Tuesday, March 13, 2012


There are things in that paper which nobody knows but me, or ever will

“Love is patient and love is kind.” — 1 Corinthians 13:4

“Love is all you need.” — The Beatles

By Kevin J. Olson
Through a Glass Darkly is interesting if for no other reason than Bergman didn’t seem to really care for it all. One could chalk it up to the usual case of the artist’s self-deprecation, but when reading his book Images: My Life in Film you understand that Bergman had a different film in mind before he shot Through a Glass Darkly, and the result — which is certainly one of the most seminal foreign films of the ‘60s — was not to his liking. I think Bergman is too hard on himself and critiquing the movie he had in his head instead of the one he actually filmed. What’s important about this film, aside from helping Americans ingratiate themselves into the foreign film world (along with Fellini and Antonioni), is that it marks a shift in tone for the auteur. With Through a Glass Darkly, Bergman worked out the kinks and used its aesthetic and its themes as a catalyst for what would be the Bergman tableau that everyone recognizes today.

Sparse seems the appropriate way to describe the film — Bergman himself declared the film a “chamber film” with its use of only four actors, minimal sets and essentially no music apart from the occasional chord of Bach’s “Sarabande from Suite No. 2 in D minor” (which is used effectively). Bergman and frequent collaborator Sven Nykvist use the film as a kind of practice round to establish the kind of aesthetic they would become known for, especially in terms of close-ups and two-shots that have an eerie way of simultaneously having the effect the shot is supposed to have but also being able to show the distance between two characters or a character and inner turmoil.

This is a “chamber film” due to its simplicity. It doesn't establish where or even who these characters are; they simply emerge from the waters, hand-in-hand, in the film's opening shot. The characters are a family that consists of Karin (Harriet Andersson), her husband Martin (Max von Sydow), her somewhat estranged father David (Gunnar Bjornstrand) and her brother Minus (Lars Passgard). The family is vacationing somewhere off the Swedish coast, and it is here that I will stop for a moment to recognize the film’s setting. There’s an opaque beauty to the location and sets (the broken-down ship being my favorite set piece). Nykvist always was a master at shooting anything anywhere, but these characters inhabit a real sense of place here. The film’s location actually was Fårö, which would be the setting for future Bergman pictures and, eventually, his home. The austerity of the island — its remoteness — seems an apt place for the director to call home.

Back to the plot: The film's events take place over 24 hours as we learn about Karin in the opening scenes as she walks along the shore with her brother. Karin has been released recently from a mental hospital where we find out that she endured electroshock therapy. While on the island, the family celebrates David’s birthday during his visit before he must run off again. Running off to do other things is somewhat of a habit for David, and we soon learn that he always was distant with Karin and her mother — and apparently Minus, who tells Karin that all he wants is to be able to talk to his father — and that he really is using this time on the island with his mentally unstable daughter to overcome a bad case of writer’s block. Disgusted by this, Martin confronts David who confesses his intention of exploiting his daughter’s illness. One night, Karin hears a distant foghorn and follows it up to the attic. As she stands in the middle of the attic, she begins to hear things that cause her to collapse; it’s the voice of God — and it’s coming from behind the wallpaper. And so it goes for Karin as she slowly devolves before she finally gives up and admits to Martin and her father that she can’t go on living between two realities.

The film has an eerie light to it — most everything happens during daylight adding to this effect — and it reminded me of what Roger Ebert says in his “Great Movies” review where he likens Nykvist’s lighting to being “another character,” and that you could “freeze almost any frame of this film and be looking at a striking still photograph” that mirrors the disconnect and unreliability of what our heroine sees and hears. Even when characters talk in close-up, something still is visible just enough in the background that is canted or split or decaying (my favorite set piece being the ship Karin finds herself retreating to near the end of the film; it’s one of the most perfect set pieces in all of Bergman’s films). It’s a perfect example of how Bergman and Nykvist were masters of stark mise-en-scene; despite its seemingly simplistic aesthetic, there’s something profound in every shot.

Sound is used to great effect in the film: the sound of rocks being walked upon, water breaking against the shore and, most significantly, of the foghorn that beckons Karin to the wallpaper where she begins to wait for something — a god or God — to emerge from the walls. I love the scene where Minus simply looks out at the sea, hears the foghorn and utters, “God.” I think for Bergman, God does seem that distant here; Like the boat, God makes Its presence known in a way that almost mocks the characters, letting them know via foghorn that something exists out there — you just can’t see it snd it won't intervene. Multiple sounds such as that echo in the film, and that’s one of the things that always affects me most about Bergman’s films: his attention to silence accentuates even the most mundane sounds so they become haunting.

