In the thirteenth chapter of the first epistle to the Corinthians, St Paul says: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then I shall know even as I also am known”. In these St Paul’s words, practically the whole film Through the Glass Darkly is surmised. The title, is of course, borrowed from the epistle to the Corinthians. At the beginning of the film, there is water, resembling a darkened glass, it is obscure, there are reflections in it; its opaque nature is not the one of stillness, but movement and instability. This is the nature of Karin’s mental illness, which denies her the possibility to live in the world, but is torn between the world of reality and the world which is created for her to suffer in. She is on an island with her brother, father and husband and what seems to be a family reunion is in fact a cold encounter between individuals who cannot communicate in a meaningful manner. Karin suffers from auditory as well as visual hallucinations. The only family member who she feels connected to her is her brother, whom she kisses, while he feels the disgust toward women.
Karin says: “Sometimes we are so defenseless. No, I don’t know. Like children cast out in the wilderness at night. The owls fly past, watching you with their yellow eyes. You hear the pitter patter, the rustling, the soughing and sighing, and the damp noises snfifing at you. The wolves bear their teeth.” Psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein, in one of her studies, writes: “Freud and Jung clearly shown us that the sick person’s system of delusions is not at all absurd, but follows the same laws as, for example a dream which always reveals itself to be logical work on a complex”. Karin’s delusions, therefore, are not at all absurd, but follow the logic of a dream, which often have similarities with a mythological way of thinking. Her husband infantilises her, calling her “little Kajsa”, but also out of genuine care and love. She says: “You always say that. Am I so little or has the illness made a child of me?” As the light is turned off, we can see the suffering on Martin’s face. In one of the earlier scenes, we see a lighthouse, with its light turning on and off, sygnifying hope, or at least its possibility.
Minus, Karin’s brother, shares a short conversation with his father which cannot really be called a conversation. Their father David came from Switzerland, where he secluded himself to write a novel. In other words, he ran away from the responsibility of being there for his ill daughter and young son. Minus stages a play he wrote and acts in it alongside Karin. In the play, art is shown as something superfluous and Karin acts a dead princess which calls his lover to join her in death. There are three important motifs to be discerned in this play. One of them is Minus’s critique of art, although he writes plays himself, as a kind of accusation of his father’s profession, but in fact his father is leaving them because of writing. Art cannot create love, only by taking care of one another can we truly love.
Another motif is an erotic relationship with his sister, which he tries to evade by reprimanding her being half-naked while sunbathing, and by showing disgust toward women and sensuality. The third motif is Karin being dead and her portending that she will not be able to wait, that she will be gone. This happens at the end of the film, she goes to the asylum, and her state throughout the film reminds one of the ghost of the dead princess in the play cannot come to life due to the terryfing nature of her illness. She is looking through the dark glass, cannot comprehend the true nature of things since everything is blurred. In the play the doors closes, which symbolizes that she cannot be a part of the world in which other people live, she is torn between the two worlds.
Karin finds her father’s diary in which he wrote that her illness is incurable and that he is horrified by his urge to record its course and “to make an accurate description of her gradual desintegration.” The analysis David wants to make, of his own daughter, is of course for his literary exercises. As it is shown in the dialogue between David and Martin, the former is devoid of any scruples and the love he claims to have emerged out of nothingness after his failed attempt of suicide is shallow. He says that it is only logical that his daughter dies, since Martin’s and her suffering is “meaningless”.He reduces his own daughter to an object of analysis at first so he can gain insight into the mind of the mentally ill and use it for artistic purposes, and reduces Karin’s life to pointless suffering. Martin says to him that he is “void of all feeling” and it seems to be true. He does not understand love and sacrifice, in a similar way in which his “faith and doubt” in God are devoid of true meaning and any truth. In these dialogues and in David’s character Bergman records the mind of a person who sees the world inhabited by living human beings who suffer, experience emotions and ultimately love as material for creating fiction.
We may ask ourselves, don’t all artists, including Bergman, do the same? One’s own suffering is dissected to serve as material for creation, but others are used as well. I mysef, am writing about fictional character’s suffering and “record the course” of her desintegration for the purpose of writing an analysis. This is a fictional character of course, but a great number of people live with the condition Karin suffers from in the film, and recording this desintegration and analyzing it in psychoanalytical terms is in some ways similar to the logic David practices. Any writer or artist, when he uses serious conditions and life events as material for their analysis, must respect the dignity of those who suffer from a certain condition, or a traumatic event.
