Bergman on the set with cameraman Sven Nyqvist (left)
THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY (Såsom i en spegel) A
Sweden (89 mi) 1961 d: Ingmar Bergman
It’s so horrible to see your own confusion and understand it.
―Karin (Harriet Andersson)
A film that explores the frail hopelessness of the human condition, particularly as society veers away from the help and sustenance of God, as standing on one’s own in the face of a bleak reality can be a cold and isolating existence, cut off from the world around them, as if left on an island, with no shelter from the storm. This frightening reality grows darker and even more intense when viewed through the lens of mental illness, specifically schizophrenia, as one is drawn into real and unreal worlds, unable to distinguish between them, leaving others helpless in their utter futility to rescue those afflicted from their inner demons. Curiously, the film is dedicated to Bergman’s wife, Käbi Larete, a concert pianist who was friends with Bartok and Stravinsky, though it provides one of the most extraordinary performances in any Bergman film, allowing Harriet Andersson (away from working class roles) to literally distinguish herself in ways few had ever seen before, baring her soul for cinema in an unflinching depiction of a mental breakdown, much of it described as it’s happening, offering a window to her soul, allowing viewers to see into the unknowable. At the time, few films touched upon this subject, and fewer still did so with any degree of reflection, like THE THREE FACES OF EVE (1957), where actress Joanne Woodward won an Academy Award for playing a character with a multiple personality disorder, as others accentuated the crude treatment methods, including electro-shock treatments and even lobotomies, as in SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER (1959), an adaptation of a Tennessee Williams play, whose older sister Rose was diagnosed with schizophrenia at a young age, eventually subjected to a lobotomy. In a Bergman film, it’s less reality based and more theatrically constructed, where a dysfunctional family environment contributes to the episodic reaction that slowly unravels before our eyes. The first in the director’s Faith Trilogy that explores the implications of the absence of God, acknowledging human limitations in our ability to see clearly, delving into an existential void of despair, passionate in a preoccupation with deeply personal problems, this is less religious than overtly confessional, where precious secrets are continually revealed, with a family on holiday at a secluded island home, beautifully capturing the long Scandinavian summer days, with radiantly lit close-ups of faces (a predecessor to Persona), adding up to an extremely intimate chamber drama elegantly shot by Sven Nykvist, who he would work with for the rest of his career, the first Bergman film shot on Fårö Island, home to approximately 500 permanent residents, offering a rugged and distinctive landscape in a remote location that would become the setting of future films like Persona (1966), Shame (Skammen) (1968), The Passion of Anna (1969), and SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE (1973), as well as his permanent home for the next forty years (while keeping an apartment in Stockholm until 2003), building an expansive estate on the island (that remains open to artists and scholars after his death, Application – The Bergman Estate on Fårö), offering a sense of peace, inspiration, and freedom.
Winning an Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1962, the film opens to the music of a Bach Sarabande from his Cello Suite No. 2, Pablo Casals - 4. Sarabande from Cello Suite No.2 in D minor, BWV ... (YouTube 4:04), which plays intermittently throughout, as four characters are seen coming out of the sea, like a ritualized baptism, or a sense of renewal that offers a glimpse of hope, in stark contrast to the Dance of Death that it resembles at the end of The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet) (1957). Apparently invigorated from a morning swim in the Baltic Sea, we are quickly introduced to David (Gunnar Björnstrand), a mediocre novelist living with his two children, Karin (Harriet Andersson, taking the director’s mother’s name) and younger brother Minus (Lars Passgård), also including Martin (Max von Sydow), Karin’s husband who is a physician, each one fascinated by Karin’s psychic meltdown (like an accident where one can’t look away), drawn to her, wanting to help, yet each must face their own personal torment when realizing all outpourings of love can’t stop her mental decline. The barren island reflects the emotional sterility of David, a self-absorbed writer who sacrifices a commitment to his children by hiding behind his work, acting as if his career is more important, but really it’s just easier for him to avoid communication with his children, which has major implications. As David and Martin set out the morning fishing nets from a small boat, Martin confesses his increasing desperation with Karin, whose prognosis from a recent confinement in a sanatorium for schizophrenia was not good, fearing he was losing her, that she may be incurable. Karin, however, is alert and vibrant, teasing her younger brother about his raging hormones and growing sense of alienation, especially from his aloof father, feeling they never have a conversation, as he’s always away on some work related assignment, having just returned from Switzerland, yet he’s heading off again for Yugoslavia. What