Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Ingmar Bergman | Såsom i en spegel (Through a Glass Darkly)

seeing god

 Ingmar Bergman (writer and director) Såsom i en spegel (Through a Glass Darkly) / 1961

 Imagine a time in which a film actually cared about interpersonal relationships between its characters, that the consequences of parental and marital love or the lack thereof, was at the heart of film director’s creations. Imagine a time in which a profound thinker, by which I would describe Bergman, might even proffer the idea that the withholding of parental love could possibly lead or least exacerbate psychological diseases such as schizophrenia.

      The National Institute of Mental Health today describes schizophrenia on its website as a disease that scientists believe is related to inherited and muted genes, and occurs more commonly in individuals who have relatives with the disease, particularly twins. The “genetic differences involve hundreds of different genes and probably disrupt brain development.” Along with genes, the site states that “interactions between genes and the environment are necessary for schizophrenia to develop. Many environmental factors may be involved, such as exposure to viruses or malnutrition before birth, problems during birth, and other not yet known psychosocial factors.”

      We might argue that cinematic works still are very interested in the relationships of married couples and parental influences upon the individual. Only yesterday I saw the beautiful film, Boyhood, whose major subject, in fact, might be said to sympathetically attend to precisely those influences.

     I think most of us would have to admit, however, that increasingly in American films the presumption is that parents generally are cynically presented as comically destructive forces upon individuals, even if that seminal impact upon our personalities can occasional be forgiven. Consider the recent comic/dramatic films such as Tammy (a grandmother, here, serving as a kind of mother) Nebraska, and Silver Linings Playbook—to name just three of hundreds of such films.

     It would be nearly impossible in a society in which divorce is as common as it in ours, to list all of films in which marital relationships were presumed to be lethal: even the lovely Boyhood presumes that fact, as did last year’s Blue Jasmine and the movie I watched again last evening, Erin Brockovich of 2000—as well as most of Bergman’s works.

Way back in 1961, however, Ingmar Bergman peered through a “glass darkly” to quite transparently explore what is a relatively simple situation, made complex by the webs of lies each character tells others and his self—although my memories, as a young man, are of a work that was then mysteriously opaque.

     At the outset of Through a Glass Darkly Bergman shows us a family, father, son, daughter, and her husband, who, vacationing on a Swedish island (in fact Bergman’s beloved Fårö), seem outwardly the picture of good health. Fresh from a healthy swimming adventure, the four return to their dock, vying with each other as to who will join up with whom to finish the nightly chores: bringing in the fishing nets and milking the cows. The teenage son Minus (Lars Passgård) and his sister Karin (Harriet Andersson) take on the latter chore, while the two elderly men, writer David (Gunnar Björnstrand) and Karin’s husband Martin (Max von Sydow) gather the nets.

      Their conversations, while enacting these tasks, begin to reveal some complexities—Minus is a confused youth, a bit afraid of his relationships with women, and Martin is worried about the mental health of his wife, who, although shows all signs of having been cured, may, so the doctor declares, soon have a relapse. Essentially this “vacation” life, nonetheless, seems pleasant as the quartet dines al fresco in the famed Swedish mid-summer light.

       At table, however, David reveals that, despite having just returned from a long stay in Switzerland, he will soon be leaving again—despite his promises to stay. And, although expressing their disappointment, his family member’s comments hardly seem to invoke his tearful breakdown, soon after, as he enters the house alone to retrieve the presents he has brought them.

      A delightfully silly play, written by Minus, and performed with Karin, is delivered soon after. Although the play clearly pokes some fun at a writer who cannot live up to the moral demands which his writing seems to proclaim, the event might almost be read as a gentle, innocent satire of all principled writers rather than, as it soon is revealed, as another dispiriting failure, given his father’s reaction, for his over-sensitive son.

     As the couple retreats to their bedroom, Martin seems absolutely protective and loving of his wife, who, it quickly becomes apparent, is unable to accept his sexual advances. Yet already, we sense that his love for Karin is somehow insufficient despite his gentle ministrations. Like Ibsen’s Hellmar in A Doll’s House, Martin continually infantizes his beautiful wife by describing her in the diminutive: “little Karin,” etc. And when he falls to sleep, she quickly escapes to an empty upstairs room where Bergman, without explaining her actions, lets the camera observe what seem to be, at times, sexual exultations along the decaying wall and floor of the room. In fact, we later discover, Karin is communing with a hidden community of friends waiting, so she imagines, for the appearance of God.