The aesthetic and its sparseness is a bit showy (there’s a reason why the sometimes super-serious Bergman is so easy for people to riff on), but I’ve always loved Bergman for that. In no way does he shy away from big ideas and his aesthete aims. In today’s cinema, it would be hard to get a film such as this made without the filmmaker being tempted to at least let a little bit of irony seep in (but, hey, that's postmodernism for ya, and I think that's part of the reason why so many people are uncomfortable with a film such as The Tree of Life because of Malick's super-serious pretensions). Sure, the final set piece in the decaying ship is showy, on-the-nose and pretentious. But so what? What’s wrong with being overtly arty? It’s a beautiful metaphor for Karin’s own dug-out and decaying psyche, and I think in today’s cinema the crucial mistake that would get made — and the reason people would jump all over its pretentiousness — would be that too much attention would be given to the metaphor and not enough to the subjects. Here, the ship works perfectly because we’re invested in Karin as Andersson is just absolutely brilliant in the final moments of this film as she confronts her father about their relationship and how it’s been affected by her illness.

Through a Glass Darkly would retroactively be a part of a trilogy that included The Silence and Winter Light. What would become known as the “faith trilogy” set the tone for what would be Bergman’s darkest decade and his increasingly harsh explorations into spiritual wrestling. Bergman himself declared the film’s part of a trilogy only after he saw similar themes running through the films: "These three films deal with reduction. Through a Glass Darkly — conquered certainty. Winter Light — penetrated certainty. The Silence — God's silence — the negative imprint. Therefore, they constitute a trilogy." The ‘60s are the decade of Bergman's work I appreciate most, perhaps because this period if Bergman’s films often reflect my own uncertainties surrounding religion. Not everyone loves Through a Glass Darkly the same way they revere other Bergman films. I think that Bergman's own quote explains why as the movie's ending displeased himh — a kind of trite addendum that too neatly explained things, but I think in the light of how Bergman describes the “trilogy” above, Through a Glass Darkly still holds a tremendous amount of truth and power. Sure, “conquering” certainty isn’t nearly as interesting a thesis as penetrating it or looking at it though a nihilistic lens (I suppose that’s the juicier stuff), but I think love is a pretty interesting theme, and I like the biblical approach Bergman takes at trying to understand love.

Bergman felt uneasy about the film, even when it was released, as he felt it let viewers off a little too easily:
Through a Glass Darkly was a desperate attempt to present a simple philosophy: God is love and love is God…So here we started with a falsehood (on the part of the filmmaker), largely unconscious, but a falsehood nevertheless. In a weird way, the film floats a couple of inches above the ground. But falsehood is one thing; the weaving of illusions is another.”

His initial plans for the film were really to focus the lens on schizophrenia, specifically how schizophrenia affects someone with religious tendencies. The film's working title was The Wallpaper, suggesting that perhaps Bergman was going for more of a Charlotte Perkins Gillman feel for the film. In his notes on the film, Bergman states, “Karin wants Martin, her husband, to worship the god; otherwise the god might turn dangerous. She tries to force Martin to do so. He finally gets David to help him give her an injection. Then she disappears into her world behind the wallpaper.” Bergman later goes on to describe that he wanted the film to be more about Karin pulling Martin into her descent in order for him to understand the god behind the wallpaper better. Martin is a character who needs the tangible to understand, and so Karin’s schizophrenic downfall is a lonely one because Martin’s attempts to understand what she sees and hears and feels are in vain. The tone of these notes is eerier than the tone the film produces; however, that’s not the product on the screen, and I think what Bergman did put on there is profound and moving, and somewhat eerie, too.

I didn’t find anything false about the theme, no matter how simplistic it may be, of love. Bergman brilliantly juxtaposes the mission of modernity (there is a moment where, prior to David and Martin setting out to fish in the cold, they say, “if it’s good enough for Hemingway…”) with the mission of love. For David and Martin, confronting and dealing with Karin's schizophrenia requires an unending kind of love; the kind of love Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians (the book of the Bible from which the film gets its title), and completely flies in the face of the modernist “go get what’s yours” mentality. David, as the struggling writer, seems at first OK with the exploiting his mentally ill daughter in hopes of finding some material for his latest bout with writer's block. This theme appealed most to Bergman. He himself states that he sees himself — the artist, the filmmaker, the writer — in these scenes, and it is not surprising when one looks at the film now to see Bergman so nakedly explicate this territory on screen; however, Bergman didn’t see the performance of David by Bjornstrand as something representative of himself. Bergman says, “The character of David […] became a problem. In him, two forms of unconscious lying came together: my own and actor Bjornstrand’s. Our combined efforts created a dreadful stew.” Bergman didn’t like the way Bjornstrand portrayed David (Bjornstrand himself recently had converted to Catholicism) and thought the performance was “poorly played” while Bjornstrand thought that his interpretation of the character was “splendid.” The truth is I don’t remember much of Bjornstrand’s performance because Andersson is so damn good here she trumps everyone else in the film. Andersson's portrayal of Karin seems to be the only thing, according to his notes, about the film that pleased Bergman. His notes on the film and its handling of Karin: “Don’t sentimentalize Karin’s illness. Show it in all its ghastly glory.” Because of Andersson’s performance and what she goes through, I buy the film as having something more to it than merely being the "safe" film with the toothless ending that Bergman thought he made.

By the end of the film, David somewhat atones for his sins of misapplied love as he assures his son — after Karin has been helicoptered off the island back to the mental hospital — that the reality they live in is different than the one Karin does; and yet, they can help her — cure her in their own way — by loving her. As the apostle Paul writes:
"Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. 2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing. 4 Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; 5 does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; 6 does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; 7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part. 10 But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known. 13 And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love."