was supposed to be a celebratory dinner honoring his return quickly deteriorates in disappointment. However, the kids liven things up performing a Shakespearean-style costume drama, a story-within-a-story that Minus wrote about sacrificing one’s ambitions for immortality. While it’s cleverly amusing, literally blindfolding their father before the performance, with eye-opening suggestions that he may have fallen short of his ambitions, yet it playfully displays an artistic side of the family, with David feigning approval though he rightfully believes it consciously targets his own self-delusion as a writer. At bedtime, Karin avoids Martin’s tender advances, which appears to be a matter of routine, as Martin’s patient devotion to her is unquestioned, yet she feels closer to her father than her husband, as if her father is in some way connected to the divine. Karin awakes early, drawn to the attic where she hears voices behind the wallpaper, remaining ambiguous whether or not she is actually ill, yet clearly she is affected, claiming her illness makes her hearing more acute, picking up on sounds that others can’t hear. Visiting her father in his study, after a hug he puts her to sleep on the couch, but steals away afterwards with Minus to go fishing, leaving Karin alone, exploring the contents of his desk, where she finds a journal that appears to push her over the edge, as he has written: “Her illness is hopeless, but with occasional periods of lucidity. I have long surmised it, but the certainty nevertheless is insufferable. To my horror I discover my curiosity. The compulsion to register the progress, concisely to note her gradual dissolution. To utilize her.”
Bergman’s trilogy presents a male-dominated world in which women are silent, or forced into submission, viewed as sexual objects, yet routinely ignored otherwise. Part of the problem for Karin, and for women in general, is that they are treated as if they have an affliction and are not listened to, as if there’s an excuse not to take them seriously. Yet this is a breakthrough film, in some regard, as what Karin has to say is infinitely more compelling and heartfelt than anything either adult man offers in this film, yet she’s not even viewed as the lead character, which would be her father David, as the story actually revolves around him and his human shortcomings. In this sense, he is a mirror image of Antonius Block in The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet), as the Crusader’s search for God is as futile as David’s search for artistic perfection. Both are doomed to fail, yet David’s sins are even more egregious as he uses his daughter’s schizophrenia as material for his next book, not only neglecting her in the process, allowing her to be subjected to electro-shock, but contributing to her mental deterioration, as the discovery of his diary destroys what’s left of her mental equilibrium, leaving her utterly devoid of hope. This mirrors Bergman’s own life, feeling the exact same guilt, as he “almost cannibalizes” according to film historian Peter Cowie, those closest to him, literally stripping them bare as fodder for his own films. While David and Martin squabble together on the fishing boat over David’s misappropriation of her suffering, with Martin calling him a coward, they are clueless what’s taking place back on shore, as Karin initially flirts with her brother, catching him with pornography magazines, but then senses a storm is coming, retreating into the safety of a wrecked ship, literally huddling with her brother in fear during a heavy rain storm, with suggestions of incest, as Karin has a tendency to get overly affectionate with her brother, whose innocence is close to an unstained godliness, using him as an outlet for her love. Her heightened fears and hallucinations become the central focus, however, showing rapid mood swings and clear psychological distress, yearning to see the face of God, which becomes a twisted erotic nightmare, emotionally steamrolling her family, leaving them grasping at straws, utterly helpless to stop her descent, intensified by the sound of the helicopter to take her back to the hospital, literally exhausted from the ordeal of straddling two worlds, where the film is unequalled throughout Bergman’s output in terms of dramatic intensity, as it dares to venture into difficult territory that remains largely unexplored by cinema. Years later we witness a towering performance by Gena Rowlands in John Cassavetes’ masterful A Woman Under the Influence (1974), where the family response to silence and sedate what they view as a hysterical woman and then have her sent away is simply devastating. Many Bergman followers found the film shocking, as they didn’t initially understand it, especially how starkly minimalist and severe the subject matter is, yet it’s one of the more beautifully edited and perfectly concise films of his career, packing a punch in just under 90-minutes. While there are brief references to religion underlying the entire film, it’s never the focus until the finale when it takes center stage, prominently featured in an overly pat discussion between father and son trying to make sense of it all, with God (and father) becoming synonymous with the power of love. While this verbal breakthrough is mildly revealing, by giving them the last words, it takes the focus away from Karin and the magnificence of Andersson, as she is the one person we truly care about, drawn to her honesty and the fragility of her weaknesses and vulnerabilities. This is a special treat.