Through a Glass Darkly

by Mark English

I have certain reservations about Ingmar Bergman as a filmmaker. Some of his films or segments thereof – particularly those influenced by surrealism – I am not keen on.

Here is one small, perhaps trivial, example. The clock with no hands motif in Wild Strawberries (a wonderful movie, I admit) simply annoys me. I want to say: This is not real; this is cheap, Romantic-psychoanalytic nonsense.

These sorts of things are impossible to prove, I know, and it may simply be a matter of taste. In the fields of art, literature, theater and film I have been exposed to but never really connected with surrealism and related movements. Looking back, I feel I was brainwashed into believing that certain works had merit when I would have been much better off resisting artistic and political groupthink and following my own natural preferences.

What I see in some surrealist art and much surrealist-influenced cinema is pseudo-profundity: cleverness and technical virtuosity designed to draw attention to itself; cheap tricks. For me, these elements work best in the hands of directors like Luis Buñuel or Federico Fellini or Alfred Hitchcock, who had a lightness of touch and who did not take themselves too seriously.

Ingmar Bergman sometimes exhibited a certain lightness of touch but much of his work (it must be said) is rather ponderous. I recognize him, however, as one of the few great – and essential – European directors. He proves (in a few of his works at least) that unmitigated seriousness can sometimes be a strength.

Also, he was himself acutely aware of the dangers of technical virtuosity and cleverness in the arts, of the thin line between success and failure, insight and obfuscation. A dialogue in one of his films which I refer to below supports this claim.

One of the things that gives abiding value to Bergman’s work is its rootedness in a particular culture. His films give expression to a particular European tradition of thought and feeling. This does not necessarily exclude people from other cultures from appreciating his work (just as I appreciate – even love – the work of certain Japanese filmmakers, for example). But I can’t speak for others. I can only see his films through my own eyes. And my responses to Bergman’s work are conditioned by a sense of sharing a similar heritage as well as by certain accidents of personal history.

I will explain by discussing my favorite Bergman film – one that I first saw when I was quite young and which means a lot to me. Through a Glass Darkly was released in 1961 and dedicated to his then wife, Käbi Laretei. It is, in my judgment, a great and devastatingly powerful film. Bergman is saying something about what makes life meaningful. (Or perhaps ‘tolerable’ would be a better word.)

Though Bergman’s tendency to use religious language and images makes me a bit uneasy, what he is saying here (and in his other films) transcends any belief system. He is drawing on the European Christian tradition in which he was raised but in a broadly cultural rather than a creedal way. There are also elements of pagan nature mysticism in his work, reminiscent of Germanic folk tales.

Needless to say, the film is beautifully made and photographed, taking full advantage of the stark coastal landscape. It also appeals to me that life on the island is stripped down to the bare essentials. No electricity or running water. But the cottage in which the family is staying is solid and spacious.

I like it that no other characters appear: just Karin (played by Harriet Andersson) and her husband and her father and younger brother, nicknamed Minus. It is about family relations but also universal themes.

The boy – who is having a hard time coming to terms with his sexual maturity – spends time on schoolwork, specifically Latin grammar. This is a nice touch as Latin could be seen to represent the cerebral and conventional adult world in which Minus is destined soon to take his place. It sets in stark relief the dark, unconscious forces of sex and dissolution which are assailing both his and his more vulnerable sister’s mind. But, as I indicated, there are personal factors at play in my response to this film. Let me explain a couple of them.

It is revealed early in the film that the apparently happy Harriet Andersson character who constantly teases her younger brother had recently spent time in a psychiatric clinic where she had undergone electroshock treatment. Not long before his death, my father confided to me that many years before (in fact, about the time that Through a Glass Darkly was made) my mother had spent time in a psychiatric clinic and had undergone a course (or courses?) of electroshock therapy. I needed to be aware of this and to be particularly solicitous about her welfare. She was vulnerable, he was saying, and – as they no longer lived together, and he knew he was approaching death – he was handing over his perceived responsibilities to me.

The sibling relationship in the movie also resonated because I had an older female cousin who was like a sister to me when I was growing up and of whom I was very fond. Tragically, she suffered a devastating mental collapse at a relatively young age.