Karin comes to the empty room along with Minus and says: “I walk through the wall, you see. Early in the morning I’m woken by someone calling me in a firm voice. I rise and come to this room. One day someone called me behind the wallpaper. I looked in the closet but there was no one there. But the voice kept calling me, so I pressed against the wall and it gave way, like foilage, and I was inside… It’s bright and peaceful. People are moving back and forth. Some of them talk to me and I understand them. It’s so nice and I feel safe. Everyone is waiting for him to come, but no one is anxious. They say I can be there when it happens.” Karin cries and says that she feels intense yearning for the moment to come about. She is waiting for God to show himself to her. She says that she is distancing herself from Martin and that she is sacrificing him so the moment when God comes can happen.
In other words, she is distancing herself from the world of reality and those who show care for her, and wants to live in the world as a dream where God is revealing himself, the absolute is no longer concealed. Harmony and union with the “bright and peaceful” is traded for the world of suffering and indirect infliction of pain on the loved ones. She says: “A god steps down from the mountain. He walks through the dark forest. There are wild beast everywhere in the silent darkness. I’m not dreaming. I’m telling the truth.” What she says in fact does have a logic of a dream, as Spielrein says, and could be explained in mythological terms. For now, it is sufficient to highlight the appearent contrast between “bright men” and “wild beasts”. God is coming to her from the mountain, encounters wild beasts in the darkness, but finally is awaited in brightness. This eschatological narrative is similar to the opposition between illness which is characterized by “silent darkness” and the coming of God and finally salvation – healing.
Finally, she ends up in a leaking old boat, where she has a breakdown and sleeps with Minus. She feels insurmountable guilt because of it, they call an ambulance and she finally decides that she cannot live in two worlds. She goes to the attic where she heard voices and with great expectation awaits the revelation. What she sees terrifies her and she starts to scream, as she screams and runs down the stairs in terror, Martin gives her an injection. She says: “The door opened. But the God that came out was a spider. He came toward me and I saw his face. It was a terrible stony face. He crawled up and tried to force himself onto me, but I defended myself. The whole time I saw his eyes. They were cold and calm. When he couldn’t penetrate me, he continued up my chest up onto my face and up the wall. I have seen God.”
In Karin’s vision, God is a spider who violates her. In Bergman’s vision of Karin’s God, he is not omnipotent and loving, but destructive and horrifying. I will not dwell upon metaphysical explanations of such an understanding of God, but note that this vision happened shortly after she slept with Minus. Sexual notions such as “he couldn’t penetrate me”, “forcing himself on me” and “he continued up my chest” and the significance of camera focusing on Minus’ face when she speaks of penetration, point to the understanding that the enormous guilt she felt since she slept with her brother, made her experience visions of a destructive and violent “God” trying to force himself upon her. Karin suffers from delusions, which, as Spielrein’s quote from the beginning of the essay suggests, have their own logic and are often symbols representing something different.
If this interpreation is valid, then it seems that Karin’s vision of God turned from an expectation of a divine being full of compassion to a being which punishes her for her sins in a most violent fashion. Many interpretations focus on Bergman’s understanding of God in this instance, but this is in fact Karin’s vision of God. Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope emeritus), in his book Introduction to Christianity writes: “But in this area of things that can be seen and grasped, the area that determines the living space of man, God does not occur, however much the area may be extended. I believe that it is important that in principle the Old Testament contains this assertion: God is not just he who at present lies in fact outside the field of vision but could be seen if it were possible to go farther; no, he is the being who stands essentialy outside it, however far our field of vision may be extended.” In other words, Karin saw an impossibility, a rupture emerged which is a result of madness: the vision which is at all times hidden, obscure, becomes a reality for Karin, but that reality is horror.
God cannot be seen and grasped, and if it is perceived that he does appear, what one sees is not an image of loving God, but a distortion of the very idea of Him: a violent, destructive monster. St Paul’s epistle from the beginning of the article is now revealed to be presented in the film as an inversion of his words. At first we see through a glass darkly, the vision is obscured. Then we see face to face, encounter one another (this happens only at the end of the film when Minus and his father speak to each other), but in God we are complete. When Karin sees God, she is not complete, but destroyed. A completely different understanding of God is suggested to Minus by his father shortly after. He says that God is either love, or that Karin is surrrounded by God since they love her. In this instance, God is a being which is once again potentially benevolent and is love.
Sabina Spielrein, The Essential Writings of Sabina Spielrein, Routledge, New York, 2019
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2004