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Watching Ingmar Bergman’s 1961 Through a Glass Darkly now, you’re carried back to a golden era that was also an ice age. The year before, Michelangelo Antonioni’s drifting, elliptical masterpiece L’Avventura had been booed at the Cannes Film Festival; three years later, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Gertrud would receive still worse treatment on its Paris premiere––an episode compared by one observer to “a spontaneous, unexpected lynching.” It was the time when Alain Resnais’ glittering jigsaw puzzle of a movie Last Year at Marienbad set fashionable heads a-scratching, and when Robert Bresson reined in his style further with the intransigently minimalist Trial of Joan of Arc (1962). It was, in short, the belle époque of the European art film. The great modernist tide that swept through literature, theater, and painting in the early part of the last century had begun to trickle into cinema by the 1920s. But it crested amid the consumer prosperity of the postwar period, issuing in works that baffled and outraged even as they became markers of upscale taste. What these disparate films have in common are a tone of rarefied seriousness, a renunciation of humor (except perhaps the unintentional), a rigorous formalism. Their beauty is cold, austere, precise; their emotions range from the anguished and alienated to the inscrutably blank.
Of course, a different list might be composed. In 1961, American art-house devotees were likewise gobbling up the first of Federico Fellini’s lush, grotesque circus pageants in La Dolce Vita and sampling the French New Wave with the leaping inventiveness of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. Satyajit Ray had just completed his warmly humanist Apu Trilogy in India and there was always a picturesque ghost story or samurai epic arriving from Japan. But the quintessential products of art cinema––those which defined it as a unique, redemptive experience for initiates––were chiefly European and of the glacial variety. Liberal intellectuals who wouldn’t be caught dead in church could nonetheless slake their amorphous transcendental lust in rites conducted by the high priests Bergman, Antonioni, Bresson, and Dreyer. The devout incense burning that Pauline Kael once remarked at screenings of Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour designated the 1960s art house as an ersatz temple. The denuded purity of its sacred texts was an implicit rebuke to Hollywood budgetary decadence, just as their oracular obscurity challenged a feel-good escapism whose meanings were only too pat. Such brooding interior visions inhabited a pristine region beyond worldly entertainment and invited a connoisseurship not entirely distinct from snobbery. Educated Americans especially, laboring under the cultural inferiority complex that goes with mass democracy, found in European art cinema the tokens of a loftier sensibility. And no filmmaker piqued their ambition more thoroughly than Ingmar Bergman.
Given the tendency of recent imports such as Amores Perros and Amélie to guarantee a rollercoaster ride for your money, it’s almost poignant that the slow, ponderous rhythms of Through a Glass Darkly should have been sanctified by an Oscar for best foreign film. The movie wouldn’t stand the ghost of a chance these days, thanks to the ubiquity of the shopping-mall demographic and its corollary, snappy postmodern irony. We in the west no longer feel guilt over our affluent lifestyle––neither the emptiness of the void nor the need to fill it with a second-hand spirituality. As for art, it’s a game like everything else, and what we mainly ask of it are prankish, self-referential surfaces that admit the fact. Yet, to a previous generation, Bergman was the real deal––a stringently ascetic artist who didn’t just use the film medium as an instrument of personal catharsis, but seemed to suffer Christ-like on the viewer’s behalf. The first part of a trilogy completed by Winter Light (1962) and The Silence (1963), Through a Glass Darkly offers novices the advantage of being among the director’s most representative works. Indeed, its portentousness, banked intensity, and recondite symbolism come near to embodying the popular stereotype of the Bergmanesque. Art-house veterans will be seized with nostalgia at the opening credits––white letters against a funereal black background, while a lonely violoncello drones Bach’s Suite No. 2 in D Minor. These barren signifiers (which became de rigueur for such later Bergman clones as Woody Allen’s Interiors and Robert Redford’s Ordinary People) herald the kind of journey awaiting us. There won’t be much pleasing scenery on display, because this Lutheran minister’s son aims to peel off the carnal husk and plumb the unfathomable dark night of the soul. As with Bergman’s other stripped-down liturgies, the movie requires a sustained act of faith from the audience. A single wisecrack, a flickering doubt, and the high-flown edifice of metaphysical gloom instantly crumbles to dust. Yet, only believe, and you have the whole human civilized condition in a tightly impacted nutshell.
