for our pain of existing. Through A Glass Darkly deals with the implications of art in a world where we are going to be swallowed up into oblivion.

What does it matter if we get to the supposed "truth" of our condition if we're not going to be around to embrace it forever?  We write and compose and paint without realizing that it's all going to fade away the second that we shuttle off.  Unless, of course, you still happen to believe in some kind of afterlife.  While thats hinted in the film, the only real flaw is that Bergman does not seem ready for the obvious answer.

This is the first in Bergman's "Silence of God" trilogy.  Each film deals, in a specific way, with what the characters feel is a complete lack of response from the God that is supposed to be watching out for all of them.  I will say, thematically, that each film deals with this concept so potently that it strains me greatly to finish each film.  This is because he strips down any excesses, any overblown stylistic flourishes, and focuses on the painful expressions on everyone's face.

Bergman's intense study of human expression is painfully obvious in many shots.

From the first shot of Through A Glass Darkly, the implication is that we have sprung forth from nothingness.  Bergman makes the case that where we return to should be obvious, but we still hope and love for better.  The struggle to keep this hope comes in the form of a fairly dysfunctional family unit that tries to pretend as though they are not.  In those opening moments, they emerge from the waters that seem to stretch on into infinity, and struggle to understand one another.

Bergman previously worked with fairly large casts for his other films.  The Virgin Spring boasted a cast of thirteen, The Seventh Seal more so, and with this film Bergman pares down to just four people taking a vacation.  There is the father David (Gunnar Bjornstrand), a writer who mines his sick daughter Karin (Harriet Andersson) for material.  Joining them are Karin's devoted husband Martin (Max von Sydow) and her brother Minus (Lars Passgard). They are taking this vacation to welcome their father back to Sweden, and so that they can see if time away from other people will do Karin some good.  She has schizophrenia, and her shock treatments and medications are doing her no good.

Things seem as though they are going well until Martin reveals that Karin's condition will never improve, David mines that for more material, and Karin uncovers the manuscript that he has been writing.  Once she realizes that she will never get better, life descends further into an array of voices and orgiastic sensation, some of which she directs toward her brother.

Through A Glass Darkly carries many bleak implications, all of which shine though with Sven Nykvist's cinematography.

All of this plays out in an incredibly unsettling fashion.  Karin believes God to be a spider, a descriptor that well serves her father.  He is tormented by the way he uses his daughter, but continues to sit on the side lines and take notes as she descends further into mental oblivion.  Bergman mirrors this distance with his style on the film.  He is incredibly distant, only allowing one piece of haunting cello music to enter the soundtrack, and forces us to watch these people at their lowest moment.

Cinematographer Sven Nykvist heightens the way that these people are separated by lighting them in separate planes.  There is always a line of shadow that marks down the empty space between the two faces as any of the characters are speaking.  They are floating in their own worlds, unable to connect with each other except in the brief moments where their tenderness overwhelms their isolation.  Those moments are rare indeed, and Karin continues to spiral out into the hell that her father, in some ways, helped craft for her so that he can get more material for his book.

I'll leave the ultimate conclusion of the film for you to discover, but I cannot end this without commenting on the amazing performances in the film.  Everyone is asked to portray a complex set of emotions that they aren't entirely in control of and, in some cases, do not entirely understand.  Max von Sydow is a rock of understanding and forgiveness, letting us feel the love his character has for Karin at every moment.  Then there's Gunnar Bjornstrand, my favorite amongst Bergman's regulars, maintaining his public composure to observe his daughter even while he is privately breaking down beyond everyone's sight.  The weakest performance comes from Lars Passgard as the brother.  He is too theatrical in his gestures, at times disrupting the careful tone that Bergman has developed.

Anyone willing to exploit their daughter's schizophrenia for writing material will end up as isolated as David.

The film belongs to Harriet Andersson though.  She avoids any self consciously "crazy" mannerisms typical of cinema and allows a scary state of grace to enter her character.  The moment that she begins her descent is a masterful study in how to perform a schizophrenic breakdown.  She leans against the wall, is captivated by the sounds and voices coming from the other side, enters an orgiastic frenzy alone, and exits completely unaware of what she is doing - or completely aware and not needing to worry about it.  This is easily her best performance, and is fraught with so many possible pitfalls that could have produced laughs and instead produce terror. Through A Glass Darkly is not my favorite of Bergman's silence trilogy.

Unfortunately, Bergman ends the film on a note of God being love or love being God.  It's the kind of observation that you hear from young college students coming to grips with their own religious backgrounds and trying to find different ways of expressing those beliefs.  Those same words do not sound as plausible coming from a man that just represented God as a spider descending from the sky. But as cinema, it's hard to get much better than this.  It's stylish without being obviously so, carries a lot of baggage about the purpose of art in a purposeless world, and contains a string of excellent performances.

Next week I'll be looking at Winter Light, a film tied for my absolute Bergman favorite, and the most harrowing of the three in the "Silence" trilogy.  See you all then!

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The Films of Ingmar Bergman

Through A Glass Darkly (1961)

Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman.
Starring Harriet Andersson, Max von Sydow, Gunnar Bjornstrand and Lars Passgard.

Posted by Andrew

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  1. Although I agree with almost everything you said in this review, I have to respectfully disagree with you about Lars Passgard’s performance. I think that the “disruption” that you mentioned was intentional: Minus was largely overlooked in his formative years by his father because of his sister’s mental illness. The theatrics and gesticulations were true to the character — a son who wanted desperately to be loved by his father, or at the very least acknowledged. Indeed, that is what the final frame suggests. I don’t doubt a single thing that Bergman ever did on film, and I think that he paid so much attention to the motives of each character that this absolutely had to be part of the plan.

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