      Soon after, accordingly—as the picture postcard view of this world begins to disintegrate—we quickly perceive how fraught each of these individuals is with feelings of isolation, fear, guilt, and recrimination. When during her night wanderings, Karin finds a diary entry in her father’s journal that describes her as “incurable” and relates his desire to watch her mental breakdown as a subject of literary interest, revealing her findings to her husband, Martin lashes out the next day at David for his selfishness. David admits his inability to feel but also suggests that Martin might too might seek her death, that he may desire his freedom from the burden she has become. During their voyage to the nearby port town, moreover, David reveals—after attempting and failing at suicide—his own transformation from a man without the ability to love to a being who loves now without being able to properly express it.

      Back on the island, moreover, Karin begins to confide her strange feelings and midnight meetings to her brother, gradually unravelling mentally before his eyes. As a storm approaches, she runs to a nearby grounded boat, a decaying sailing vessel where Minus discovers her hidden in the hull. As he tries to help her to sit up and return to the house, she pulls him atop of her, sexually introducing her brother to the love of woman he has previously desired, but of which he is now terrified.

     By the time the two elders return, Karin has completely returned to insanity, Martin and David rushing to retrieve her after Minus’ report of events. To her father, Karin admits the sexual episode and begs him not to allow her to be returned from institution for ever, without another return home, suggesting that can no longer survive the shuttle between the two realities.

Martin calls the hospital, which sends a helicopter to retrieve the former patient.

     In the tragic remaining moments of Karin on the now quite desolate island, she rushes once more to the magical room, now awaiting, so she reveals to Martin, the appearance of God. Although we cannot see what she does, we know from her reactions that it is a horrifying revelation, which later she describes: God has come to her as a spider, attempting to penetrate her. In short, even faith has betrayed her. She has neither human nor spiritual consolation to help her through her suffering. For her, any love her father or husband may have offer has come too late.

      As bleak as Bergman’s vision may be, however, unlike the presumptions of today’s films, the director ends this masterful film with a provocative regeneration of human love. After Karin has been taken awake, Minus and Martin are momentarily left alone. Confused, terrified for what the events might mean for his own life, Minus asks his father if, after what he has seen and experienced, life can go on: 

Minus: Father, I'm scared. When I was hugging Karin in the boat, reality was revealed. Do you know what I mean?

David: I do.

Minus: Reality was revealed, and I collapsed. It's like a dream. Anything can happen. Anything.

David: I know.

Minus: I can't live in this new world.

David: Yes, you can. But you must have a support.

Minus: What kind of support? You mean a God? Give me a proof of his existence. You can't.

David: I can. But you gotta pay attention to what I say.

Minus: Yes. I need to listen.

David: I can only tell you a thought of my own hopes. It is to know that love exists for real in the human world.

Minus: A sort of special love, I suppose?

David: All kinds of it. The bigger and the smaller, the most absurd one and the most sublime one. All kinds of love.

Minus: What about the desire for love?

David: Desire and denying. Trust and distrust.

Minus: Then love is the proof?

David: I don't know if love is the proof of God's existence or if it's God itself.

Minus: To you, love and God are the same thing.

David: That thought makes me feel less empty; Makes my desperation less worse.

Minus: Go on, dad.

David: All of a sudden, emptiness turns into abundance, and desperation turns into life. It's like a temporary death's sentence strike.

Minus: Dad... if it's like how you say it is, then God is all over Karin. We love her so much.

David: Yes.

Minus: Can't that help her?

David: I think so.

For the first time in this work, perhaps for the first time in his life, Martin answers the question directly in his argument for “all kinds of love” being necessary to sustain human life, that perhaps God is love itself.

      Minus’ final, quiet but joyful acclamation speaks volumes: “Papa spoke to me.” The young man’s statement—expressing the joy of one generation speaking honestly to another—may be as close to “seeing God,” it seems to me, as we might experience within our earthly lives.

Los Angeles, July 21, 2014

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