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Through a Glass Darkly (1961)

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Through a Glass Darkly (1961), is Ingmar Bergman's first entry in his Silence of God Trilogy.  It was followed by Winter Light (1962) and The Silence (1963).  Although shrouded in ambiguity and unanswered questions, Through a Glass Darkly is, aesthetically, a simple film.  There are only four characters, played by the familiar Bergman troupe.  Sven Nykvist's photography is stark and portrait-like.  The sets are Spartan.  The film takes place on a secluded Swedish island.


Karin (Harriet Andersson), has returned home to her family after a stint at a mental facility.  She's sexually shut off from her husband Martin, a caring doctor, played by Max von Sydow.  Her careerist father, David (Gunnar Bjornstrand), is a successful novelist.  Husband and father, both secularists,  privately talk that Karin's schizophrenia may be incurable.  Karin is closest to her brother Minus (Lars Passgard), a budding playwright who looks at pin-up magazines, as if to awaken a desire for the opposite sex that isn't there.  A scene in which Minus and Karin embrace before an incoming storm hints at incest.  But Bergman won't say for sure.


Early in the film, Karin and Minus stage a pretentious play that pokes fun at the pomposity of the artist (a theme of Bergman in 1953's Sawdust ant Tinsel).  For their father, guilty over his commercial success and time away from his children, this dig hits close to home.  The play is notable for a line Minus delivers: "Oblivion will own me. Death alone shall love me".  


Karin's quest for normality crashes upon learning her father is planning to use her illness as material for a book.  It is not long before Karin starts hearing voices , which she is certain are coming from a soon to appear God.  And Karin's histrionics,  in one scene,  suggest God has ignited her erotic desires.  When the divine revelation happens, it is in the form of a spider, which Karin describes as having a face, with red eyes, and attempting to penetrate her.  Whatever Karin sees - a spider, the helicopter outside her window to transport her back to the mental hospital - it frightens her terribly.  Karin's breakdown is heartbreaking.


Conveyed by Harriet Andersson, with her sensuous mouth and doe eyes, we feel Karin's pain, loneliness, and disappointment.  Andersson's performance anchors the film.  She's beatific and saintly in that fleeting moment she has, in her mind, found God.  We can only imagine what awaits her at the mental hospital.  Mental illness is not easy to portray.  That Andersson's performance is so moving, and noble, without becoming cloying or self-conscious, is testament to her greatness as an actress. 


The film's bleakness is  relieved somewhat when David tells Minus he hopes their love for Karin may bring her comfort during her dark days at the asylum.  A love and comfort,  Bergman is saying,  that an indifferent God cannot or will not give.  I keep thinking of what Minus said about Death.  For Bergman, God and Death are seemingly one and the same.  Both are absolute, unknowable, and cold.

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