Written by: John White on March 24th, 2006
Theatrical Release Date: 1961/1963/1963
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Cast: Harriet Andersson, Gunnal Lindblom, Gunnar Björnstrand, Max Von Sydow, Ingrid Thulin
DVD released: August 19, 2003
Approximate running time: 89/80/95/146 mins
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Rating: Not Rated
Sound: Dolby Digital Mono
DVD Release: Criterion
Region Coding: Region 1 NTSC
Retail Price: $79.95
Overview: Between 1961 and 1963 Ingmar Bergman made three films which are some times referred to as his Faith Trilogy. For Bergman the films represented his personal feelings about the religious belief he had learnt from his father and previously used in earlier films. For Bergman, he found a strong contradiction between what he understood as the message of Christianity and how organized religion expressed it. For Bergman the coldness and rigidity of his own Father undermined the message of love and forgiveness explicit in Christian faith. These three films, Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light and The Silence, represent Bergman’s eventual embracing of a world without belief. The films also represented a move from the ornate and consciously “big” films of the 1950’s to “chamber” pieces with small casts.
Through a Glass Darkly: Karin has been struggling with her schizophrenia with the help of her husband, Martin, and her young brother, Minus. On vacation at a remote Island, they receive a visit from Karin’s distant father, David, a successful writer. Karin happens to read David’s diaries and learns that he dreads her “disintegration” and his desire to turn this into a topic for his writing. The impact of his words causes her health to worsen and for her voices to return. When Martin and David leave on a short trip, Karin’s health goes into collapse taking her brother with her.
This is a tale of awful fascination. David’s curiosity for new subjects overwhelms his concern for his daughter and despite Martin’s frantic efforts and patience Karin realizes that she can’t be helped. This happens through the ruining of Minus’ innocence by Karin’s instability. David is a figure that can be clearly associated with Bergman, an artist compelled to write and to be distant from his family and children much as Bergman was. This artistic cannibalism is stressed throughout as are the consequences of choosing to be an artist on the family around David. Bergman offers hope before the film ends when Minus after an incestuous outburst eventually learns to communicate with his father – “father spoke to me”.
This film with all it’s complexity of emotion and the shocking product of family relationships is one of Bergman’s finest films. The title comes from the King James’ translation of the Bible – “at first(as a child) I saw clearly, now I see as if through a glass darkly”. A statement which is the New Testament’s acknowledgment of the difficulty of faith when you are an adult. It is hard to believe that Bergman’s characters’ belief is validated through the sick web of their relationships despite “trusting” God.
Through a Glass Darkly has one of the greatest performances in any Bergman film from Harriet Andersson. Her depiction of Schizophrenia has never been bettered, the “voices”, the ending of trust and the hopelessness is exceptional. Alongside Winter Light, Cries and Whispers and the Virgin Spring this is one of Bergman’s masterpieces.
Winter Light: At 12 noon Tomas is leading a Sunday service to his congregation. The congregation is small but includes Marta, the schoolteacher he has been secretly seeing, Karin and Jonas, a couple who need Tomas’ help urgently, and Algot, a hunchback helper at the church whose faith is so secure despite his infirmity. After the service, Tomas arranges to see Jonas after he returns his wife home and is comforted by Marta for his cold and his feeling of being deserted by God. Marta has left him a letter and he chooses to read it before Jonas returns. In it Marta exposes his coldness, her need for him, his lack of faith and his self loathing. When Jonas arrives, Tomas is able to listen a little of his concerns that the Chinese have nuclear weapons but, in seeking to empathise with Jonas,Tomas betrays his own despair. He learns later that Jonas takes his life and visits Marta to tell her how much her neediness makes him loath her. Tomas delivers his 3pm service to an almost empty church, empty but for the faithful Algot and the lovestruck atheist Marta.
