“Through a Glass Darkly” - Ingmar Bergman (1961)

Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly (1961) ostensibly concerns the descent into madness of a young woman and how it affects the three people closest to her. But underneath that storyline, the film presents a dramatic exploration of a philosophically profound issue – how we all construct a meaningful understanding of the world from the complexities of human experience. A clue to the film’s deeper meaning lies in its title, which is drawn from a passage in the Bible (1 Corinthians 13), in which it is stated that our ability to see the true essence of the world (i.e. God) is obscured as if we were looking “though a glass, darkly.” The film was the first installment of what later came to be known as Berman’s “Trilogy of Faith”, with the succeeding elements being Winter Light (1963) and The Silence (1963).  So naturally the role that God plays in our understanding of the world is also at issue in this film.

The action, which takes place roughly over a twenty-four hour period, is set entirely on Fårö island off Sweden, where Bergman lived and situated four other of his films, and there are only four characters seen on camera:

  • Karin (Harriet Andersson) a young woman who has recently been subjected to electroconvulsive shock therapy to treat her deteriorating mental condition;
  • David (Gunnar Björnstrand), Karin’s widowered  father, who has recently returned from a long stay in Switzerland;
  • Martin (Max von Sydow), Karin’s husband, who is a medical doctor; and
  • Minus (Lars Passgård), Karin’s teenage brother and the son of Martin

With this kind of ensemble theater/cinema on display, where everything depends on the actors creating a meaningful set of interactions between them, one might expect that the director would seek dramatic spontaneity and allow his actors free rein to engage in extemporaneous gestures and movements.  But such an approach is far from what we see here. Every single shot and movement has been carefully composed, dramatically lit, and meticulously choreographed by Bergman and his cinematographer, Sven Nyquist. And yet the acting comes off as entirely natural and realistic. This is particularly the case with Harriet Anderson, whose performance as Karin is magnetic and a key to the film’s success.

Incidentally, while watching Through a Glass Darkly I felt it had a strange affinity with Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly (2009).  So it was interesting for me to learn that Farhadi regards Bergman as his all-time favorite filmmaker [1].

The story of Through a Glass Darkly is centered around Karin’s mental condition and the way her other family members respond to it and try to help her.  Because there are only four personae, the film turns out to be something of a character examination of all four people.

At the opening we see the four people are enjoying a holiday on the island.  And this first segment introduces the characters and presents some basic relationships. David is a writer working on completing a novel.  Martin is a doctor who is concerned with his wife’s mental illness. Minus, who is about seventeen years of age, has awkward relationships with his sister (who is beautiful and too uncomfortably sensuous for his emerging hormones) and his father (who is thought to be “remote” and overly focused on his writing). 

In private, Martin informs David about Karin’s schizophrenia, which is thought likely to be incurable. After dinner, Karin and Minus then perform a theatrical sketch written by Minus to welcome the return of their father, who despite his courteous response, is evidently appropriately offended by the play’s insinuations about the egocentricity of writers and artists. That evening in their bedroom, Martin lovingly pets Karin and then tries to conceal his disappointment when she spurns the gestures and informs him that her illness has quelled her physical desire. 

From this opening segment of about 25 minutes, we get a layout of the characters around Karin.  David is a scientific rationalist and devoted to doing his moral duty.  As the story continues, he is shown to be judicious and moral from an objectivist standpoint [2]. David, the writer, is more reflective and introspective.  He tends to follow his “inner flame”, which leads him to be more selfish than Martin, but as the story unwinds, we also see that his practice of authorial empathy enables him to see a wider perspective.  Minus, the ingenue, is looking to find his own path. 

In the next segment of the film, we are confronted with Karin’s mental situation.  During the night, she is awakened by some bird callings, and goes upstairs to the attic of the little cottage that they are all staying in. There in the vacant room she hears strange voices and sees mysterious lights behind the wallpaper on the walls.  She is having one of her mental episodes, and we viewers must try to make sense of what she sees.  We could, of course, just dismiss her as being “mad”, but that is certainly not the point in this story.  And to elaborate a bit, I will digress for a moment and discuss this general issue of madness.

We all attempt to build workable mental models out of the complex interactions we have with the world, and our models need to be constantly updated in the face of new experiences that don’t conform to our expectations. These models are so basic that we take them for granted. For instance, suppose I see a figure (for example, you) at 9:00:00 pm and then turn my back for a few seconds. When I turn back again at 9:00:10 pm and face that same figure, I take it to be the same agent I had just seen – you again. And when I hear sounds coming from the direction of that figure, I take it to be the voice of that agent (you). We have all become accustomed since our earliest days to putting these things together into coherent models. Of course, we can sometimes be fooled, by ventriloquists for example, but usually our hypothetical models of the things we interact with make sense for us. As we accumulate myriads of experiences, our models require some simplifications, so we construct narratives. I don’t remember every little thing that I saw yesterday, just those things that I assembled into the narratives that I mentally constructed along the way. And sometimes, when there are missing elements in the narrative, I imagine certain events that I think must have taken place in order for the narrative to make sense. Thus I “fill in the blanks” of my narratives where necessary in order to preserve coherency.  We do this all the time when we watch a film, too, filling in the blanks when an editorial cut is made to a new shot or scene.  And all our little mini-models and narratives must fit together into a coherent whole.

Traditionally for many people, new “unexplainable” experiences that couldn’t easily be melded into their models by filling in the blanks in a straightforward way were either ignored or attributed to gods and demons.  For modern rationalists, though, there is a tendency to allay doubts about what we currently don’t understand (inevitably there are always things we don’t fully understand) and to put our faith in reason and science, rather than in a god, as ultimately eventually providing an answer.  But in whatever society one lives in, the individual models of the world tend to be shared and to conform with each other. Thus when I say something in accordance with my models of the world, you interpret what I say in terms of your models of the world, and it usually makes sense.  But not for everyone. 

