Through a Glass Darkly (1961): Bergman’s Oscar-Winning Masterpiece, Starring Harriet Andersson and Max Von Sydow

In this gloomy, intense drama, set mostly in an isolated island, Harriet Andersson plays a schizophrenic woman married to a doctor (Max Von Sydow), who is frustrated because he loves her and sees her suffering, but can’t help her much.
After spending some time in a mental asylum, she joins her husband, her father (Gunnar Bjornstrasnd) and her younger brother (Lars Passgard on a lonely Island in the Baltic, where all engage in tormenting each other and soul-searching.
The first part of a trilogy, “Through a Glass Darkly” was highly acclaimed and was honored with the 1961 Best Foreign Language Oscar. The movie was followed by “Winter Night” in 1962, and “The Silence” in 1963. What unifies this work is Bergman’s persistent exploration of issues of faith, religion, and science, and family love, and the distinguished imagery courtesy of ace lenser Sven Nykvist.
 
Oscar Nominations: 2
Picture (foreign-language category)
Story and Screenplay (Original): Ingmar Bergman
Oscar Awards: 1
Foreign-Language Film
Oscar Context:
 
The winner of the Original Story and Screenplay Oscar was the Italian comedy, “Divorce—Italian Style,” penned by Ennio de Concini, Alfredo Gainnetti, and Pietro Germi (who also directed).
The other foreign contenders were “Harry and the Butler” from Denmark, “Immortal Love” from Japan, “The Important Man” from Mexico, and “Placido” from Spain.

Credits:

Sweden (Svensk Filmindustri Production)

Released in US by Janus Films
Detailed Synopsis:
The story takes place during a 24-hour period while a family is vacationing on a remote island, shortly after Karin is released from an asylum. Karin’s husband, Martin, tells her father, David, that Karin’s disease is almost incurable.

Minus, Karin’s 17-year-old brother, tells Karin that he wishes he could have a real conversation with his father whose affection he craves.

A novelist suffering from “writer’s block” who has just returned from a long trip abroad, David plans to leave again. The others perform a play for him that Minus has written. David, while feigning approval of the play, takes offence since the play is an attack on his character.

After rejecting Martin’s erotic overtures, Karin wakes up and follows the sound of a foghorn to the attic. She faints after hearing voices behind the wall.   Entering David’s room, she finds his diary, in which he records observations about her incurable illness and his desire to follow her deterioration.

The following morning, David and Martin, while fishing, confront each other over Karin. Martin accuses David of sacrificing his daughter for his art and of being self-absorbed, callous, cowardly, and phony. David is evasive but admits that much of what Martin says is true. David recently tried to kill himself by driving over a cliff but was saved by a faulty transmission. After that, he discovered that he loves Karin, Minus and Martin, which gave him hope.

Karin tells Minus that she is waiting for God to appear in the attic. Minus is sexually frustrated, and Karin teases him, after she discovers a hidden men’s magazine.

On the beach, Karin sees that a storm is coming, and runs into a wrecked ship, huddling in fear. When Minus arrives, she seduces him.

Minus relates the incident in the ship and Martin calls for an ambulance.  Asking to speak with her father alone, Karin confesses her misconduct due to her inner voice. She would like to remain at the hospital, because she cannot go back and forth between two realities but must choose one.

While packing, she runs to the attic where Martin and David observe her actions. She says that God is about to walk out of the closet door, and asks her husband to allow her to enjoy the moment, fixated on a spider that comes out of crack in the wall. The ambulance arrives, but Karin runs from it, going into a frenzy panic. After being sedated. she tells them of God, a spider that tried to penetrate her. She looked into God’s cold and calm eyes, and when God failed to penetrate her he retreated onto the wall. “I have seen God,” she announces.

Karin and Martin leave in the helicopter. Minus tells his father that he is afraid after the incident with Karin–can he survive that way. David says he can if he has “something to hold on to,” and then talks about his hope for love. David and his son discuss love as it relates to God, hoping that their love may help sustain Karin. Minus is finally grateful that he had a real conversation with his father.

About Bergman:

Bergman, arguably the world’s greatest filmmaker of the second half of the century, died at age 89. As an artist, he had created more masterpieces than any other director, films that were personal and reflected his innermost fears and anxieties.
Bergman once said: “The cinema is not a craft. It is an art. It does not mean teamwork. One is always alone on the set, as before the blank page. To be alone means to ask questions. And to make films means to answer them. Nothing could be more classically romantic.”
A teacher of mine at Columbia University used to say that before Bergman there were movies, but after him there were films. This might sound pretentious, but what he meant is that Bergman elevated the status of motion pictures to an art form to be dealt with as seriously as literature, painting, and music.
Widely recognized as one of the most significant artists, Bergman was among a select few directors who used the medium of cinema as a creative art of personal expression. Moreover, he was among an even smaller group who exercised complete freedom and total artistic control over his workChe was both the author and auteur of his films.
Born on July 14, 1918 in Uppsala, Sweden, Bergman was the son a stern Luthren pastor, who eventually became chaplain to Sweden’s royal family. Raised under strict discipline, he recalled in his memoirs how he would spend hours in a dark closet for every violation of his father’s rigid code of ethics. These and other traumatic experiences of his childhood would later play a significant role in his work.
Bergman entered the movie industry in 1941 as a script doctor. His first opportunity came in 1944, when he was assigned to write the script for noted director Alf Sjoberg “Hets” (“Torment”). After the film’s success, he was given the chance to direct.
It took about a decade for Bergman to gets the critics’ attention and worldwide recognition, mostly via showcasing of his work in major film festivals like Cannes or Venice. If Bergman’s first films seem insignificant, it’s only because of the stature he was to achieve around 1955, with the release of “Smiles of a Summer Night” (1955), which years later served as inspiration for Stephen Sondheim’s musical “A Little Night Music.” Nonetheless, historically they are important as they contain the seeds of the director’s artistic development.
The film that catapulted Bergman to international fame was “The Seventh Seal” (1957), which won awards at the Cannes Festival, a heavy-duty allegory that deals agonizingly with the metaphysics of humans’ relationship to God and their encounters with the idea of death.
His next films, “Wild Strawberries” (1957) “The Virgin Spring,” created a vogue for Bergman in art theaters all over the world. His films began reflecting more and more his inner world, his anguish and fear, his joy and hopes.
Early on, he realized that to execute his artistic vision, he needed a reliable troupe of actors. Indeed, like John Ford in the U.S., Bergman developed a virtual stock company for his films as well as stage productions. Gonnar Bjornstrand and particularly Max von Sydow were his most notable male actors. Liv Ullmann, Bibi Andersson, Harriet Andersson, and Ingrid Thulin, were the actresses he was the most closely associated with. Bergman had a long-lasting relationship with Liv Ullmann, actually a Norwegian actress, that produced one child.
Space doesn’t permit me to dwell on all the highlights, but suffice is to say that between 1955 and 1973, Bergman created one masterpiece after another. Take “Persona” (1966), one of the most complex and challenging films I have ever seen, a key work of both psychodrama and meta-cinema.
In 1965, Bergman became extremely ill after twice contracting pneumonia and antibiotic poisoning. In his account of the film’s genesis, he claims that the inspiration for “Persona” came while he was in the hospital. The film was born of personal desperation at that time. Bergman called it “a creation that saved its creator.”
Nominally, “Persona” is “about” the relationship between two women: an actress named Elisabeth Vogler (Liv Ullmann) who has suffered a nervous breakdown and lost the power of speech, and her nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson), whose own anguish is unleashed by the mysterious woman in her care.   The two women, who look very much alike, begin to merge. They may also be two facets of one divided personality? The major themes of this dense text concern the fragile nature of identity and role-playing as prescribed by society. Alma and Elisabeth cross identities after engaging in games of power and battles of control.   Who’s stronger and who’s more troubled? Alma, the woman in charge due to her uniformed position of authority, or the seemingly needy patient under her charge?
Bergman once said that Persona asks the question of, “What is true and when does one tell the truth?” Critics have spent decades arguing over the meaning of Persona, a rare film that cineastes and historians revisit periodically, as if to validate their interpretation. “Persona” is notable for many achievements: the film within a film” devices, the eerie, erotic charge of the two women’s agonized relationship, the super-imposition of images that suggest the protagonists’ psychic dissolution and convergence.
In 1973, Bergman made “Cries and Whispers,” one of the few foreign language films to have been nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.
Along the way, there were joys but also tragedies. In 1976, while rehearsing “Dance of Death,” by Strindberg (his favorite playwright), at Stockholm’s Rotyal Dramatic Theater, he was arrested and charged with income-tax fraud. The impact was so devastating that he suffered a nervous breakdown, after which he left for Germany, where he made “Serpent’s Egg” (1978), his first English-speaking movie, considered to be a disappointment.
Bergman’s next film, however, “Autumn Sonata,” was a highlight, teaming him fro the first time with Ingrid Bergman (no relation despite similar last name) in an intense mother-daughter drama, drawing on Ingrid’s personal life; she plays a career pianist who neglects her daughter (played by Liv Ullmann).
Bergman reached the height of his artistic acclaim and commercial popularity in 1983, with the release of “Fanny and Alexander,” a personal film inspired by his own childhood. Unlike his former, pessimistic films, it displayed exuberant affirmation of life and art, love and faith, all bathed in lively color. Nominated for six Oscars, the film won the Best Foreign Language Award as well as Oscars for cinematography, art direction, and costume design.
It became his last theatrical film, though he directed for TV “After the Rehearsal,” with Lena Olin, write the screenplay for Bille August “The Best Intentions” (1992), about his parents’ tumultuous marriage, and directed for the stage.
Bergman and the Oscars
“The Virgin Spring” and “Through a Glass Darkly” won the Foreign-Language Picture Oscar of 1960 and 1961, respectively. Bergman received his first directing nomination as late as 1973, for “Cries and Whispers,” when he was fifty?six. None of Bergman’s earlier landmarks, “The Seventh Seal,” “The Virgin Spring,” or “Persona” was recognized by the Academy for his masterful directing.
Bergman, like Fellini, had not won a Best Director Oscar, though he earned a second nomination for “Face to Face,” and a third for “Fanny and Alexander,” which also won the Foreign-Language Picture Oscar.
From the Master’s Mouth:
 
On Inspiration: “I throw a spear into the dark. That is my intuition, and then I have to send an expedition into the jungle to find the spear and to find the way to the spear and absolutely another process. That is my intellect. That first process is a most wonderful time when you are working with a picture.
The Creative Process: Art’s a very secret, a very lustful time, and you feel involved in some sort of protection, in some sort of grace. Sometimes I have very strong ideas or visions about what I want to do, and suddenly there is this thread–it’s like a red thread coming from the stomach, and I can go on and on with it and suddenly it’s broken and then I know from this material there will be no picture Sometimes I have been less wise, so I have knotted the threads together and gone on, and that is very, very dangerous. I have learned by experience that at the moment when I start to argue with my intuition, I always make a wrong decision.