Through a Glass Darkly (Sasom i en Spegel, Sweden 1961)

Martin, Karin, Minos and David.

Martin, Karin, Minos and David.

The Leeds International Film Festival is screening a short retrospective of the films of Ingmar Bergman. Happily the programme opened with this film – a masterpiece and for me one of the finest films by the director. Two friends seeing the film for the first time were impressed. This is one of what are described as Bergman’s ‘chamber works’, strongly influenced by August Strindberg and with the title taken from a Letter by the Apostle Saint Paul to the Corinthians. There is a dedication to his wife Kabi, who provided an important influence on his musical taste and knowledge

The film is set on the Island of Fårö. It involves four characters – a writer and father David (Gunnar Björnstrand), his daughter Karin (Harriet Andersson), her husband a university professor Martin (Max von Sydow), and David’s young son Minos (Lars Passgård). We also hear of two other characters, David’s dead wife and his ex-girl-friend. The action takes place over 24 hours, from evening to evening. The film opens as the four finish a swim in the sea. We learn that David has just returned from Switzerland where he was writing a novel. Karin recently left hospital where she was being treated for mental illness. They have supper and then Minos and Karin (with help from Martin) perform a short play for David. The play appears to have a purpose directed at David. Next day David and Martin leave the Island to buy necessities: their conversation and its filming are very revealing of the two men. Karin and Minos, talk, walk and then shelter in a wrecked boat in the rain. The crisis in the story follows. At the end of the film David talks to Minos as evening closes in. The final shot of the film is a large close-up of Minos in front of a window – behind him we can see the sun low over the horizon. The film then ends with a blank screen or on this occasion the logo of the Festival.

All the performances are superb, but the film is dominated by Harriet Andersson’s Karin. This is a marvellously complex and moving performance. All the performances bring out the tensions, evasions, psychological wounds and character changes in the film. The setting of the Island is beautifully evoked by the superb cinematography of Sven Nykvist, ably supported by the editor Ulla Ryghe and the art director P A Lindgren. And the film makes limited but judicious use of Johan Sebastian Bach’s Violoncello Suite No 2.  The light shimmers on the sea, and the changes from dusk to daylight and from light to shadow are exceptional. Fortunately the film was screened in 35mm – it would have need an above average transfer and at least 4K digital to do it justice.

The film is part of a trilogy including Winter Light (Nattvardsgästerna, 1962) and The Silence (Tystnaden, 1963). Time Out comments

… films that are generally seen as addressing Bergman’s increasing disillusionment with the emotional coldness of his inherited Lutheran religion.

The Catalogue quotes Bergman’s own claim that

What I wanted, most deeply, was to depict a case of religions hysteria.

But I thought the film was not really about religion but spirituality, possibly in a humanist sense – rather in the manner found in the films of Carl Dreyer and Yasujiro Ozu. It is a powerful representation of the trials and difficulties of family relationships, albeit not a typical family. Like much of Bergman’s work it also relates the past to the present. I think viewers will find themselves considering the influence on Karin’s state of her father, husband and brother. The film is bleak but also offer lyrical moments. In the final sequence there is an ambiguity of the last light of day. And the abrupt ending leaves us to consider what we have seen and heard.

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