I like it that there is no psychoanalytic content in the film. Karin’s mental problems are attributed to an inherited progressive brain disease. The image of the helicopter/spider is powerful (and plausible) precisely because it is so contingent and accidental and disconnected from any psychoanalytic theorizing. This is how the brain actually works. (Contrast, for example, Hitchcock’s Spellbound which is an entertaining fantasy – and nothing to do with real life.)

Finally, a few more words about religious elements in the film and how I reconcile myself to them. (You could see this as a cognitive dissonance-prompted turning of the intellectual-historical kaleidoscope.)

Because I have consciously and definitively renounced my former Christian beliefs, I generally respond negatively to God-talk and Christian-inspired love-talk. As I suggested above, however, there is nothing creedal or conventionally Christian in Bergman’s approach to the God concept or to the love concept in this film. His God is decidedly not the God of the Bible and love is not seen in conventionally sacred terms.

His father was a Lutheran minister and Bergman’s work often shows evidence of this strict religious upbringing. If I had to identify the strand of Christian thought to which Bergman is most indebted, I would say that it is the Pauline tradition.

Paul was a sophisticated and well-educated Jew from Tarsus, a city in the Roman province of Cilicia. He was a Roman citizen and a speaker of Koine Greek. He had never met Jesus and was often at odds with James (the brother of Jesus) and others who were related to or who had personally known the Galilean healer, religious teacher and political activist. These friends and followers of Jesus remained observant Jews who expected converts to adopt Jewish dietary laws and customs (like male circumcision). Not only did Paul not require his followers to follow these traditional customs, he broke with many of them himself. And, crucially, he appears not to have been interested in the historical Jesus at all.

The title of Bergman’s film is a direct allusion to a verse in one of Paul’s letters (1 Corinthians 13:12), and the talk of love in the final scene recalls other famous passages from 1 Corinthians and 1 John. (The latter was written by an unknown author who was part of the community which Paul had founded in the Greek city of Ephesus.) My point is that Paul’s teaching represented something quite new at the time. It was radical, but not politically so. Based on a personal, mystical vision which cannot really be identified with any prior (Jewish) or subsequent (Catholic or Protestant) orthodoxy, it attracted a surprisingly strong and diverse following in the Mediterranean world and beyond.

Though Paul’s voices and visions would (rightly) have attracted the attention of psychiatrists had he been alive today, it is very much in its favor that the tradition of thought which he initiated – and which remains a significant part of the Christian heritage – has always resisted the straitjacket of religious rules and conventions, and the hierarchies which promote them.

In the film, Karin’s husband tells his father-in-law, a successful writer, that he is a clever but shallow person and that, as a consequence, his novels lack entirely the ring of truth. Moreover, he has sacrificed his daughter for his art.

Ultimately this is a film about life rather than about art or artists or religion. Bergman puts the emphasis where the emphasis should be. It is a film about the possibility of truth and the possibility of love in a bleak – and at times nightmarish – world.


12 responses to “Through a Glass Darkly”

  1. ombhurbhuva

    When they are on the boat parked between the island and the mainland, the perfect truth telling venue, the doctor husband says to the writer father:

    your half lies are so refined they look like truth.

    This is the artist’s dilemma – am I real or am I a fake? His favorite shot is two people with one in full light facing and the other half lit sideways. Communication glances in both senses of a ricochet and a quick look, a privileged glimpse that can travel past the barriers that both protect and leave us desolate. Papa spoke to me says Minus in the last shot

    Is Bergman religious? I would say yes in a non-confessional sense. He doubts heaven but has a sincere belief in hell.

    Do you need help with your Latin per speculum et in aenigmate. A glass/mirror was made of polished bronze and though not of fun house grade would not be a true image. The writer was not a good father and we know that only three of Bergman’s children attended his funeral. Out of the eight or nine.

  2. A fine essay on one of Europe’s most interesting directors. I confess I lost some interest in later Bergman as he wandered off into somewhat verbose soap-opera territory (although I thought his Magic Flute highly entertaining) but by then he had lost interest in the big screen; I know that at least some of his later works were actually made for television (which speaks highly of Swedish television, since even second-rate Bergman is well beyond the usual TV fair we get in the US).

    Your essay almost gets lost with your discussion of religion towards the end. For me, Bergman’s religion was set in stone with the Seventh Seal – a ‘believer’ without faith – which is the story of post-WWII (perhaps even post-WWI) religion.

    I remember once teaching in a small town; every street corner had a church. Though not a believer myself, I decided I would let my students (adult composition students) have their say. I was shocked with the result – none of them believed in god – but they all believed their churches could teach morals better than they could.

