Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence: The Word and the Spirit

Although he described himself as an agnostic, religion—or at least its loss—was a lifelong concern of Ingmar Bergman’s. It became the main focus of his work in the late 1950s, in films such as The Seventh Seal and The Magician. Grace isn’t a word that really enters Bergman’s lexicon, but something like grace can be found in the moments of human communion dotted throughout those films, which, although critical of institutional religion, nevertheless float the possibility of spiritual connection. Such glad moments begin to fade in the first pair of films that make up what is sometimes referred to as Bergman’s “faith trilogy,” Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and Winter Light (1963); by the time of The Silence (also released in 1963), the final installment, they seem to have disappeared altogether, replaced by what appears to be a dystopic vision of humanity deserted by God. 

Conceived as a series of filmed chamber plays, the trilogy is heavily influenced by the work of August Strindberg (Bergman, a lifelong admirer of Strindberg, directed television productions of two of his plays in the early sixties). The trio of films inscribe a trajectory that moves, as Bergman puts it in an introductory remark in the published screenplays, from “certainty achieved” to “certainty unmasked” to “God’s silence—the negative impression.” The title of the final film in the trilogy, The Silence, is therefore a significant gesture toward the emptiness that has descended over a godless world. But all three works turn around absent or ineffective fathers and abandoned children, and each is haunted, in its own way, by the loss of divine authority as well. Watching them, it becomes clear that these are films not about faith per se but about Europe’s collective crisis of faith in the modern era, what the scholar Mike King has referred to as an “exhausted Christianity,” the lingering power of which still holds the mind in its grip, but which offers so little real sustenance as to create only anguish. They are reflective, too, of Bergman’s casting off of the faith he was raised with: “holy rubbish that blocks one’s view.”

Certainty Achieved

The first film in the trilogy announces Bergman’s concerns before it even begins. Through a Glass Darkly takes its title from the most widely known of the apostle Paul’s letters, the thirteenth chapter of his First Epistle to the Corinthians, which ends as follows:

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face-to-face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

The film opens with the title, which appears as white text on a stark black background, and sure enough, it closes with an affirmation of love. Yet the tone of the film is anxious, fretful. Its setting—this was Bergman’s first film shot on the island of Fårö—is bleak, isolated. The first image we see is four laughing figures emerging from the sea, while on the shore lies the carcass of a wrecked ship. 

In a cool, dark house on the island, schizophrenic Karin (Harriet Andersson) waits for a God who she believes lives behind the wallpaper of an upstairs room. Her father, David (Gunnar Björnstrand)—whose long absences and distant manner have led her to doubt him—offers solace, solidity, comfort, but is in fact a detached and self-accusing observer: he is using Karen’s illness as a case history for one of his novels. Karin’s brother, Minus (Lars Passgård), meanwhile, spends his time looking at pornography and reading Latin. He, too, is desperate for his father to speak to him. But David cannot. He admits to Karin’s husband, Martin (Max von Sydow), that while an abortive suicide attempt has enabled him to recognize the extent of his love for his family, he is still incapable of demonstrating it to their benefit.

At the film’s climax, Karin seduces her brother before suffering what appears to be a breakdown. Back in the upstairs room, she kneels and waits for God to arrive. An air ambulance, summoned by David and Martin, flies by the window and shakes the room. A door swings open as if on its own, and Karin stands eagerly, then recoils in horror. She begins screaming uncontrollably, and is subdued and sedated by David and Martin. When the spasm ends, she tells them she had a vision of God, who appeared to her as a spider and tried to penetrate her. “I saw his face. It was a terrible, stony face,” she says, moments before her family escorts her to the helicopter that will take her to an asylum.

