High school has so far been my golden era for watching Criterion movies. One of the directors they cherish the most is Ingmar Bergman. And even though I don’t have a specific memory of watching Through A Glass Darkly I definitely remember this being a movie I watched multiple times. I’ve seen a good number of Bergman films but Through A Glass Darkly might be his movie that stayed with me the most. Watching it again with Elizabeth was like watching a movie I just saw a week or so ago. Every scene was still so vivid in my mind. I say all this because Through A Glass Darkly is a movie that I feel almost everyone should watch.
When people talk about religious movies I kind of think of shit like Heaven Is For Real or an upcoming post, Courageous, but to me it’s Through A Glass Darkly. This movie has exactly what I want in a religious movie; tons of fear and ambiguity. This movie is the first of a trilogy and even though this movie is really more about mental illness than religion, it does have some great scenes involving some type of higher power. Whenever people talk about God I have an image in my head because of this film . . . even though it might not be a good one.
I highly recommend this movie and even if you think you might not enjoy it it definitely is a film that holds your attention throughout. It kind of just gets crazier and crazier as the plot unfolds. CHECK IT OUT!!!!!!
Wow. For a movie with only four characters that takes place in about 24 hours or less, Through A Glass Darkly has a whole lot going on. And it is beyond amazing.
The plot is so simple that there isn’t even really a plot at all, but just a study of these characters as they interact. Everything takes place on a fairly remote island where a family is vacationing: Karin (Harriet Andersson) and her husband Martin (Max von Sydow), along with Karin’s father, David (Gunnar Björnstrand) and teenage brother, Minus (Lars Passgård). We find out that it’s more awkward than your average vacation with the in-laws as Karin has somewhat recently been released from a hospital, where she’s being treated for what sounds like schizophrenia.
The whole movie rides on dialog and how these characters interact with one another. Despite Karin’s diagnosis, she’s far from being the only weirdo. Like so many movies we’ve watched recently (and like The Leftovers, which we also just finished), David sort of hates his kids. He’s a popular writer, but he doesn’t get great reviews. Minus and Karin’s mother died some time before, and we find out that she also had schizophrenia (and it sounds like maybe she died from it, or some kind of complications from it since I’m not sure how what would work). David clearly has little to no interaction with Minus, given that Minus is kind of crazy, especially about how he feels towards women; he’s obviously heterosexual, but is also disgusted by women. Karin learns, by reading David’s diary, that not only is her illness incurable, but David wants to use her illness for his writing. Even though that wasn’t meant for Karin to see, it’s still pretty devastating and shitty parenting. Martin is probably the most stable one of the bunch, but his intense love for Karin, whose illness sort of prevents her from expressing much love back, is almost debilitating, even though it is noble.
We first meet the family in the evening before dinner after they’ve gone for a swim. At dinner, David tells the family that he will soon be leaving on a trip again to try to help his apparent writer’s block, even though he promised Karin and Minus that he would be staying home for a long time. David gives everyone gifts from his trip as he goes back to his bedroom. They open the gifts and are immediately disappointed that they seem rather thoughtless and last minute, but while they complain, David secretly sobs in his bedroom. When he returns, they all thank him for the gifts as if nothing is wrong. Karin, Minus, and Martin put on a play for David that Minus wrote, which is about an artist who is asked to give up his life for his art but decides his life is too important, which David takes as an attack on himself.
Later that night, while everyone else is asleep, Karin goes into an empty room. It seems like she’s following something there, although she’s alone. She has convulsions, which at times seem orgasmic, and then passes out. Later, she goes to David’s room and says she can’t sleep. He’s up working, so he tucks her into his bed while he continues to work, which is probably the most parental action David takes during the whole movie. Even though we know David is not a good parent, that scene was very comforting to me, especially because Karin seems to fall asleep immediately. It just reminds me of those feelings of being a little kid and nothing being more comfortable than your parents’ bed. When Karin wakes up, David is gone and that’s when she reads his diary. She tells Martin about it, who denies that her disease is incurable. When Martin reassures her, it’s hard to tell if he’s straight-up lying (Martin says in the beginning that there is a small amount of hope for Karin but she’s likely incurable), not quite lying since there is some hope, or if he just truly believes that it is not totally incurable himself. I have to go with the last one on that; Martin has a clear, unconditional love for Karin, to the point where I think Karin going crazy would be worse for Martin than Karin herself.
