Now it’s the turn of Ingmar Bergman’s famous Trilogy.
At the beginning of the 1960s, Ingmar Bergman began to work on what were to become some of his most powerful and representative works—the Trilogy.
Utilizing a new cameraman—the incomparable Sven Nykvist, Bergman unleashed “Through a Glass Darkly”, “Winter Light”, and “The Silence” in rapid succession, exposing moviegoers worldwide to a new level of intellectual and emotional intensity.
Each film employs minimal dialogue, eerily isolated settings, and searing performances from such Bergman regulars as Max von Sydow, Harriet Andersson, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Ingrid Thulin, and Gunnel Lindblom.
First, we start with “Through a Glass Darkly”.
“Through a Glass Darkly” is a three-act “chamber film”, in which four family members act as mirrors for each other. It is the first of many Bergman films to be shot on the island of Fårö. Fårö is part of Gotland, the largest island in Sweden.
The title is from a biblical passage (1 Corinthians 13) in which seeing through a glass darkly refers to our understanding of God when we are alive; the view will only be clear when we die. The Swedish title literally means As in a Mirror, which is how the passage reads in a 1917 Swedish translation of the Bible.
Bergman described “Through a Glass Darkly” as a “chamber film,” an allusion both to the chamber plays of Strindberg (Bergman’s favorite playwright), and to chamber music in general. In line with the “chamber” theme, the film takes place in a single 24-hour period, features only four characters and takes place entirely on an island.
That night, after rejecting Martin’s erotic overtures, Karin wakes up and follows the sound of a foghorn to the attic. She faints after an episode in which she hears voices behind the peeling wallpaper. David, meanwhile, has stayed up all night working on his manuscript. Karin enters his room and tells him she can’t sleep, and David tucks her in. Minus asks David to come with him out of the house, and David leaves. Karin looks through David’s desk and finds his diary, learning that her disease is incurable and that her father has a callous hunger to record the details of her deterioration.
The following morning, David and Martin, while fishing, confront each other over Karin. Martin accuses David of sacrificing his daughter for his art, and of being a self-absorbed, callous, cowardly phony. David is evasive, but admits that much of what Martin says is true. David says that he recently tried to kill himself by driving over a cliff, but was saved by a faulty transmission. He says that after that, he discovered that he loves Karin, Minus and Martin, and this gives him hope.
Meanwhile, Karin tells Minus about her episodes, and that she is waiting for God to appear behind the wallpaper in the attic. Minus is somewhat sexually frustrated, and Karin teases him, even more so after she discovers that he hides a men’s magazine. Later, on the beach, when Karin sees that a storm is coming, she runs into a wrecked ship and huddles in fear. Minus goes to her and she grabs him. Though the act is not shown the film suggests that Karin has sexually seduced her brother.
Minus tells the other men about the incident in the ship and Martin calls for an ambulance. Karin asks to speak with her father alone. She confesses her misconduct toward Martin and Minus, saying that a voice told her to act that way and also to search David’s desk. She tells David she would like to remain at the hospital, because she cannot go back and forth between two realities — she must choose one. While they are packing to go to the hospital, she runs to the attic, where Martin and David observe her actions. She says that God is about to walk out of the closet door, and asks her husband to allow her to enjoy the moment.
Karin and Martin leave in the helicopter. Minus tells his father that he is afraid, because when Karin had grabbed him in the ship, he began leaving ordinary reality. He asks his father if he can survive that way. David tells him he can if he has “something to hold on to.” He tells Minus of his own hope: love. David and his son discuss the concept of love as it relates to God, and the factor of human father-child relationships in the perception of God, in the stretching final chapter of the film. Minus seems relieved, and is tearfully happy that he finally had a real conversation with his father: “Father spoke to me.”
It was nominated for the Golden Bear at the 12th Berlin International Film Festival.
The spider god may be an allusion to Dostoevsky’s character Svidrigailov in “Crime and Punishment” who wonders of the afterlife, “But what if there are only spiders there, or something like that?” Karin’s reaction to the wallpaper in the attic may also be taken as an allusion to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’ short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
Bergman cited “Winter Light” as his favorite among his films.
Before he leaves, however, the Perssons arrive to speak to him. Jonas has become morose after hearing that China is developing an atomic bomb. Tomas speaks to the man briefly, but asks Jonas to return after taking his wife home. No sooner have the Perssons left than Märta enters, attempts to comfort the miserable Tomas, and asks if he’s read the letter she wrote to him. He hasn’t. Tomas tells her of his failure to help Jonas, and wonders if he will have anything to say, since he is without hope as well. Märta states her love for Tomas, but also her belief that he doesn’t love her. She leaves, and Tomas reads her letter.