In the wake of this nightmare, the reassurances David offers his son that “God is love” ring horribly hollow. No doubt Bergman meant the scene sincerely: he told his fellow director Vilgot Sjöman, “When I wrote [the screenplay] . . . I thought I had found a real proof of God’s existence: God is love. God is all kinds of love, even perverted forms—and the proof of God’s existence gave me a great feeling of security.” But, Bergman continues, this assurance “lasted only until I started shooting the film.” So it is perhaps not surprising that the film’s ending is an unconvincing note as an affirmation. The light from the sea is a sunset; this is not a new dawn but an ending—and it is seen darkly, through a window. Karin’s perception, too, is shrouded behind dark glasses as she is lifted into the sky. A troubling dissolve actually wipes her from the clouds while the sea below remains calm, undisturbed. And in the end, long-neglected Minus’s damp-eyed declaration that, finally, “Papa spoke to me” is a cliché that closes out the film on a note that the director himself would later find to be false.

Certainty Unmasked

Bergman claimed that his doubts about the ending of Through a Glass Darkly compelled him to write Winter Light as a sequel of sorts, to refute David’s self-protecting God of love. The film was conceived as a confrontation between faith and doubt, but, as Bergman details in his autobiography The Magic Lantern, it didn’t take concrete shape until he visited a small country church outside of Uppsala with his father, a Lutheran minister who had served as chaplain to the king of Sweden. Upon discovering only four congregants and a minister who complained he was too ill to preside over Communion, Bergman’s father stepped in, performing the service in full. The incident gave Bergman the ending of Winter Light, and indeed set the tone for the film as a whole. In a sense, these two clergymen—the one too sick to continue, the other valiantly struggling on, cohere in the character of pastor Tomas Ericsson (Björnstrand), a man tormented by his dwindling congregation and faith. 

Inconsolable doubts plague the minister, named after the disciple who needed physical evidence of the risen Christ. These doubts infect the atmosphere, spreading despair like the influenza that also afflicts Tomas. He reaches a crisis point after a communicant, Jonas (von Sydow), reveals that his despair for the world and fear of Chinese bombing have led him to consider suicide. Far from being able to offer reassuring platitudes, Tomas confesses that his participation in the Spanish Civil War, along with the death of his wife, has turned his loving God “into a spider God”—a confirmation of sorts of the existence of the terrible deity glimpsed by Karin in Through a Glass Darkly. Jonas duly kills himself, and Tomas wonders whether there is no God at all. As his long-suffering lover, Märta (Ingrid Thulin)—an atheist and the sanest person in the three films—puts it, “God won’t speak. God has never spoken because God doesn’t exist. It’s as simple as that.” Märta’s love, far from offering consolation, threatens Tomas’s faith because of her rejection of Christianity. Hers is a love that is free, genuine, and pure, and that exists without allegiance to any religious convictions—a godless love. Still, she is not exempt from suffering: Tomas’s coldness toward her—the apparent revulsion she inspires in him—leaves her heartsick, while terrible eczema torments her physically.

Winter Light’s action takes place on a single Sunday, beginning with one church service and ending with another, its structural unity part of the film’s almost parabolic simplicity. Its mise-en-scène is spare, ascetic, paring back the formal restraint of Through a Glass Darkly to its bare bones, as if Tomas’s denial of worldly pleasures extends to the very setting. In the tight close-ups of the characters’ tortured faces, the long, stark shots of the woodland where Jonas’s body is found, and the taut, clipped conversations, the question of God’s silence echoes ominously. At the film’s end, one character suggests to Tomas that far worse than Christ’s physical suffering was the pain he must have endured on realizing that his disciples, during the course of his ministry, had “never grasped what he meant. They abandoned him . . . He was left all alone.” Worse still is the thought—Christ’s thought on the cross—that God had forsaken him: “He believed everything he ever preached was a lie. In the moments before he died, Christ was seized by doubt. Surely that must have been his greatest hardship.”