Martin and David go fishing and Martin confronts David about what Karin found in his diary and basically calls him out on all kinds of shit that he’s clearly holding onto. I was honestly scared the scene was going to turn into The Talented Mr. Ripley but instead it ends up being a pretty calm conversation between Martin and David. David tells a story of how he tried to kill himself and almost succeeded, but then realized he did love his family. It’s really too little too late, and Martin knows it, but seems to appreciate that David is at least trying. I feel like that story is why David went to cry while everyone opened presents; maybe he understood they were thoughtless gifts and didn’t know how to convey his true feelings to his family.
Things get weirder and weirder between Karin and Minus while Martin and David are gone. She finds Minus looking through a nude magazine and asks him to show her his “favorite.” I don’t have an opposite-sex sibling, but it still seems like it should be weird for a brother and sister to look at porn together. She then tries to describe to Minus what happened to her in the empty room; that basically she entered a room full of people that were waiting for someone to come, someone she thinks is God. Despite all the immaturity we’ve seen from Minus at this point, he seems to clearly recognize that Karin is going through something profound and seems to treat her very delicately. He doesn’t not believe her; he knows that she believes she truly saw all of that. But he lets her know that, at least for him, what she’s saying isn’t real. He’s obviously trying to connect with her while also keeping her at somewhat of a distance.
Later, while David and Martin are still gone, Karin sees a storm coming and hides in an abandonded, falling apart boat. When Minus finds her there, he goes to her and they hold each other. When David and Martin come back, Minus leads them to the boat and Karin asks for everyone to leave except David. She tells him she read his diary but also that she did something worse, something much worse, something to Minus. She never says what happened and no one ever asks. Later though, Minus tells David that reality burst open for him when he was in the boat with Karin and that now anything can happen. So I mean, I think we can safely assume some kind of sex stuff happened in the boat. Probably not straight up sex, but something. I also think it’s pretty safe to assume that this isn’t the first time Karin has done something to Minus, because that would explain a lot of his out-of-the-blue disgust with women and his own sexuality. It’s crazy.
Once she’s out of the boat, Karin decides she needs to be hospitalized again. They call an ambulance but before they can leave Karin once again goes into the empty room, clearly seeing something we can’t see. Martin follows her there and she tells him that she’s waiting for God to come through the door, that he’s almost there. Martin doesn’t knock her out of her trance, instead he just coexists with it. Karin says multiple times that she can’t live in two worlds at once, and this is clearly what’s happening here. Karin starts screaming and convulsing again, and Martin gives her a shot of some kind to calm her down. As she does, she tells everyone what she saw: God came through the room, he was a spider, and he tried to penetrate her. Fucking. Creepy.
Martin and Karin leave in the ambulance together, and Minus tells David about the boat while they watch them go. They have a short, deep conversation about the meaning of God and life and how important love is. When David walks away, Minus says what is maybe one of the saddest last lines of any movie, “Father spoke to me.”
As I’m not schizophrenic and have never been close to anyone that is, I’m not going to pretend to be an expert or have first-hand knowledge. But I feel like so often, especially in old movies and especially with women, a character is just “crazy.” It feels vague. And while Bergman never says schizophrenia, he and Andersson show us such realistic experiences that it’s anything but vague. Karin’s constant struggle to be in two worlds at once feels so true. And she has one of the best lines I’ve ever heard about mental illness: “It’s so horrible to see your own confusion and understand it.” While I’m not schizophrenic, I’ve dealt with serious depression of my own and that’s exactly what it felt like; it was so horrible to know that logically I shouldn’t feel that way but have no control over it anyway. Bergman seems to have such a clear and empathic understanding of Karin’s illness that it never seems cheap or exploitive; it mostly seems sad.
Through A Glass Darkly is fairly minimalist, but it packs so much into 90-something minutes that it’s never boring for a second and also goes by really quickly. It also reminded me of just how gorgeous Bergman movies can be and lucky we are to be able to have something like The Criterion Collection present it in such a beautiful way. No one shoots black and white like Bergman.
If you haven’t seen this, see it. End of story.