Before watching Through a Glass Darkly again last week for the first time in several years, my memories of the film were justifiably dominated by Harriet Andersson's gutsy, visceral portrayal of a young woman's decline into paranoid schizophrenia with a twist of religious delusions of grandeur for added flavor. Hers is the most vivid face associated with the film, and the scenes of her breakdowns remain as harrowing and unsettling after multiple viewings as they were the first time I saw them. Even after subsequent decades marked by eventual loosening up of cinematic boundaries in depicting the extremities of human behavior, Andersson's ability to fearlessly draw from somewhere deep in her own experience in expressing Karin's erotically-charged dissociation from consensual reality still impacts me as one of the most powerful depictions of a mind coming unhinged that I've ever seen. And as someone who's worked in the field of mental health treatment in a secure residential setting for over 20 years, I've personally witnessed enough of these psychic meltdowns in young women and men to vouch for the authenticity of what I hestitatingly call her "performance."
But without at all diminishing the emotional impact of what we see Karin endure over the course of the film (and I'll come back to that later in this essay,) what impresses me the most about Through a Glass Darkly this time through is Ingmar Bergman's brilliance in crafting the other characters, three men who serve as our witnesses and vicarious interpreters of Karin's madness by virtue of their unique relationships to her. Karin's father David (Gunnar Bjornstrand), husband Martin (Max von Sydow) and brother Minus (Lars Passgard) each register respective shades of horror, sorrow, pity and awe at what they see happening in and through her. The harsh glare cast by the eruption of her mental illness casts light on some unflattering aspects of their own character, obliterating the facades of denial and self-absorption that had begun to harden around them. As severe and disruptive as Karin's psychic emergency turns out to be, there's a form of mercy and redemption made possible by the crisis for each of them to hold on to at the film's end, though we have no way of knowing what they did in response to that opportunity after the screen faded to black.
But I write with the assumption that a reader is already familiar with Through a Glass Darkly's events. For those who haven't seen it, or need a refresher, let me provide a brief recap. The film opens with an impressive but somber montage of placid waters and vast, unmarked horizons, accompanied by the sonorous gravity of a solo cellist. Bodies of four swimmers emerge like phantoms from the undifferentiated grey, lifting our mood momentarily with the sound of their cheerful laughter. The family mentioned above is spending a few days at their cottage on the ocean during the brief but cherished summer enjoyed by Swedes in that high northern latitude. The occasion is especially happy because it's a reunion of sorts, with David returning to see his offspring for the first time in a few months after traveling and teaching abroad in Switzerland.
The pleasantries and banter that typically occur on such occasions provide a plausible but ultimately rather thin cover for the deeper disquiet lurking beneath the comfortable reenactment of family traditions. An outdoor dinner at sunset, a cleverly rehearsed skit put on for David's amusement, the returning father's bestowal of gifts, all seem innocuous enough on the surface, but each event serves as a catalyst to reveal small pains, sorrows, regrets that have been accumulating with insufficient release. And looming even more ominously, too large to ignore, is the recent worsening of Karin's "illness," an inconvenient, dreadful elevation of her sensitivities that has her husband worried, her brother frightened and confused... and her father peering in on her condition with morbid fascination, as he coldly analyzes the deterioration of her mind, regarding it as a source for unique new material that will inform the novel he's currently working on.
Each of the three men hover like moths around the flame of Karin's immolation, her decay prompting them to wrestle with existential questions germane to their particular stages of development. David is the fully mature adult, just on the brink of old age, a widower who's sublimated his grief and alienation as fuel for his artistic career and the worldly honors that creative talent bestows upon him. His clinicial detachment from the emotional turmoil so common among ordinary humans allows him to overcome his instinctive revulsion and calmly exploit his daughter's condition and simultaneously avoid feeling the pain that his failure as a parent might otherwise generate.