God’s Silence—The Negative Impression

In The Silence, Bergman takes the idea of monstrosity to its logical extreme, not only avoiding all mention of God but reducing the role of language to near irrelevance. The film’s action takes place in Timoka, a city in an unidentified Central European country whose citizens speak an unidentified language (and no subtitles are provided to translate it). Here, two sisters—one of whom, Ester (Thulin), is in the throes of a nameless, painful illness—hole up in a sinister hotel, otherwise inhabited by weird, carnivalesque performers. Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) has a ten-year-old son, Johan (Jörgen Lindström), who wanders aimlessly through the hotel corridors; his mother has a disaffected sexual encounter (the film’s depictions of sex are remarkably frank); his father is nowhere to be seen. Ester has translation work to do but is distracted by one thing or another, finally turning to masturbation for relief. She intermittently seems to recover from her illness, then relapses into agonizing convulsions. Meanwhile, an armored tank makes its ominous way through the empty streets, and trains stop suddenly, without explanation, before moving along again. The atmosphere is sickly, static. The clock ticks; nothing moves forward. The narrative is scant: although the “action”—like that of Winter Light—takes place over twenty-four hours, all sense of time is distorted, as meaningless as the words we hear.

Appearing as it did in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis, the film is haunted by a general sense of helplessness: a globalized version of Jonas’s anxiety in Winter Light about the end of reassurances. Some scholars see the sisters as representing the conflicting forces of sensuality and intellect, and the boy as the autobiographical figure of the evolving artist. Bergman never discouraged this view, yet the desolation and loneliness that oppress both sisters suggest more than the incompleteness of either option. Rather, the malaise in the air is the sense that the world itself has lost its moorings. At this point in his career, not even art seems to offer solace for Bergman: the film ends abruptly, unresolved. 

From this perspective, as the critic Tony Pipolo has pointed out, Ester’s association with language, as a translator, and her labored attempts to sustain its importance, can be seen as the exhausting life-and-death struggle between the artist who tries to make meaning and the world from which meaning has been removed. The crisis of language mirrors the larger one faced by the modern world. If the other films in the trilogy float the possibility of nihilism, The Silence is nothing short of a gaze into the abyss.

Little wonder the film attracted hate mail and accusations of contempt for mankind. On its release, The Silence was briefly banned in France and narrowly avoided the same fate in West Germany. Critics such as Andrew Sarris, Bosley Crowther, and Stanley Kauffmann derided the film, feeling that the director had fallen too far into implication and obfuscation. But how else could The Silence be? For in fact, what Bergman preaches here is less the death of God than the death of images of God, images that we might mistake for reality. The trilogy makes a clean sweep of Christian imagery in order to turn the page. Fishermen return from the sea empty-handed. The church bells ring out but mean nothing. An emaciated donkey pulls a cart with a potted palm tree, drops it, and returns burdened with useless broken furniture. Human beings, no longer created in the image of God, suffer sexual humiliation and physical degradation, and what little attempt they make to overcome their abjection is foolish, futile. In The Silence, communication is all but impossible.

And yet hope floats. The film closes with Ester making one final attempt to connect with her young nephew—and the chance, however small, that her words will bear fruit. Speaking once more with Sjöman, Bergman quoted the Swedish author and Nobel Prize winner Pär Lagerkvist:

Beyond the gods, beyond all that falsifies and coarsens the world of holiness, beyond all lies and distortion, all twisted divinities, and all the abortions of human imagination, there must be something stupendous which is inaccessible to us. Which, by our very failure to capture it, demonstrates how inaccessible it is. Beyond all the sacred clutter, the holy thing itself must exist. That I believe, of that I am certain.

The trilogy breaks down Christianity’s symbols, its “sacred clutter,” because they are untruthful, unfaithful, perhaps fatal. In so doing, it clears the way for something else: for a God whose silence does not mark his absence but his unknownness. What comes after such iconoclasm is an open question. Certainly, later in his career, Bergman again raised the possibility that human connection and art might after all offer spiritual solace in the absence of religious belief. What is clear is that the certain and the effable must make room for what is uncertain and ineffable, and that comprehension and knowledge must be replaced by total unknowing. For Bergman, it is time that we see, once more, through a glass darkly.