Through a Glass Darkly: Behind the Wallpaper

Ingmar Bergman was dead set on shooting this film on the Orkney Islands. He knew what he wanted; the dramatic, stony look of that place. The studio were not equally thrilled and wanted him to shoot somewhere closer to Stockholm. Reluctantly, Bergman agreed to take the boat out to Gotland to visit its northern part, Fårö. This was in the middle of winter, but somehow the director was awestruck once he got there. Not only did he agree to shoot his new picture there, but he also fell in love with the place to the degree that he eventually moved and spent the rest of his life there. Through a Glass Darkly is perhaps the best example of how Bergman and his team took advantage of the island.

We are introduced to a family who are spending summer in a small house on a remote island in the archipelago. David (Gunnar Björnstrand) is a novelist who has returned from a trip abroad and now he’s editing a novel he’s been working on; soon, he will leave again. His daughter Karin (Harriet Andersson) has been treated in an asylum for schizophrenia and she doesn’t know what her husband Martin (Max von Sydow) tells David, that her illness is incurable. The relationship between Karin and Martin is tender, but there’s no sexual spark between them; at the same time, the illness has not robbed her of sexual appetite.

Also on the island is Karin’s 17-year-old brother who’s called ”Minus” (Lars Passgård), an intellectually curious young man who wishes that he had a better relationship with his father…

First chapter in a trilogy
The second Bergman film in a row to earn an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, Through a Glass Darkly is now also seen as the first chapter in a trilogy about faith, followed by Winter Light (1963) and The Silence (1963). God has an obvious but complex place in the film; the sick Karin thinks she can hear him through a crack in the wall and talks to him, but what she sees emerging is not encouraging. The very definition of what God stands for is the subject of the last conversation that David and Minus have in the film; God is equal to love, but that declaration was considered by some critics to be a strange, unsatisfying conclusion considering what’s been going on in the film. Faith may be the uniting theme in all three films, but Winter Light really is the only one to take on religion and Christianity in a truly effective way.

This movie stands on its own without thoughts on God. The rocky look of Fårö, the way the family’s life on the island has a scent of the ocean and laidback summer days, is attractively captured by cinematographer Sven Nykvist; it’s like a beautiful invitation for an audience that know full well that darkness lurks behind the happy façade. The family members spend all this time together, but we realize how distant they feel toward each other. Honesty is nevertheless close to the surface, but it doesn’t really seem to help the family.

Sexuality becomes destructive as Karin’s illness combined with Minus’s frustrated teenage emotions has devastating consequences in a memorably tragic scene inside an old shipwreck on the coast of the island.

There are only four actors in the film, but they all deliver tremendously effective performances. Björnstrand is terrific as the grief-stricken writer who lacks self-esteem, and Andersson is hypnotic in perhaps her best screen role as the young woman who’s struggling with the burden of having several, intense personalities.

Through a Glass Darkly 1961-Sweden. 89 min. B/W. Produced by Allan Ekelund. Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman. Cinematography: Sven Nykvist. Cast: Harriet Andersson (Karin), Gunnar Björnstrand (David), Max von Sydow (Martin), Lars Passgård (Minus).

Trivia: Original title: Såsom i en spegel.

Oscar: Best Foreign Language Film.

Last word: “When the film was in its planning stages, it was called ‘The Wallpaper’. I wrote in my workbook: ‘It’s going to have a story that moves vertically, not horizontally. How the hell do you do that?’ The note is from New Year’s Day 1960, and even if it was strangely expressed, I understood exactly what I meant: a film that went into an untested dimension of depth.” (Bergman, “Images”)

 

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