    I am not accusing Bergman of that kind of cynicism, he is clearly thinking at a much higher, yet deeper, level. But he doesn’t believe in god any more than did his Swedish audiences.

    However, you manage to move away from this sideline back to your central point, without losing what it was you were trying to get from that minor detour (Paul’s contribution to the legacy of the European ethos). Neatly done.

  3. Thanks for the kind words.

    Actually, I would want to question your general comments about non-believing “believers” and post-war religion, not just to remark that they seem a bit sweeping, but also to say that they appear to represent a view of religion and belief which I would want to question (perhaps in a fundamental way). But this would take us too far afield and away from Bergman and films.

    My concerns relate specifically to the issue of the nature of belief — what it is or might be; and to the intimate links between religious beliefs and values.

  4. alandtapper1950

    Thanks Mark. A few years ago I tried to watch “The Serpent’s Egg”. I couldn’t get through it. Your word, “ponderous”, fits my recollection. Also “portentous” comes to mind. You have persuaded me that his films are not all like that.

    I hope you will write sometime about what you like of Japanese cinema.


  5. ombhurbhuva

    E.J. Winner writes:

    I am not accusing Bergman of that kind of cynicism, he is clearly thinking at a much higher, yet deeper, level. But he doesn’t believe in god any more than did his Swedish audiences.

    How do you know this? According to the Pew Research Centre:

    In 2017, the Pew Research Center found in their Global Attitutes Survey that 59.9% of the Swedes regarded themselves as Christians, with 48.7% belonging to the Church of Sweden, 9.5% were Unaffiliated Christians, 0.7% were Pentecostal Protestants, 0.4% were Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox and the Congregationalist were the 0.3% each. Unaffiliated people were the 35.0% divided in 18.8% Atheists, 11.9% nothing in particular and 4.3% Agnostics. Muslims were the 2.2% and members of other religions were the 2.5%.[10]

    (from wikipedia article on Religion in Sweden)

    Now there probably are people who regard themselves as Christian etc who don’t believe in God. There’s a bell curve for nous as well as everything else but it’s likely that a lot of believers watched his movies. Contra the liberal consensus he certainly believed in the existence of wicked people who will evil. The father in the film under discussion has broken his promise to stay with his family after his trip to Switzerland. Their mother is dead and the daughter is sinking into madness and he attempts suicide. The daughter’s decline is a likely subject for a book. He sells books but that’s just popularity, he wants critical success.

    Was Bergman a Gnostic/Dualist? When you no longer believe in grace and redemption its an interpretive redoubt.

  6. Alan

    Roger Ebert emphasizes an important point about Bergman (which I touched on also) in his — very unfavorable — review of The Serpent’s Egg

    Bergman left his beloved Sweden in 1976, charging that the tax authorities were hounding him (a charge that the Swedish courts later upheld). He flew to California to meet with Dino De Laurentiis, who would eventually sign him to direct “The Serpent’s Egg.” And he became the subject of an anecdote by the great Bergman-watcher, Mel Brooks.

    “When Bergman left Sweden,” Brooks said, “he complained about the persecution, the metaphysical anguish, the impossibility of realizing himself as an artist, the impotence created by the welfare state, the creeping Big Brotherism of the state … When he left California three weeks later, he complained about the heat.”

    Maybe the point is that Bergman is best as a filmmaker on his native ground, no matter how unhappy he may feel there. In Sweden, during 35 years and with more than 30 films, he made only four comedies. One of them was successful (“Smiles of a Summer Night”). Two of them were passable. One was the worst film he has ever made (“All these Women”). But in his dramas — those brooding, lonely, and violent excursions into the human soul — he made some of the greatest films that ever will be made. And they all drew directly from his experiences in Sweden.

  7. Peter Smith

    Hi Mark,
    thanks for an enjoyable essay. I have not watched the film(mea culpa). But in general there is so that could be said about St. Paul and his famous phrase. Just briefly,

    When we turn to the original Greek, a whole new world of meaning opens up to us. In the original text what is translated as glass is the Greek word esoptron, which really refers to ancient mirror. Darkly is actually ainigma, from which we get our word enigma. If we were to put this more literally it would read ‘see in a mirror in an enigma.’ That’s really confusing, so it’s understandable why translators try to use something more poetic.

