I’ve been told all my life how good Ingmar Bergman movies are. It’s practically a joke; no, it’s more than that, his movies were of such a quality that it was expected jokes about Bergman movies would be understood. I don’t think that, culturally, this is quite so true, anymore.
But that’s beside the point. I’ve just watched Through A Glass Darkly and I am blown away all over again.
This is the first movie of a film trilogy which is apparently called, with admirable economy, The Ingmar Bergman Film Trilogy, consisting of this, Winter Light and The Silence. With my usual ass-backwards methodology, I watched Winter Light a year ago, because I was still in the honeymoon phase of my man-crush on Gunnar Björnstrand from The Seventh Seal, and I couldn’t resist the idea of watching him play a priest who had lost his faith. Was this an error? Have I sacrificed an arc that runs through this trilogy? I have no idea, I haven’t watched The Silence yet.
Speaking of admirable economy, Through A Glass Darkly eschews the larger population of most of Bergman’s other films, and rests its story on only four characters: David, a writer (Björnstrand), his adult daughter, Karin (Harriet Andersson) and teenage son, Minus (Lars Passgård), and Karin’s husband, Martin (Max von Sydow). All four are having a bit of a holiday in an old, isolated farmhouse on the coast.
From a very simple beginning, things begins to complexify: David is a very remote father, frequently traveling, ostensibly for his novels, and there is a fair amount of resentment that he’s about to set out again. Minus wishes only that he could speak with his father, but the few opportunities that present themselves fall into the typical, stilted, jokey conversations that any boy growing into manhood will find only too familiar. Martin is a medical doctor, which is a good thing because what will hang over the entire movie is Karin’s “illness”, often alluded to, never named.
Karin is schizophrenic. She has just returned from a lengthy stay in a hospital; she refers lightly to electro-shock therapy. While David and Martin are alone, Martin confides to her father that Karin’s situation is incurable; a cure is not totally unheard of, but the best he can hope for is longer stretches of normalcy between episodes. At the beginning of one such episode, Karin finds and reads her father’s diary. In the honesty writers practice with themselves, by themselves, David talks about her incurable state and his temptation – which he rightly feels is horrific – to write about her condition and deterioration.
The attempt to function as a normal family under this stress is heartbreaking. During a boat trip to get supplies, the two men have it out in civil discourse. Martin feels David has failed as a father, and David agrees – he also admits to a suicide attempt just prior to returning to his family, which failed only because the car he was driving seized up inches from a precipice. This incident has driven him back to Karin and Minus, his love for them now drawn in sharp relief, even if it is a love he has no idea how to demonstrate.
While they are gone, Karin has another episode, and in the lucidity that follows, reconciles with her father somewhat and decides that she should now return to the hospital forever, tired of pretending or even hoping that normalcy is a possibility. “You can’t live in two worlds. You have to choose one.” But the worst is yet to come, and every man in her family can only witness helplessly her madness.
It takes true master storytellers to relate a compelling story that consists largely of people talking in rooms, and Bergman certainly qualifies. Each of the men is excellent in their roles, but there is no doubt that this movie belongs to Harriet Andersson, with her stunning portrayal of Karin. She plays out the entirety of human emotion in her performance, and her schizophrenic episodes, never overplayed, have the terrible ring of truth. The fact that she not only holds her own against von Sydow and Björnstrand, but carries the whole picture with their able support, cannot be overstated.
Additional praise must be given for cinematographer Sven Nykvist, in his second outing with Bergman. The black and white palette of Glass is incredibly varied, and the austere landscape and textures of the farmhouse and other settings are so precise, so gorgeously detailed, it is as if Ansel Adams had decided to take up a movie camera, it is that astonishing. I am told that Bergman was truly impressed by Nykvist’s outdoor photography on The Virgin Spring; I’m scheduled to watch that later in the year, I’ll let you know.
To hear me talk about it, one would think that Through A Glass Darkly is depressing – it’s not. It’s frequently harrowing, but as the movie ends – simply, with no Fin or end credits – the feeling is one of exhilaration. The exhilaration that comes of spending an hour and a half in a room with people who are very good at their jobs, and being privileged to see that work.