Martin is the virile but sexually frustrated man in his prime, striving to be a faithful husband but thwarted by his wife's illness and what seems to be a barely suppressed and growing contempt that she feels for him, even though she masks it fairly convincingly behind kind words and courtesies. He's torn between giving up on their failing relationship and taking pity on her as a substitute for genuine love. Her undeniable dependency (if not on him, then on someone stronger and more psychologically intact than herself) has persuaded him to stay by her side for now, but is that a sustainable arrangement for the long term? Is he basically just waiting for her to become incapacitated or die before he can finally move on to something more fulfilling? Does he even dare to plainly ask himself such questions, or contemplate the answers he might give?
Finally, there's little brother Minus, seventeen years old, going through a serious growth spurt and grossly out of balance in its aftermath. Still immature, he expresses his loathing and disgust toward women in general, a reaction to Karin's intrusive and incestuously creepy doting upon him, while at the same time he's fascinated by a beat-up girly magazine featuring nude models, its pages creased and worn after passing through many a furtive hand. Stranded and alone on this nearly barren island with his bizarre sister, her indifferent husband and a recalcitrant father around whom he has too much unchecked baggage to feel relaxed, Minus has nowhere to turn for an outlet. He's further burdened by Karin's intent to make him her confidante, a keeper of secrets that she declines to share with the older men. Is Karin's request of Minus a signifier of her trust, respect and admiration, or a crass and dangerous manipulation that puts them all at risk? His tense stares and the palpable lumps in his throat that afflict him at various points in Through a Glass Darkly indicate his inability to determine exactly what it is that's going on around him.
For most viewers, it won't be nearly so difficult to keep track of significant movements and moments that occur with this very small company. But a helpful interpretive key that sheds light on the entire scenario is Bergman's Shakespearean homage, the play within a play scripted by Minus, starring himself, his sister and brother-in-law, with only their Papa as the intended audience. The timing of its delivery couldn't have been more poignant, as it immediately follows David's first crisis of conscience as the depth of his callousness finally crashes in on him. Major themes of the film are all present in this little one act sideshow, titled The Artistic Haunting, or The Tomb of Illusion. Even though it's most readily understood as a precocious teenager's rebuke to his neglectful father, who's sacrificed his familial duties for the sake of his selfish ambitions, it also strikes notes involving sex, suicide, insanity, spiritual uncertainty and visionary experience, all of which are key elements to the challenges about to be faced by the family. Even the disturbing intimations of incest that occur later in an isolated moment between Karin and Minus are foreshadowed by her too-fond lingering gaze at him in the midst of their supposedly comical role play.
With its portentous dialogue, stark but luminous cinematography and ambitions of profundity, Through a Glass Darkly might reasonably be regarded as the most prototypical example of how "a Bergman film" is commonly thought of nowadays. More bereft of humor than The Seventh Seal, lacking the curmudgeonly road movie charms of Wild Strawberries or the mythic-historic grandeur of The Virgin Spring, and with a cast more whittled down to a bare minimum than any other film he ever made, it's the definition of "chamber drama." And by introducing Bergman, and subsequently the rest of his faithful viewing audience, to the rugged isolation and allure of Faro Island, where it was filmed, Through a Glass Darkly stands as a pivotal marker in Bergman's oeuvre. At the time it was released, there was no talk of it being the first part of The Trilogy, and even though we still think of it that way, the claim remains disputable on the basis of Bergman's own second guessing of himself later on in life.
What is indisputable is that Through a Glass Darkly still retains its power and status as a defining masterpiece of its era. The look, the feel, the aura it casts and its sincere willingness to maintain the somber tone from start to finish, with no winks of levity or self-deprecation, are (to me anyway) quite refreshing, small treasures to be cherished at face value, even though the potentials for parody are still so readily apparent. It's a cliche to say it, but this is the kind of film it would be nearly impossible to make nowadays, and since it was executed so perfectly and still exists quite handily, there's no need to do that. What we have in Through a Glass Darkly is a triumphant inauguration of the latter half of Bergman's illustrious career, a benchmark in the evolution of art house cinema culture and a wondrous time capsule of an time when a dour conflicted genius and his dedicated company of actors and film technicians could crank out a film that casts God in the role of a rapist spider over the course of a few weeks in a fleeting Nordic summer, win an Oscar for Best Foreign Picture and thrust themselves into the pseudo-sophisticated bourgeois cocktail party chatter of entire continents. We may never see the like of it again.