DVD Review Of Through A Glass Darkly

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/8/07


  Ingmar Bergman’s 1961 film, Through A Glass Darkly (Såsom i en spegel), is not one of his best films, although it is one of his most lauded, winning an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. That said, it’s quite a good film that simply has not held up that well over the years as a de facto Chekhovian drama- partly due to the melodramatic acting of its lead character, Karin (Harriet Andersson), but more importantly because its handling of psychology and religion seems quite dated, in light of what we now know about mental illnesses and the structure of the brain.

  The film follows Karin, her doctor husband Martin (Max Von Sydow), father David (Gunnar Björnstrand), and seventeen year old brother Minus (Lars Passgård) at a vacation home on Fårö island. She suffers from an unnamed mental illness, although it is likely schizophrenia, and hears voices where there are none. Through the course of the film we get revelations about the family, such as a blatantly incestuous relationship between Karin and Minus, which has reduced the brother, a budding playwright, to a sexual cipher, enthralled by his sister’s beauty, and mere thrall to her sexual advances and seductions. She constantly cockteases him with her sexuality, reducing him to a sniveling masturbatory voyeur of pornographic magazines. Later, when she has one of her breakdowns in a wrecked boat on the shore, she seduces her brother into full blown sex that both of them later do not speak of, yet which her father and husband cannot not be aware of, on some level. Interestingly, in researching the criticism of this film, I found almost no references to what has to be one of the most blatant depictions of incest ever filmed, or at least certainly to that time. How this could have been missed, or ignored on purpose, and a critical opinion of the film still formed, is beyond me.

  Karin’s relationship with her father, a famed novelist, while not as openly perverse as that with her brother, also hints at abuse- albeit mostly in a psychological vein. We learn that Karin’s mother also died of mental illness, and David then shut his children out of his life, for that was the time he gained renown. He was away on book tours for long stretches, and apparently this helped lead to the perversities between brother and sister, who clung to each other, both nursing resentments for their father’s abandonments. We also sense that Minus is a closeted homosexual, through his fey manners, slavish devotion to the feminine, and abject fear of his father’s presence and rejection. David seems to realize this in his son, but seems to be oblivious to his children’s sexual relationship. He is too wound up in his own angst and tells Karin’s husband, Martin, of a suicide attempt he made in Switzerland.

  Martin also seems oblivious to the incest under his nose, and seems to be the only functionally psychologically normal person of the four. Yet, he is well aware of his father-in-law’s flaws, rebuking him and his art as insincere, stating, ‘Your faith and doubt carry no weight. All that is apparent is your ingenuity.’ He is loving and supportive toward Karin, though, but also cannot help her. After Karin discovers that her father is studying her mental illness, as if she was a lab rat, for use in his novel, her decline accelerates, leading to the seduction of Minus, and her break from reality, where she declares God exists in the peeling wallpaper of their cottage. She must be restrained and sedated by the others, after declaring she was violated by God as a spider, possibly hinting at her father as a sexual violator of her, as well. She states, ‘The door opened, but the God was a spider. He came up to me and I saw his face. It was a terrible, stony face. He scrambled up and tried to penetrate me, but I defended myself. All along I saw his eyes. They were cold and calm. When he couldn’t penetrate me, he continued up my chest, up into my face and onto the wall. I have seen God.’

  The ending, where a helicopter ambulance flies in to return her to the asylum she was recently released from, is weak. After Karin and Martin leave, with Karin having chosen her arachnoid God of delusions over the reality of her loving husband, whom she is frigid to, David stands with Minus by an open window, their faces shadowed. Minus laments his loss of faith in religion. He asks his father for a proof of God. His father banally says that he thinks God must exist for God is love, and they all love Karin. David somberly agrees, and the film ends with Minus joyed and amazed that his father actually spoke to him. To say that there’s a bit to much melodramatic preciousness and hollow falseness to an ending like that would be redundant, but the film has others flaws that prevent it from greatness, such as Harriet Andersson’s hammy overacting. Almost universally praised as a tour de force, at the time, anyone who has ever known true schizoids understands that such depth and nobility as portrayed is wholly a dramatic creation (the mentally ill as martyr), far more in line with some of the symbolism that this first of a trilogy of chamber dramas on God, called The Spider Trilogy (also including Winter Light and The Silence), was supposed to be a turn away from.

  As for the rest of the film? The cinematography by Sven Nykvist, as usual, makes grand use of the black and white shadings of character and landscape, and the Bach cello music is understated and powerful, used sparingly to great effect. The film is dedicated to Bergman’s fourth, and then current, wife, Kabi Laretei, about whom he stated, in relation to this film, ‘Between the two of us, we had developed a complicated, staged relationship. We were confused and at the same time exceptionally successful. We were also enormously fond of each other. We spoke about everything that occurred to us, but in reality we had no common language.’ What this says about the film is debatable, but how it affected the film is undeniable- this is NOT a realist drama, but rather a symbolist drama, every bit as much as Bergman’s earlier works. The symbolism was merely more muted, and thus reminds one of an emotionally sedated Tennessee Williams play.

  The DVD lacks a commentary, as it is part of The Spider Trilogy of The Criterion Collection, and comes with a fourth disk that has an Ingmar Bergman documentary on the making of Winter Light. This DVD does come with a brief commentary on the film by Bergman expert Peter Cowie. It also has the original American trailer and, thankfully, is dubbed into English, as all three films of the trilogy are. It also comes in Swedish with optional English subtitles. The only slightly jarring thing is listening to the high, almost fey voice of the actor doing Max Von Sydow’s Martin. Anyone used to Von Sydow’s deep resonant basso profundo will find it slightly amusing.

  That said, while Bergmaniacs may declare this film, and its trilogy mates, as being sine qua non Bergman, and it may be, that does not deny the fact that this film is also middle of the road Bergman, not as bad as some of his lesser screenplays (Cries And Whispers, The Serpent’s Egg), but nowhere near his greatest works (Wild Strawberries, Shame). The title, which comes from the Bible, 1 Corinthians 13:12: ‘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,’ bespeaks the melodrama that drenches this film. But, what is most truly known about Through A Glass Darkly is that it represents a phase in an artist’s career and the culture of psychology far better than reality. Yet, given that truth, how many ever choose such realities anyway?

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Unspoken Cinema website.]

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