    Let me leave it at that. For now I am more interested in this statement:

    My concerns relate specifically to the issue of the nature of belief — what it is or might be; and to the intimate links between religious beliefs and values.
    Ever since my conversion to Catholicism from atheism I have been a keen observer of this strange new world I have embraced. The most stunning change for me was the extent of the commitments that came with my new-found belief. As an atheist there simply were no concomitant commitments. A small minority of atheists were seemingly committed to an angry, aggressive, even nasty unpleasantness but they were an ineffectual minority that hardly touched my life and I couldn’t care less.

    But on entering the Church I discovered that belief was much more than intellectual. Let me explain by way of an example. I believe that running is exceedingly good for one’s health and think that this is a true belief. That is like a belief in God’s existence. Turning now to running, if I did not act on my belief in the health benefits of running this would be an ineffectual belief. So I put on my running shoes, subject myself to the discipline of training, and set hard targets for myself, subjecting myself to privation and self-denial.

    At first I suffer injuries, disappointments and setbacks. But I persevere and as I persevere, slowly but surely my running performance improves and then even my health improves. I become more disciplined, more hardy and my running technique improves. However from time to time I become discouraged and even lazy, stopping running for a while. Guilt ensues and I resume running. Until one day, very much later, I find it has become a natural way of life and that my health really has improved. I am still an indifferent runner and will never win a race. But my life has improved greatly.

    I say all this because I found that my experience of running is exactly analogous with my experience with religious belief. Religious belief requires spiritual exercise. It has the same difficulties, challenges and rewards. It requires changed behaviour that is maintained with determination and discipline. In the same way, as one exercises one slowly improves. It needs the support of the community just as runners thrive on the support of running clubs and other runners. Physical fitness is something that must constantly be renewed by physical exercise. In the same way spiritual belief is something that must constantly be renewed and nourished by spiritual exercises.

    So, in reply to your statement
    My concerns relate specifically to the issue of the nature of belief
    I would say that is the wrong question. It is rather like asking what is the nature of running. The question misses the point. A biokineticist will give you an accurate reply but it will fail to capture the nature of the experience of running. And this is what matters, not the biokineticist’s reply.

  8. alandtapper1950

    So, you’re saying that Roger Ebert and Mel Brooks agree with me? That’s the kind of flattery I can handle.

  9. alandtapper1950

    Peter: The analogy works, up to a point. But you don’t say what is the spiritual counterpart of health. What is spiritual “fitness”? Can it be described using public criteria, as running can?

  10. Peter

    I totally agree that beliefs are not just intellectual. Nonetheless there are always epistemic — and semantic — questions to be addressed.

  11. Peter Smith

    Nonetheless there are always epistemic — and semantic — questions to be addressed.

    Indeed, and they are important questions. We need to give attention to our cognitive toolset, which is the point that Dan made. But tools have a telos.

  12. Peter Smith

    But you don’t say what is the spiritual counterpart of health.
    What is spiritual “fitness”? Can it be described using public criteria, as running can?

    Yes, though it is more difficult because we are talking about the inner life of a person, which resists objective characterisation.

    Broadly speaking, spiritual health can be described by the simple, yet complex word, the “virtues”. Health is the degree to which we exhibit the virtues. About 52 virtues have been identified but they can be grouped in the three fundamental sets of the three great transcendentals:
    1) the True. These are the intellectual virtues.
    2) the Good. These are the moral virtues.
    3) the Beautiful. These are the aesthetic virtues.

    Spiritual fitness can be described as the extent our love for the True, the Good and the Beautiful. This is why Jesus Christ has described love as the pre-eminent virtue, a sentiment echoed by St. Paul when he said(immediately before the “through a glass darkly” statement).

    If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.

    If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.

    If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, [but have not love, I gain nothing.

    Shakespeare put it a little differently, but even more eloquently:

    Love is not love
    Which alters when it alteration finds,
    Or bends with the remover to remove.
    O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
    That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
    It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
    Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
    Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
    Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
    Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
    But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
    If this be error and upon me prov’d,
    I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.

    Spiritual exercises then are aimed at the development of, and love for, the intellectual, moral and aesthetic virtues. Pierre Hadot mentions the Ignatian spiritual exercises in his discussion of spiritual exercises for philosophers. What I found so interesting about the Ignatian spiritual exercises was its emphasis on the perception of beauty in the world around us.