Some people, those who are often diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia, have fragmented and disjointed models of the world that don’t collectively add up to a coherent view.  They conjure up mysterious agents – gods and demons – to account for experiences that they can’t otherwise understand.  And they fill in the blanks with voices that other people don’t hear and visions of images that other people don’t see.  So they may be diagnosed as “disturbed” or mad. Perhaps some of these mad people are mystics or have heightened powers of perception into an alternative spiritual reality. Whatever is the case, these people are usually outcasts or diagnosed for treatment to help make them "normal" [3]. In Through a Glass Darkly Karin is one of these people with fragmented models, and the three other characters around her struggle to come to terms with what to do and how they can learn from this experience.

As the story proceeds, Martin, the scientific rationalist, doesn’t adjust the way he sees the world. For him, Karin is simply and categorically sick and David is morally corrupt, and that is that. He is sincere and well meaning, but also categorical and judgmental. Martin’s reason-based judgmental approach is illustrated in an exchange he has with Karin:
Karin:  Imagine having a placid, rosy woman to give you children and coffee in bed. Someone big and soft and beautiful. Wouldn’t you like that?

Martin:  It’s you I love.

Karin:  I know but still…

Martin:  I don’t want anyone else.

Karin:  You always say and do the right things and yet it is always wrong.

Martin:  If I do the wrong thing, it’s from love.

Karin:  Those who really love do right by those whom they love.

Martin:  Then you do not love me.

David and Minus are more empathetic and do try to make adjustments in order to relate to and love Karin.

Returning to the film story, after Karen has her episode with the voices behind the wallpaper, she rummages around in David’s desk while he is out and discovers his diary.  In it she reads that David (a) regards her condition as incurable and (b) is horrified by his felt urge to document her inevitable decline in order to serve his fiction writing. This passage exposes the inner nature of David: a person continually trying to recognize and reconcile his conflicting impulses and accordingly adjust his understanding of the world. Later Karin tells Martin about this, and he in turn morally condemns David when the two of them go out fishing. David makes no attempts at self defense and instead offers Martin further evidence of his self-doubts by describing his own failed attempt to commit suicide. Again we are exposed to Martin’s judgments and David’s conflicted introspections. 

While David and Martin are out fishing, Karin and Minus spend some time together ashore.  Karin shows Minus her wallpaper wall and how she converses with mysterious people hidden behind it.  She says that these “other” people are all waiting for someone to come, and Karin believes the person they are waiting for is God.  She also tells Minus that she must make a choice, so she has chosen the “others” over Martin.  But a little while later when Karin recovers herself, she regrets telling Minus these things and gets him to promise not to tell the others about it.

Further on in the afternoon, Karin gets frightened by coming stormy weather and runs away. Minus searches for her and finds her down along the shore inside a wrecked, beached fishing boat. When he enters the ship’s hold and finds her there, she suddenly grabs him, and they apparently have a sexual encounter (the visual evidence is only suggestive here). 

After David and Martin return from their fishing trip, Martin goes to order a rescue unit to come and take Karin to a hospital, while Karin and David open up to each other.  David confides about his own selfish thoughts, and Karin confesses that the mysterious voices she has been hearing have been commanding her to do strange things, including the seduction of Minus.  But now Karin says she has to make a choice between two worlds that don't fit together.  And she has decided that she is prepared to live completely in her ghost world in the mental hospital, provided that they discontinue the shock therapy.

Shortly thereafter, though, Karin has one more episode and goes upstairs to wait for Him to come though the wall. When she looks through the upstairs window and sees the arriving helicopter, she becomes hysterical – taking the helicopter bo be a horrible manifestation of a demonic spider-god [4]. After being calmed down by a tranquilizing shot, she says forlornly, “I have seen God”, and she is taken away.

At the end, David and Minus also open up to each other and have one final, telling conversation. Referring to his traumatic sexual encounter with Karin, Minus moans that “reality burst open”, and when that occurs, “anything can happen”. He doesn’t know how to accommodate this shattering experience with his past understanding. “I can’t live in this world,” he says. Also shaken by these events, David says he also doesn’t have an answer, but he still holds out one hope. 
“It is knowing that love exists for real in the human world. . . I don’t know if love is proof of God’s existence or if love is God himself.”
Taking consolation from those words, Minus says, “Then Karin is surrounded by God, since we love her.”

In the final analysis, though, Karin is not only surrounded by God’s love (in the persons of her family members), but she is also the agent that brings a heightened awareness of and readiness for love to the people around her.  In that respect, she really does correspond to a religious mystic and an agent of God.

In all cases we – whether modernists, madmen, or mystics – are peering through the dark, cloudy glass of this world and making out different things that we see. Sometimes a few of us see truth, others see God, and still others see a spider-god. But there is one kind of experience that we can share and that can connect and anchor us all: love.

  1. Farhadi, Asghar. "DP/30: A Separation, Writer/director Asghar Farhadi", 19 Dec. 2011, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sHdcrCh_ES4.
  2. For further discussion frmn the moral standpoint, see Wisniowska, Magdalena, “Becoming Spirit: Morality in Hegel’s Phenomenology and Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly,” Evental Aesthetics 1, no. 2 (2012): 56-80.
  3. For further comments on madness and how it has been treated in modern society, see my review of Shutter Island (2010).
  4. The image of a spider-god is also invoked in Bergman’s Winter Light (1963).


Unknown said...

After watching Through a glass darkly I can not help but wonder does Minus have schizophrenia as well. Did he inherit this disease?

Dark Lost said...

Great read, just one thing I noticed.
While presenting the characters you wrote Minus has Martin's son, instead of David's.