This essay on Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly (1961) was written by Harry Gilbert. A 35mm print of Through a Glass Darkly will screen in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen: Ingmar Bergman in Black and White series on Sunday, February 28 at 2 p.m.
By Harry Gilbert
In the November 1960 issue of the Swedish film journal Chaplin, then unknown Frenchman Ernest Riffe inveighed against the films of Ingmar Bergman. Riffe declaimed that Bergman’s “deep misanthropy” and “lack of contact with his surroundings” foreclosed any possibility that his work might approximate “originality,” and that his continued filmmaking confirmed the poverty of his writing, for which he had “never [...] been well-regarded [...] in his homeland” and for which he “suffered under the contempt from his literary colleagues.” Such allegations were not without intellectual or popular support. Indeed, that single issue of Chaplain contained three critiques of Bergman’s work from three preeminent Swedish film critics.
Moreover, the landscape in which films were produced and circulated, and the aesthetics of “European art cinema” were shifting. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Sweden witnessed a significant decline in cinema attendance, with the nation’s film production making up an increasingly small portion of the market. The appearance of television also offered new ways to distribute, aestheticize, and see the moving-image. Both of these transformations in modes of (re)production affected how—or, indeed, whether—Bergman was seen and how his work was received. Furthermore, the advent of French New Wave and Italian auteurs, some scholars have contended, crowded Bergman out of Swedish and European intellectual circles. This is a limited portrait of the environment which launched Through a Glass Darkly.
Up until that point, however, critiques had not taken Bergman to task for the inferiority of his writing or disparaged him personally—at least not to the degree Riffe had. Prior to the publication of the third issue of Chaplin, Bergman had revealed Riffe to be a personal pseudonym. Bergman recalled in a later interview: “I experienced a special freedom in collecting my innermost self-criticism (which, to some extent, matched the criticism directed at me from outside), verbalizing it, tricking it out to seem a bad Swedish translation from the French, and then opening Expressen to read: ‘This is the best statement about Ingmar Bergman in recent years.’”
Much has been made of Bergman’s thematic and artistic interests, and how these questions are uniquely bound to Bergman’s life: he is serious and deals with serious issues, he is interested in existential truths, he is of a bad temperament and difficult, etc. To some degree, Bergman’s trick speaks to that. Less, I think, has been made of the way Bergman gets at these serious, difficult, existential truths through play and playfulness of varying kinds and of varying effects.
This idea of play can be understood in different ways. For one, Bergman was an active producer and consumer of different media—film, theatre, television, music, writing, etc.—and was interested in how various art forms might have resonances with and could speak through one another. Music and theatre were such forms. Married at the time to renowned concert pianist Käbi Laretei and intrigued by music more generally, Bergman noted in interviews before the release of Through a Glass Darkly that he was interested in structuring his films not as symphonies but in the chamber music format of Beethoven and Bartók. Indeed, Bergman’s initial choice (later renounced as a “decoy for eager journalists”) to compose Through a Glass Darkly as the first of a trilogy of films, including Winter Light and The Silence (both released in 1963), known as “God’s Silence” speaks to organizing music as a suite.
Moreover, Bergman was interested in the intimacy of chamber music’s format. As opposed to a “sprawling” and “grandiose” symphony, chamber music brought attention to how a few instruments—like a few actors—could interact and produce tension with each other within a confined space—such as the isolated island of Fårö, a Baltic isle that would form the setting of many of Bergman’s films.
The intimacy of space might have been on Bergman’s mind for a host of other reasons, all related to his interest in other media. Just four years prior, Bergman had made his directorial debut on television with Mr. Sleeman Is Coming and went on to direct three more television films before the release of Through a Glass Darkly. In interviews, Bergman had admitted that “television was his new theater,” which brought new artistic, technical, and commercial freedoms and constraints. Among other things, this new context prompted Bergman to work exclusively with director of photography and “sculptor of light” Sven Nykvist over the next thirty years.
Bergman's merging of cinema, theater and chamber music allowed for an exposition of interior lives and an intimate look at the tense, textured relationships between people. Perhaps no better example of this is Minus’s (Lars Passgård) intimate—chamber?—play, “The Artistic Haunting; or, The Funeral Vault of Illusions,” that crowns the first act of Through a Glass Darkly. The morality play quite literally stages the questions of the film: father David (Gunnar Björnstrand) watches on as Minus, playing the artist, becomes seduced by the Princess of Castile, played by his sister, Karin (Harriet Andersson); ultimately, the Artist cannot follow the Princess “into the realm of death” and, instead, chooses to “write a poem about my meeting with the princess. Or paint a picture, or compose an opera—though the end, of course, must be given a more heroic twist.”
Artist desires woman but refrains in order to turn her and his experience into a commercial product, son desires (the position of the) father, brother desires sister, men are cold and distant, and play penetrates film.
Bjorkman, Stig, Torsten Manns, and Jones Sima. Bergman on Bergman: Interviews with Ingmar Bergman. Trans. Paul Britten. Cambridge: De Capo Press, 1993.
Gado, Frank. The Passion of Ingmar Bergman. Durham: Duke University Press, 1986.
Koskinen, Maaret. Ingmar Bergman Revisited: Performance, Cinema and the Arts. London: Wallflower Press, 2008.
Mandelbaum, Jacques. Masters of Cinema: Ingmar Bergman. Paris: Cahiers du Cinema Sarl, 2011.