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Through a Glass Darkly

Through a Glass Darkly(1962)

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Through a Glass Darkly (1962)

A turning point in the career of director Ingmar Bergman, Through a Glass Darkly (1961) derives its title from a Biblical quote by Paul in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, reproduced in full on the American theatrical poster. Bergman had just come off of the atypical comedy The Devil's Eye (1960) and was riding a wave of international acclaim for The Seventh Seal (1957) and Wild Strawberries (1957), not to mention the brutal The Virgin Spring (1960), which had netted Sweden a Foreign Language Film Oscar. However, with this film he made a dramatic turn inward, paring down both the production design and performances to spare, harrowing basics, setting the stage for his future masterwork Persona (1966).

Only four people are seen in this film: schizophrenic Karin (Smiles of a Summer Night's [1955] Harriet Andersson), her stoic but troubled husband Martin (Bergman regular Max von Sydow), her morally anguished brother Minus (Lars Passgrd), and her estranged father, David (Gunnar Bjrnstrand), who is using her illness as fodder for his latest book. The quartet spend time together on a remote island where Karin's mental state begins to deteriorate rapidly after she discovers through her father's writing that she is incurable, with the three men forced to cope in dramatically different ways.

Bergman wrote the screenplay during the spring of 1960 while vacationing at Hotel Siljansborg in Dalarna with his wife, Kbi, to whom he dedicated the film. Preliminary titles were announced as The Wallpaper and The Tapestry, with the final title settled upon when shooting began. By late summer the film was completed, and as Bergman recalled in his own self-penned study of his films, Images: My Life in Film, the story had "a simple philosophy: God is love and love is God." Looking back at it in the '90s, he remarked that, "If you don't count the epilogue that I tacked loosely onto Through a Glass Darkly, you could say that the film is above reproach technically and dramatically."

That technical perfection came at a cost for editor Ulla Ryghe, who took two months working with Bergman to edit this, her first feature. They would start at 9 in the morning and hone the footage to his specifications, even though he would discard any takes he didn't want before even handing the footage over to her. The process proved to be productive, however, as she went on to cut several more films for Bergman concluding with Shame in 1968.

In August of 1960, Bergman held a press conference in Stockholm in which he referred to this film (scored with Bach music, incidentally) as being composed "like a string quartet in three movements, a piece of chamber music." He also tied its theme to Wild Strawberries and The Virgin Spring: "The problem of God is always before me, always present. Film by film, step by step, I have tried to find a steadily clearer interpretation of the matter of atonement."

One month later, Bergman announced he was to stage his first play at Stockolm's Royal Dramatic Theater, with his eyes on Eugene O'Neill's More Stately Mansions. In the end he settled on making his debut there with The Seagull in 1961 and remained there as theater director until 1966. Interestingly, that Anton Chekhov play echoes the play-within-a-play device of Through a Glass Darkly, which itself was dramatized on stage at London's Almeida Theater in 2010.

Though initial critical reaction in America was oddly dismissive (with Films in Review amusingly opining that "Bergman may be approaching the end of his vogue"), the film quickly became an art house success and was reappraised by many critics. In fact, it won Sweden a consecutive Oscar for Foreign Language Film (accepted in person by Harriet Andersson), a feat bookended that same decade by France and Italy.

In years since, this film has been commonly considered part of a trilogy with the two Bergman films made immediately after it: Winter Light (1963), originally announced as The Communicants, and The Silence (1963). Bergman himself stated that he didn't intend to connect the three films, but they have remained linked thanks to the publications of their screenplays together in one volume and their Criterion DVD release as "A Film Trilogy." "I tend to look skeptically at the whole trilogy concept," Bergman explained, but seen either as a standalone drama or part of a larger artistic progression, this one still remains "above reproach."

By Nathaniel Thompson

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