In an unbroken shot lasting almost six minutes, Bergman has Märta face the camera and speak the contents of the letter. In it, she coldly attacks Tomas for his neglect of her, relating a story of how a rash that disfigured her body repulsed him, and neither his faith nor his prayers did anything to help her. Tomas finishes the letter, and falls asleep. Awakened by the return of Jonas, Tomas clumsily tries to provide counsel, before finally admitting that he has no faith as well. He tells the depressed man that his (Tomas’s) faith was an egotistical one – God loved humanity, but Tomas most of all. Serving in Lisbon during the Spanish Civil War, Tomas could not reconcile his loving God with the atrocities being committed, so he ignored them. Tomas finally tells Jonas that things make more sense if we deny the existence of God, because then man’s cruelty needs no explanation. Jonas leaves, and Tomas faces the crucifix and declares himself finally free.
Märta, who has been lurking in the chapel, is overjoyed to hear this, and embraces Tomas (who again does not respond to her affections). They are interrupted by the widow Magdalena, who tells them that Jonas has just committed suicide with a rifle. Tomas drives, alone, to the scene. Shot in an awkward, distant style (as contrasted with the claustrophobic close-ups of the rest of the film), Tomas stoically helps the police cover Jonas’s body with a tarp, then stands guard while waiting for the “van” to collect the body, which arrives shortly. Märta arrives on foot, and she and Tomas drive off to her home, where she invites him in to take some medicine for his cold.
Waiting in the classroom attached to her house (Märta is a substitute teacher), Tomas finally lashes out at her, telling her first that he rejected her because he was tired of the gossip about them. When that fails to deter her affections, Tomas then tells her that he was tired of her constant talking, and that Märta could never measure up to his late wife, the only woman he has ever loved. Though shocked by the attack, Märta agrees to drive with him to the Persson house. Informed of Jonas’s suicide, Karin collapses onto the stairs and wonders how she and her children will go on. Tomas makes a perfunctory offer of help, and leaves.
Arriving for the 3 o’clock service at the second church, Tomas and Märta find the building empty except for Algot, the handicapped sexton, and Fredrik, the organist (who arrives late and slightly inebriated). Fredrik tells Märta that she should leave the small town and Tomas and live her life, rather than stay and have her dreams crushed like the rest of them. Meanwhile in the vestry, Algot questions Tomas about the Passion. Algot wonders why so much emphasis was placed on the physical suffering of Jesus, which was brief, versus the many betrayals he faced from his disciples (who denied him, did not understand his message, and did not follow his commands) and finally from God, who did not answer him on the cross. He asks, “Wasn’t God’s silence worse?” Tomas, who has been listening silently, answers yes. Fredrik and Algot wonder if they should have a service since no one showed up, but Tomas replies that someone has shown up: Märta. Tomas begins the service as the film ends.
The sisters rent a two-room-apartment in a once-grandiose hotel. Ester suffers in her room, self-medicating with vodka and cigarettes while trying to work. Anna ventures into the city and is openly advanced by a waiter in a cafe. Later, she watches a show in an uncrowded theatre, and is both repelled and fascinated when a young couple begin to have sex in a seat nearby. Anna returns to the cafe, brushes past the waiter, and returns to the hotel in time.
Left with Johan while his mother is out, Ester attempts to form a more intimate bond with him, but Johan avoids her attempts to stroke his hair and face. On Anna’s return, Ester is eager for an account of what her sister has done after seeing her soiled dress. Provoked, Anna spitefully fabricates a sexual encounter with the waiter to her sister. Anna also reveals her intention to meet him again that evening, which Ester, not wanting to be left alone, begs her not to do. Meanwhile, Anna’s son Johan wanders around the hotel’s hallways, encountering the elderly hotel porter and a group of Spanish dwarves who are part of a traveling show.
Anna meets the man in their hotel, and Johan witnesses them kissing and entering a room down an adjacent hall. Upon returning to the room, he asks Ester, why his mother dislikes being with them, as she always departs as soon as she gets the chance. Ester tells him that she has learned a few words of the local language, and she promises to write them down for him. Johan, instinctively knowing Ester is seriously ill, embraces her in a show of concern and compassion.
After Johan has fallen asleep, Ester sobs at the door of Anna and her lover, asking to come in. Anna lets her in and turns on the lights so that Ester can fully see the two of them in bed together. Anna tells Ester that she once aspired to be like her, morally elevated, but realized that her apparent goodness was actually a reflection of Ester’s hatred of Anna and all that belonged to her. Ester insists that she loves her and that Anna is wrong. Anna gets furious and asks her to leave the room. On leaving, Ester says “poor Anna”, enraging her even more. Anna’s lover advances her again; Anna is laughing hysterically, but it turns into sobs.
