Through a Glass Darkly is yet another Ingmar Bergman film I have watched repeatedly. I’m not sure the story is quite as cohesive as Wild Strawberries or Seventh Seal, but it’s still an absolutely fascinating film. I’m not sure I’ve completely made sense of it, but I made an attempt. This is the first of Ingmar Bergman’s Silence of God trilogy so maybe it will make more sense after I’ve completed the entire trilogy.
Supposedly, Kieslowski’s Colors Trilogy was inspired by Bergman’s Silence of God Trilogy. Bergman said of the trilogy, “These three films deal with reduction. Through a Glass Darkly — conquered certainty [certainty achieved, God defined]. Winter Light — penetrated certainty [certainty unmasked, God exposed]. The Silence — God’s silence -the negative imprint [negative impressions]. Therefore, they constitute a trilogy.”
Through a Glass Darkly was a desperate attempt to present a simple philosophy: God is love and love is God. A person surrounded by love is also surrounded by God. That is what I, with the assistance of Vilgot Sjöman, named ‘conquered certainty.’ The terrible thing about the film is that it offers a horrendously revealing portrait of the creator and the condition he was in at the start of the film, both as a man and as an artist. A book would have been much less revealing in this case, since words can be more nebulous than pictures.
Perhaps Bergman identified with David (the writer in the film) who uses those closest to him as material for his art. He maintains an objective distance from those he loves and this creates a painful isolation because artists are not easily forgiven by those who have been objectified through their art. Also, Bergman was the son of a pastor who had been an advisor to the Queen so this trilogy was an attempt to work through his disillusionment with the emotionally cold Lutheran Church.
Only four characters are used which Bergman calls a sort of musical Chamber play. Karin is the main character. She has just been released from an asylum. Karin’s younger brother, Minus. He desperately wants a relationship with his father. Karin’s & Minus’s father, David, the emotionally distanced writer. He is almost completely objective about Karin’s breakdown because he knows he can use it as subject matter for a future book. Karin’s husband, Martin is a physician and clearly loves Karin although he doesn’t really allow her a voice. He’s somewhat smothering. The film revolves around Karin’s descent into madness the affect on David, Minus and Martin.
It seems that Karin and Minus have an incestual relationship and it has been suggeted that there may have been a sexual relationship between Karin and her father, too, although I didn’t see that as clearly within that relationship as I did the relationship between Karin and Minus.
The title, "Through a Glass Darkly", comes from 1 Corinthians 13:12: “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.” This is the King James interpretation but new versions usually refer to a mirror rather than glass. The Swedish Bible of 1917 also referred to a mirror rather than transparent glass. The mirrors of the ancients were polished metal so images were seen darkly and imperfectly. Apparently, Bergman’s title is read literally as “mirror” so a distorted reflection is likely what he had in mind.
So what does this mean, exactly? That the reflection of God is much darker than the actuality of God? That our own self-reflection is much darker than the reality of our being? Maybe both? Does Karin see God, or a reflection of her own insanity? Karin waits with great anticipation her meeting with God, but all that comes through the door is a stony faced spider that tries to penetrate her. She looked into God’s eyes and they were cool and calm. When she wouldn’t allow God to penetrate her, God crawled up her chest and face and back onto the wall. So what does that mean?? Some people think the spider represents an incestual relationship between Karin and her father. Could be. But, Bergman said the spider represented “a question of the total dissolution of all notions of an otherworldly salvation.”
Karin has been waiting for the appearance of God with great anticipation. What is it she expects to get from this encounter if not some sort of salvation? Karin represents the play between two worlds: the world of reality and the world of illusion. From an existential perspective, the religious desire for another world is delusional. We live in this world and to place the focus of life on some future, more perfect existence, is to negate life. It’s a sort of insanity.
Karin decides she can’t possibly live in two worlds so chooses the world of insanity over the world of reality. Nothing can save her from her descent. There is no hope for her at all. At the end of the film, she puts on sunglasses, perhaps symboliing the rejection of light? Karin has made the descent into nihilism – she’s rejected the reality of this world in favor of the illusion.
I have a theory on the spider that may or may not make sense. I’ll just put it out there.
I’ve written repeatedly about Nietzsche’s warning that we have been a slave to our idea of an abstract God for thousands of years and now that we finally realize it, we should not allow ourselves to become slaves to reason. Perhaps the stony faced, cool and calm spider represents God as reason? Karin refuses to be penetrated by reason and so she descends into insanity. It’s a negative transcendence rather than a mystical, spiritual one. The mystical transcendence of reason is not about letting go of our reason or rejecting reason or getting rid of it. It’s simply about keeping it in perspective and not allowing ourselves to be slaves to it. If we do, we become like David and one day find ourselves attempting to drive our car off a cliff because that’s the rational response to an absurd world.
I’d love to know how Bergman came up with the idea of using a spider as God. In Jonathon Edwards Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, there is reference to a spider – we are hanging over the fires of Hell by the thin strand of a spider’s web and God can cut the web at any moment. I always imagined it was a spider that would cut the strand. But the God Karin sees isn’t angry so I guess that doesn’t really fit. In Crime and Punishment, Raskonikov says he doesn’t believe in a future life and Svridigailov replies, “And what if there are only spiders there, or something of that sort… We always imagine eternity as something beyond our conception, something vast. Vast! But why must it be vast? Instead of all that, what if it’s one little room, like a bathhouse in the country, black and grimy and spiders in every corner and that’s all eternity is? I sometimes imagine it like that.” That doesn’t really fit, either. In Norse mythology, the spider sometimes refers to Loki, a trickster God. Ananse in African folklore is also a spider-god and a trickster god. Athena was associated with the spider because she turned the mortal weaver, Arachne into a spider for having the hubris to think herself better than the gods. But that doesn’t really fit, either.
And what does Bergman mean that Through A Glass Darkly is conquered certainty (or God defined)? Especially if conquered certainty (God defined) is God is love? For those of us who have struggled with the existential question, God defined as love is somewhat trite, especially the way it is described by David at the end of the film. Apparently, Bergman himself was sorry about this epilogue. When David first offered this definition, I thought it was going to be countered as trite, but this was exactly what Minus wanted to hear. What was most important was that his father finally talked with him.
So here is another thought about the spider God who is cold, distant, and wants to penetrate people but is unable to do so if he is refused. God is often referred to as the father and this father figure has become an extremely distant, cold, abstract God. People suffer horribly and this God does nothing. We long to know the father, but he’s not there. So when David finally talks with Minus, especially about God being love and love being God, it’s as though God is made known. God is defined. Conquered certainty.