By Tim Winterstein –
Any piece of art can age in essentially two ways. Whether it’s a book or a movie, a sculpture or a painting, its impact on the reader or viewer can be significant or shocking at first, but age blunts the impact. What was important when it was first produced can be reduced to a cliché or sentimental truism. On the other hand, a different piece of art can become even more prescient, diagnostic, or important than it was at the time it was produced. The truth that it speaks is a truth that needs to be heard or seen or realized, regardless of the date.
I’m two movies in to what people often consider a trilogy of connected Ingmar Bergman films, though I’ve watched them out of chronological order: Through a Glass Darkly (1961, and the winner of the 1962 Foreign Language Academy Award), Winter Light (1962), and The Silence (1963). While Winter Light felt distinctly modern, deftly exposing the fear of hypocrisy and the lengths to which people will go to throw off duplicity and remain whole, Through a Glass Darkly seems to me now antiquated in its conclusions. Winter Light felt like the second kind of art, which opens up in different ways depending on the time and situation. But the progression of the modern world in terms of religion (though I wonder how it might play differently in Sweden) makes Through a Glass Darkly a period piece, rather than something still profound.
Through a Glass Darkly is still high cinematic art. Bergman impresses me with the angles of shots, especially in rooms with windows, where I constantly felt like there was something pulling at me from just around the corner. The endlessness of the water, which isolates David, Karin, Martin, and Minus, serves to heighten the tension of the setting. And I think he’s a master of close-up anguish, where the actor’s expression has to fill in the blanks in the dialogue. Particularly, it is wrenching to watch the complex of scenes before Karin flies off the island in a helicopter, as she finally has the full vision for which she’d been waiting.
Additionally, because this is a movie centered on a family whose centrifugal force is slowly pulling them apart, the final scene between Minus and his father, David, is excellent as cinema, but—again—comes across as dated. Whatever the impact in 1962 of speaking of God and love as interchangeable, in 2019 it’s a cliché, and a bad one at that. Already by 1967, The Beatles had made it a pop banality in “All You Need Is Love.”
Through a Glass Darkly is a sophisticated visual depiction of what it would mean to project and invent a god based on one’s familial experiences. What gives Minus hope in the end is that “Papa spoke to me.” In the absence of any speech of an actual god, it is his father’s voice that is as god (that is, love) to him. But Minus is reduced by this hunger for his father’s affection. His name is not Magnus, after all.
While Minus finds god in even the slightest gesture of love from his father, the god who appears to Karin (who has been used as authorial fodder by that same father) is a terrifying spider that tries to exert a grotesque claim on her. She manages to fight it off and escape, at least from its immediate horror. Whatever its sources in her relationship with her father, this point, I think, is intriguing: what if religion—especially the Christian religion—teaches us to wait, trembling, for a god from whom we would flee in terror if we ever actually saw It/Him?
The film and those scenes of Karin’s delusions also play on the psychological theory of religion as a species of insanity. No one else in the film actually believes that Karin’s visions have any basis in reality. But I suspect, by its close proximity to the final scene with Minus, that we are to see them as working out two competing versions of religious experience.
Both of these ideas are an ingenious absorption and representation of the existential dread attendant on the modern world. In Bergman’s time, the dread appeared in the crisis of religious faith when faced with an increasingly hostile and aimless world, especially as the optimism-crushing World Wars shifted to the Cold War and the struggle between capitalist and communist nations with world-destroying firepower.
I don’t think the dread has gone away, but its focus has changed from a religious crisis to an emotional one. People still think that religious belief is, in one way or another, a variety of mental illness. But I doubt they are nearly as likely to find Karin’s fear of the father/god-spider realistic in any sense. The dread of bright reality in the absence of god is as absent today as that god.
But Bergman wants us to view Karin not as insane so much as having one kind of fundamental religious experience (stemming from her relationship with their father), contrasted with Minus’ fundamental religious experience of a father who art on earth. And maybe what makes the conclusion so much less compelling as an actual religious experience is that it has been so thoroughly accepted as a spiritual reality. In other words, it’s no longer a challenge to a prevailing way of thinking. David and Minus, in seeking out a kind of faith they can still hold to in the face of the overwhelming sickness, malaise, selfishness, deception, and dread of the age, find only human love—of whatever kind—to be concrete. All you need is love. The crisis becomes a cliché.
Through a Glass Darkly seems stilted because its once-provocative conclusions have been largely accepted. Winter Light continues to prod as its questions open up in new and different ways because of the challenge it continues to pose, even in a secular age. One way to recover Karin’s terror of an encounter with an unknown God might be to actually produce it as horror. Where an imaginary spider-god can no longer generate fear, perhaps a genuine spider might do it—or a genuine God.