Time is an interesting thing. When I first saw Through a Glass Darkly (1961) about 30 years ago, I found it to be a slow, rather tedious experience that seemed to go on forever. When I watched it again on Saturday night, someone made a comment about the wrecked ship on the shore of the film’s seaside setting, and I remarked, “I remember that it figures in the film, but not until very close to the end.” What I wasn’t realizing was that the film was close to the end and that I’d simply been so engrossed in the proceedings that I was oblivious to the minutes slipping by. After the passage of 30 years, I had simply found myself completely under Bergman’s spell. The film ushers in Bergman’s most austere period, and is the first of a loosely defined trilogy of films on the subject of God—the others being Winter Light (1962) and The Silence (1963). Bergman himself saw no connection between the films and wished people would stop calling them a trilogy. Regardless, the films are strangely sparse—cinematic chamber works, if you like—and seem connected, though one might reasonably ask what Bergman film doesn’t in some way deal with the subject of God?
Through a Glass Darkly examines a too small group of people at a summerhouse by the sea: Karin (Harriet Andersson), her brother, Minus (Lars Passgård), their father, David (Gunnar Björnstrand), and her husband, Martin (Max von Sydow). All seems normal on the surface, but it’s soon revealed that Karin is slipping into the same insanity that took her mother, and that her apparent normalcy at the moment is very tenuous. In essence, we watch her descent into all-consuming madness—to a point where she’d rather retreat into that world than be torn apart by trying to live in it and the real world simultaneously. That’s a simplification, however, because the film examines just as closely the other members of the household and how her mental state affects them—and how their responses to it affect her.
The results are a deeply troubling work about the nature of God (are we sure that Karin doesn’t see God?) and love and personal interaction. The movie is bleak and heavily symbolic, and yet at its conclusion, it almost seems that there’s a cause for hope—that everything that has happened has been for an as yet undefined but conceivably greater purpose. It’s not an easy film, but that was never Bergman’s intention. There are other movies for that—a few even by Bergman. This is a film in search of profound truths that it can only hint at having caught glimmerings of, and it’s a truly remarkable experience.