The tale of a priest who feels forsaken by God and whose own despair leads to his flock losing their faith and taking their lives is not one for chuckles. Bergman saw Winter Light as the one film he made that went exactly as he wanted it to, and given this it is hard to credit that Bergman had any faith left. Tomas, played brilliantly by Gunnar Bjornstrand, causes monstrous pain because of his own grief and anger at God for taking his wife but this pain is honestly inflicted and understandable. Tomas is not a monster, just a human being who can’t belief despite having to.
One of the most interesting characters in Winter Light is Algot, a man in constant physical pain who believes as he can see that spiritual pain is far worse. In the conclusion of the film Algot speaks of Christ’s pain on the cross and states that his worst torment was the fear that God had forsaken him, that he had given his life for nothing. The empathy on Tomas’ face is impossible to miss. Winter Light concludes on the ambiguous note of an almost empty church led by a Godless priest, his only parishioners being an atheist who loves him and a man who praises spiritual life because of his constant physical pain.
The film takes place over three hours and is shot with very natural light in almost constant snow. It boasts no happy characters and offers only belief because of the inevitability of physical pain. It lives in a world of uncontrollable foes with the ability to destroy you and love of the unlovable. Not a film to watch when you are fragile but one of the greatest ever made.
The Silence: Two sisters are travelling across Europe with one of the sisters young son. When the other sister falls violently ill they stay at a hotel in a semi militaristic unnamed country. One sister is self involved, inward and cerebral, whilst the other is sexual, maternal and instinctive. The young son walks about the hotel learning to communicate with the butler and a troupe of dwarves. Eventually bored, the well sister trawls the bars of the city looking for a man whilst the ill sister stays in bed, masturbates and drinks. When the sisters clash on each other’s behaviour they reject each other and the well one and her son leave.
The Silence is about the lack of communion in the world and echoes the use of duality in a later great Bergman film, Persona. The sisters are opposites of the same whole to some degree and the eventual rejection of the sickly sister by the liberated one mirrors Bergman leaving the religious conscience he was brought up with. The film is more than this though, and the sheer lack of verbal communication throughout is balanced by the glut of miscommunication when words eventually happen between the sisters.
Into this relationship is placed the innocence of the young son wandering about the Hotel and learning of the Butler’s grief, but also making friends with the troupe of dwarves. The dwarves are the most unaffected people in this film and like in Winter Light, the physically different are more balanced and well than the ordinary looking central characters.
Like the other 2 films in the trilogy, the Silence concludes on an ambiguous point with the young son handed words in the foreign language by the sick sister so he can communicate better. The final part of the trilogy was controversial on release because of sexual scenes and it became very popular because of this controversy. It is an excellent film and resolves the final question of faith with the well sister leaving it behind with her ailing conscience, but the need for a kind of communion is acknowledged with the words given to the son. Not as great as the other two parts of the trilogy but truly magnificent anyway.
This set comes with a sturdy white box containing the three films and an extras disc containing a Swedish TV series on Bergman making Winter Light. All three films have excellent transfers which are super sharp. Through a Glass Darkly and The Winter Light have pictures which are reportedly better than other available releases, though the Silence is meant to be better on the UK Tartan disc. The audio on the discs comes with dual language options, I watched using the Swedish track which seemed excellent to me on all films, particular Through a Glass Darkly. The English subtitles are excellent.
The strongest reason to buy this set is the bonus disc, Ingmar Bergman makes a movie. This five part TV series is as good an insight as you will get into any film director. The series takes the making of Winter Light from the completion of the script, to the beginning of production, through filming to the completion of the movie. It boasts interviews with actors, Bergman and production staff and shows you Bergman directing and motivating the actors as well as considering the difficulties of mise-en-scene. Bergman comes over as laid back in encouraging the actors but exacting in his requests. He was particularly hard on Bjornstrand reportedly. This disc is not as sharp as the film presentations.
On each of the film discs, Peter Cowie provides good introductions for all the films and each disc in the set carries glossy booklets on the films which include essays from a number of film writers.
This box set is a must purchase containing the exceptional TV series and two of Bergman’s masterpieces with fine prints for all of them.
For more information about A Film Trilogy by Ingmar Bergman and other titles released by Criterion visit their website.