It seems to me that that is why, even 50 years later, Bergman’s film still holds up. It doesn’t move me the same way that Winter Light or The Silence moves me, but it’s an important film nonetheless because it marks a clear shift in Bergman’s tone; a shift toward the Bergman who wrestles with polarities: the darkly nihilistic and the light of grace — the kind of love — that saves.

So, yes, I don’t quite understand Bergman’s distaste with the ending. Sure, it may seem a little trite to some in how it so cleanly mitigates the problems the characters go through but, like the title of the film suggests — and what many Greek scholars talk about when they talk about Paul’s famous letter to the Corinthians — love, or better to understand God vis-à-vis love, is a riddle; there isn’t an easy answer just as one cannot look clearly through a murky mirror or dark glass. And so I like the dual endings presented in the film because it allows for the viewer to explicate those murky waters: is Karin, and our interpretation of God is love, “safe” because she’s surrounded by the people that love her most making it easy to better understand the pain she goes through, or do we understand God to be a passive one that allows for Karin to be haunted by some kind of demiurge shaped like a spider that will continue to emerge from walls, crawl up her body and possess and haunt her mind?

Just as easily as one could say, “God is love” so too could someone say, “God is not love” because it refuses to act on Karin’s behalf. That’s why, yes, even though the ending may seem sugary-sweet and wrapped up a little too neatly compared to how Bergman would fine-tune these ideas in better films such as Winter Light and The Silence, the film packs a punch because it leaves the viewer looking through the glass from all angles, trying their hardest to spy God and any kind of answer that helps make sense of the madness that surrounds us on a daily basis. Through the wrestling with these religious and existential quandaries that we learn the most (I firmly believe this, and it’s why I respond so strongly to Bergman’s ‘60s output). Through a Glass Darkly may contain an ending that seems too neat and tidy for some, but it’s an important film because it marks the beginning of the auteur's most inspired run of films. Looking back on it after a recent viewing, I understand even more clearly why the film still holds a special place for me: that ending gets me thinking and wrestling with the question of whether or not is as simple as just “love.” I believe it is.

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Well, Kevin, Bergman was indeed very hard on himself, as he was on others. He had no use for Fellini, DeSica, Renoir, Godard, Welles,and numoerous others, and he was always second-guessing his own work all the way till the end of his career. THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY is a masterpiece like the other two 'Faith Trilogy' films, and I fluctuate regularly as to which one I like best. As of late I have been favoring DARKLY, though over the last ten years or so it has been fashionable to elevate THE SILENCE to the top spot. DARKLY's two main themes are typically the significance of God and the meaning of life. The film is intence, complex and exceedingly depressing but it's artistically negotiated by Sven Nykvist's chillingly bleak landscapes and electrifying performances from the Bergman repetory company, particularly Gunner Bjornstrand as the novelist father and Harriet Andersson as his schizophrenic daughter who declines into madness after believing that God has revealed himself to her.

Last June I attended a most intrigued stage play in Manhattan that starred Cary Mulligan and was titled and developed after Bergman's film. Here's what I said about it, noting in the end it could never for a number of vital reasons match Bergman's cinematic masterwork:

"The 90 minute drama featured celebrated British actress Carey Mulligan (as Karin) Chris Sarandon, Jason Butler Harner and impressive newcomer Ben Rosenfield in extraordinary form. This claustrophobic work, adapted by Jenny Worton from the first part of Bergman’s early 60′s “Faith Trilogy”adaptation of the Swedish auteur’s 1961 film Through a Glass Darkly – a dark, psychological exploration of madness and artistic creation by the sea. The theatre has never succeeded in capturing escalating madness as well as the cinema, which has at it’s disposal the use of the close up, visceral editing, and the orchestration of sound and visual elements which can’t quite be replicated on the stage. The play, faithful to the film’s story arc, depicts Karin’s return to her family’s Swedish island home after a stay in a mental institution. She’s joined there by her slightly older physician husband Martin, her hack novelist father David, and her brother Max, a lonely soul who’s taken up playwriting in an effort to emulate his father’s creative efforts. As the family’s old resentments resurface and Karin’s father reveals the extent of his cold creative impetuses, Karin’s madness worsens until it reaches its breaking point. Mulligan is raw and riveting in trying to emulate the great Harriet Andersson, and within the form’s limitations is often electrifing. Ben Rosenfield nearly matches her as Max in a portrayal of stark intimacy. Two major contributions come from set designer Takeshi Kata and lighting supervisor David Weiner, but the spare music from David Van Tieghem gives the film some added emotion. David Leveaux’s direction tries to isolate the intense dramatics, but there’s a cold and distancing quality to the adaptation that makes it only intermitantly effective. Basically Through A Glass Darkly is a series of vignettes based the film that recapture much of the wrenching emotionalism, but only a hint of the film’s explosive power."

Anyway, this is truly one of your greatest posts Kevin, and if I might say so one of your most towering subjects. Your writing and analysis are exceptional.
I wishI could still attend NY theater. I would love to see how Carey Mulligan is on stage.
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