Thursday, 15 June 2017

Through a Glass Darkly (Sasom i en Spegel) (1961)

Som i et spejl
Time for another Bergman movie. As anyone doing the List will know, there are these directors that the editors just love and Ingmar Bergman is one of those. Not that I entirely disagree with them, his movies have so far proven far more watchable than I had thought, and “Såsom i en spegel” (Through a Glass Darkly) is no exception, though it is one of those movies you have to be in the right mood for.

Bergman has here narrowed in on a style which, as I understand it, made him famous: The existential drama involving very few people, very limited space and spanning a short period of time. A film version of Strindberg. It is a style that allows for examining the themes of the story with as little distraction as possible and is all down to the few actors involved.

In this case there are four characters. Central of these is Karin (Harriet Andersson), a young woman married to the doctor Martin (Max von Sydow). She has a younger brother with the awesome, though negatively loaded, name Minus (Lars Passgård) while the fourth character is her father David (Gunnar Björnstrand). The four of them have met up at their summerhouse on an island and seem to have a swell time. Though as we will soon find out all is not well.

Karin is suffering from a mental illness. It is not specified what this illness is but it makes her disappear into a dream world that is tormenting her and she has difficulty keeping the two apart. This is actually dramatic enough as it is, but surprisingly the story is more about how this affects the three men.

Martin is both a doctor and a caring husband. He wants to help and throws everything into helping her, but is frustrated by how futile it is. Her illness cannot be cured, merely held in check, and his caring only makes her push him away. Yet he forms a protective shell around her.

Minus is a teenage boy with all the confusion and frustration that implies. His sister is a sexual being to him, but also a sister with troubles he does not understand and both things fascinates and frightens him.

Yet it is the father, David, who is the saddest character. David is all about himself. Everybody else are relevant only in how they impinge on his life. Clearly, he ran away years ago instead of taking care of Karin, but his entire defense is about himself. When he finally talks to Minus in a way that actually involves Minus he is stunned and surprised. That makes David an unsympathetic character, but also a very lonely and sad one. He really has only himself. Karin is a reminder of his guilt, but his response is not to help, but to escape.

Movies on mental illness are scary, far more than a gory monster movie, and this feels very real. I cannot help feeling the shivers when thinking of the prison Karin finds herself in. This is just not funny, and that is exactly how the three men around her feels and probably we, the audience, would feel something similar, a combination maybe, of how Martin, Minus and David are experiencing it.

So, it is not an uplifting movie, quite the contrary, but it also avoids going into sappy, handkerchief mode and that is a strength of the movie. I read somewhere that “Såsom i en spegel” was accused of being too cold, but that is not the case at all. It is very Scandinavian, this is exactly how we react. It is very intense in its quiet way.    

Despite the uneasiness of the topic and the intense despair conveyed I did enjoy the style of the movie. The limited room allows the characters to stand out and do their thing. We get very close to them for better or worse.

I am curious where Bergman is going next, but also worried. I cannot take this sort of movie every day.


  1. This is growing on me even in memory. Karin's world was so scary and yet so sometimes ecstatic at the same time. I liked your comment about Scandinavians. From my experience of being married to one, you are dead on.

    1. It is the kind of movie that stays with you for a long time.
      I had no idea you were married to a Scandinavian. Congratulations! It is like winning in the lottery ;-)

  2. Yes, I hit the jackpot. My husband is a Finn whose mother's first language was Swedish.

  3. Great review. I like your take on Bergman a lot. He's my favorite filmmaker and I appreciate reading insightful reviews of his work. Hope you can brave a viewing of more of his work soon, I know his films are not easy to take.

    1. Thank you and thanks for visiting. I just saw on your blog an exhaustive summary of Bergman's catalogue. There are a lot of movies! Only a fraction of those are on the 1001 list, but as far as I can see they are some of the best. So far there has not been any I did not like.