The next morning, Anna announces that she and Johan are going to leave the hotel after breakfast. Ester deteriorates while they are gone, having painful spasms of suffocation. She is helped by the elderly porter, who attempts to comfort her; she reveals her fear of death and loneliness but also her loathing for sexual contact. When Johan returns to say good-bye, Ester gives him a note. After he and Anna have boarded the train, Johan reads the title: “To Johan – words in a foreign language”. Uninterested, Anna opens the window and cools herself with the outside rain.
Some interesting trivia about “The Silence”:
After Bergman’s death, Woody Allen observed in a “New York Times” article that the film opens up when you realize that the two women represent different aspects of people.
In a scene, Johan stares out of the window as a lone tank rolls down the street at night; in Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag comments, “Again, Ingmar Bergman may have meant the tank rumbling down the street in The Silence as a phallic symbol. But if he did, it was a foolish thought.” She then continues to say, “Those who reach for a Freudian interpretation of the tank are only expressing their lack of response to what is there on the screen.”
The film has been classified as a “landmark of modernist cinema” with Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura (1960), and Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967).
Popular film critic Vernon Young reversed his position on Bergman and admitted in 1971 that The Silence was an “extraordinary achievement in its way…The Silence rewards effort…” The film was selected as the Swedish entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 36th Academy Awards, but was not accepted as a nominee.
The Silence was submitted to the film rating/censorship board (Biografbyrån) of Sweden in July 1963 and went through without any cuts. The general instructions for the work of the board had been modified just weeks before the film reached them, and this contributed to its passage, though Bergman claimed that he was not in any real sense trying to test the limits of what could be allowed in mainstream cinema. He actually did not expect this rather inaccessible film, with sparse and uncommunicative dialogue, to be a big box-office success, and commented in an interview in 1970: “I said to Kenne Fant /CEO of the Swedish Film Institute which had produced the film/: “You might as well realize, this isn’t a film that will have people storming the theaters”. Oh the irony; that’s exactly what people did.”
The original cut (the only one to be shown in Sweden and certain other countries) includes a number of brief but controversial sex scenes, showing nudity, female masturbation, urination and a couple making out on the seats of a murky cabaret theatre. This plus some strong language led to intense public controversy in Sweden and several other countries at the time. In many countries the film was cut, while in Sweden it has come to be regarded as a beacon in a string of films that broke down the wall of censorship and opened the way for later films, both mainstream and more ‘adult’ or experimental, to include graphic erotic content as well as strong language without cuts being expected (e.g. Vilgot Sjöman’s 491, I Am Curious (Blue) and I Am Curious (Yellow), and Stefan Jarl’s They Call Us Misfits). Bergman’s and Sjöman’s prestige as directors, their high aims and the trend of openness during the decade made it untenable in Sweden to treat their films as tainted or semi-pornographic, and this in turn weakened the general acceptance of casual, intrusive film censorship.
While the film is noted for its sensual impact, enhanced by Sven Nykvist’s camera work where long pans and contrasting shots of deep darkness and sweltering light, rapid movement (the train ride at the opening) and long, slow-moving and almost dialogueless shots, pull the viewer into the unfamiliar and unsettling scenery, it was hardly a movie about sex. The story seems to use sex and other factors to set up and explore tensions between the two sisters, tensions that run through the whole film and reach a series of climactic points towards the end. The erotic action is also motivated as a kind of last resort in a world where language has lost its function – the trio in the centre don’t know the language of the strange city, and Anna and Ester continuously misread each other when they talk – and where the threat of destruction (war) is hanging over everyone. Bergman has commented in numerous interviews that the film marked a point of final exit from a set of religious problems that had been dominating his films since The Seventh Seal.
According to Jerry Vermilye, The Silence “…achieved a measure of sensationalistic attention by dint of its scenes of sensuality, mild though they were. It raised a great deal of controversy in Sweden, and its notoriety continued to raise hackles elsewhere in Europe. All of which attracted the attention of filmgoers; in Britain and the United States it became a considerable hit, perhaps for reasons of prurience rather than art.”
Due to its reputation for “pornographic sequences” the film became a financial success.
Vermilye is supported by Daniel Ekeroth, who notes in his 2011 book Swedish Sensationsfilms: A Clandestine History of Sex, Thrillers, and Kicker Cinema that “Tystnaden is the production, and marks the exact moment, when sex and nudity became normal in Swedish film. If an internationally acknowledged director like Ingmar Bergman could portray sex in such an explicit way, the last border had been crossed. Hordes of less serious filmmakers immediately abandoned all remaining inhibition about depicting whatever crazed and depraved ideas they thought would attract and scandalize a paying audience.”
Celebrating Ingmar Bergman’s Films!