Out of the nothingness onscreen gradually materializes––next to nothing. Or rather everything, since the first image is of rippling water. We could be anywhere, but it so happens we’re floating above the Baltic Sea, on whose waves play dim reflections that fulfill the promised opacity of the title. Then a row of four bathers can be glimpsed at an enormous height––tiny dots that clamber from the wet onto a long, narrow pier leading to the shore of an island. For all we know at this point, they might be amphibians taking their initial, fumbling steps out of the primordial soup. Alternatively, they could be the survivors of a shipwreck or the last fauna alive after a nuclear holocaust. Bergman draws the horizon as an oppressive, leaden line that makes us uncertain whether we’re witnessing dawn or sunset, the beginning or the end. With the eternal white sky beating down and the stoniest of summer cottages for protection, the figures stand cruelly exposed. “Isn’t it rather chilly?” complains one of them, quite unnecessarily, because it’s always chilly in Bergman’s universe (spiritually, if not meteorologically). “If Hemingway can do it, so can we,” boasts another, with a singular lack of discernment. For so far as health, virility, courage, and general life force go, these people are the reverse of Hemmingwayesque. They belong to a decadent ace that wandered through much of European art cinema in the early 1960s, recognizable by its effeteness and self-absorption, its chronic inabilityto communitcate or love. Bergman’s specimens have been marooned on that rugged island with therapeutic intent. As in an emotional crucible, the characters’ suppressed resentments will bubble up, the mutual accusations multiply, until every polished illusion falls away and reality cracks open.
Bergman’s cinema is strenuously confessional in that its bitter, rasping inmates so often resemble projections of their creator’s own terminally divided mind. It’s as if the dialogue were really an agonized monologue in which id and superego, the divine and the only too human, battle for supremacy in a perpetual inner theater. Small wonder that Karin (Harriet Andersson), the heroine of Darkly, is a schizophrenic. Bergman leaves us to decide whether the voices she hears in the attic emanate from God, the devil, or clinical dementia. He extends the same equivocation to his art. Novelist and patriarch David (Gunnar Björnstrand) learns with shame that he is capable of treating his daughter’s illness as an imaginative ace in the hole. This portrait of the artist as charlatan, windbag, and heartless exploiter represents Bergman’s lowest self-estimation. Surely no other film master has made such a consistent parade of his dirty linen. “Your faith and doubt carry no weight. All that’s apparent is your ingenuity,” son-in-law Martin (Max von Sydow) spits––at which stage in the recriminatory ping-pong David charges him with longing for the death of his burdensome wife. The final member in the family quartet is Minus (Lars Passgård), the very model of callow youth, who eats from the tree of knowledge through an incestuous clinch with sister Karin.
Bergman could certainly arouse mixed feelings, but he never provoked sheer rancorous hatred the way Bresson or Dreyer sometimes did. For the patron saint of angst was also a showman who tempered his puritan severity with a measure of melodramatic ham. The unnatural coupling that pricks Minus’ narcissistic bubble doesn’t make much sense in ordinary psychological terms, but it provides a suitably electrifying Big Moment. And while Harriet Andersson shrieks and convulses magnificently, Karin’s climactic revelation of the world’s horror occasions a Gothic spectacle that isn’t light years away from The Exorcist. As she catches sight of the helicopter arriving to remove her to a sanatorium, Karin understands at last––God is a spider. Translation: The pious consolations of the past no longer suffice in the era of Auschwitz and the atomic bomb. A reprieve is nonetheless granted through earthly love––a coda shows the aloof father chastened and struggling to bond with his neglected son. That the director himself found this optimism facile can be judged from the diminishing spiritual returns in the trilogy, culminating in the almost total cosmic nullity of The Silence. Bergman’s lapsed Lutheran despair had its flaunting, exhibitionistic side (which he counted among his compulsively unbosomed sins). Yet that strain of theatricality was equally his saving grace. Few filmmakers have been so adept at mounting an atmosphere of occult dread (note how in Darkly mundane objects like a desk or wallpaper seem to glow with malign purpose), and no other has drawn such discreetly virtuoso performances from his cast. Bergman’s cinema is grand opera in the guise of chamber music.