The Profound Consolation

The Use of Bach's Music in the Films of Ingmar Bergman (Part 2)

by Chadwick Jenkins

15 November 2006

In the second installment of an ongoing discussion of Bach and Bergman, Jenkins examines the communicative power of Bach's sarabande in Through a Glass Darkly.
Minus, played by
Lars Passgård, in Bergman's Through a Glass Darkly 

If, as I stated in my initial foray into the relationship between Bergman’s films and the music of JS Bach, Through a Glass Darkly (1961) inaugurated a new aesthetic for Bergman—a chamber film approach, partially indebted to his relationship with Käbi Laretei and partially owing to his increasing love for the music of Bach—it also marks the beginning of another relationship, one that would last for the remainder of Bergman’s life: his love affair with the Baltic island of Fårö. He originally wanted to film in the Orkneys but Svensk, the film company, fearful that the costs would be prohibitive, persuaded Bergman to scout locations along the Swedish coast. As Bergman became ever more insistent, an executive finally suggested Fårö. Bergman agreed to visit Fårö, all the while planning to dig in his heels on the issue and demand they permit him to film in the Orkneys. The group went to Fårö on a stormy day in April. Bergman seemed to see the descriptions he had penned in his screenplay manifested before his eyes in the windswept shores of the island—as he put it, “a stony shore facing infinity.” More than simply an ideal location for a film, he discovered a landscape that immediately conformed to his individual consciousness: “I don’t really know what happened,” he later wrote. “If one wished to be solemn, it could be said that I had found my landscape, my real home; if one wished to be funny, one could talk about love at first sight.” Bergman soon made the island his home, and many of his later works were filmed at that location.

The landscape, shot with haunting delicacy by Sven Nykvist, and the sarabande from Bach’s cello suite in D minor, rendered with a hesitant poignancy by Erling Bengtsson, seem to be inextricably intertwined throughout the film. The sarabande accompanies the title sequence (one title names Käbi as the film’s dedicatee—hence connecting this most musical film with Bergman’s pianist wife). The low, murky sounds of the cello, the darkly brooding minor key of the opening, and the otherworldly quality of the trills all connote the relatively isolated seaside location at Fårö that serves as the film’s setting. Indeed, the cello will soon find its timbral echo in the foghorn that issues from the lighthouse in an early scene. Only the first half of the sarabande is performed and yet this is the most protracted statement of the piece contained within the film. Consisting of three four-bar phrases and a steady somber tempo, this piece seems to represent a pained personal utterance, a private communication dressed in the courtly manner of public display. Over the course of its three balanced phrases, the music moves from D minor to F major and yet the change of musical mode does little to lighten the overall mood. The intimacy of its musical rhetoric adumbrates the cloistered atmosphere of the film as a whole. Moreover, the fact that Bergman withholds the second half of the piece from the listener (thus avoiding full closure through a final cadence on the tonic D minor) imbues the moment with a sense of openness and incompletion. This utterance, eloquently melancholic, has not concluded; much more remains to be said. As the excerpt reaches its cadence on F, we see figures emerging from the sea.

There are only four characters: Karin (recently returned from a psychiatric ward and becomingly increasing unstable), Minus (her younger brother who is in the throes of adolescent confusion over his irresistible concupiscence and the shame that it inspires), Martin (Karin’s devoted husband left with nothing to do but watch his wife disintegrate), and David (Karin and Minus’s estranged father, an author crass enough to consider using his daughter’s deterioration as the subject for a future book). Bergman structures the film primarily as a set of duets (Karin with each of the male characters separately, Martin and David, and finally David and Minus) and moments featuring a character alone—usually silent or reduced to sobbing (only Martin is denied a scene by himself). Such a structure exposes the multiple relationships among these people—David with Karin is not the same as David with Martin.

The overall trajectory of the film documents Karin’s decline and the increasing sense of loss and pain experienced by her family (owing both to the fact of her illness and their unwitting complicity in its progress). Indeed, Bergman’s finest achievement within this film may be his reversal of the usual moral direction that scripts involving mental illness generally chart wherein the onset and worsening of mental illness is shown to have deleterious effects not only upon the victim but also upon those close to the victim. In Through a Glass Darkly, Bergman presents a far darker scenario: Karin’s deterioration is as much the source of fascination for those surrounding her, as it is a source of pain. It provides her interlocutors with an opportunity to reflect upon their lives and concerns (that tortured self-reflection in which nearly all of Bergman’s characters indulge to the point of hopeless excess). Karin becomes an illicit source of desire—particularly for her father and brother. As her hold on reality becomes increasingly tenuous, her emotional and physical abandon becomes the site of salacious provocation for her brother while her liminality, her existence on the threshold between quotidian life and some mystic realm beyond experience holds some vague aura of authenticity for her father, which he strives to document as his only opportunity for genuine expression.

Karin represents the necessary sacrifice that father and brother must simultaneously embrace and disavow for the sake of their artistic and sexual development, respectively. David and Minus look to Karin, at least in part, as a reflection of what they wish to see in themselves and as her mental stability shatters, they search among the shards to piece together some sort of meaning that will compensate not merely for their loss of Karin but, more to the point, for their loss of her as object of displacement, mirroring those things that they must deny within themselves. Bergman’s point, it would seem, is that mental illness does not necessarily make victims out of everyone involved but rather it makes them spectators in spite of their better intentions. Bach articulates these points of conflicted contact. The sarabande reappears three more times after the opening, punctuating scenes that involve the reactions of various characters to Karin’s developing illness.

Karin enters her father’s room in the night to find him working on the revisions of his latest novel. Distraught and exhausted after having been wrested from sleep by the shrill cries of a gull, she seeks solace in her father’s embrace and soon falls asleep in his bed as he continues to work. Minus comes to the room and entices David out to the beach. Karin awakens alone and begins to rummage through her father’s papers only to discover the diary in which he recorded his desire to document the progress of his daughter’s illness to use as source material for another book. The most painful aspect of this discovery is not so much the dismissal of his paternal obligation to care for her but rather the fact that he expresses far more concern for her as fictive object than he does for her per se. The inarticulate hesitancy of David’s personal interactions with his daughter is transmogrified into an eloquent effusion when transmitted through a diary entry that treats her as mere material. Bach’s sarabande reappears to drive home the significance of the moment. If, as we claimed earlier, Bach’s music represents a personal utterance, then this is the true moment of communication between father and daughter, a form of communication only possible when rendered through the materiality of the words on the page divorced from the fulsome presence of the father.

And yet this presentation of the sarabande also delineates the breakdown of communication. Unlike the initial performance of the sarabande, which brought the piece to a point of closure through the cadence on F (not the complete closure that would have been achieved through a tonic cadence but still representing the recognizable conclusion of a meaningful musical section), this iteration of the work presents only the first two phrases; that is, we hear two recognizably complete segments but we are not provided with the final phrase that would bring these segments to a (temporary) conclusion, thus allowing them to present a complete statement. This is not unlike reading only the first two phrases of Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (to take an example at random) without the conclusion of the sentence: “Since it is the understanding that sets man above the rest of sensible beings, and give him all the advantage and dominion which he has over them…” We can certainly comprehend what each phrase means but the overarching point is lost without the conclusion of the sentence. As it stands, the sentence fragment (like Bach’s musical fragment) gestures toward meaning without being meaningful. Indeed, the analogy with Locke, although chosen completely at random, is rather apt, for it is understanding here that is at issue. If it is the faculty of understanding that gives man dominion, if it is understanding that vouchsafes man a modicum of control, then perhaps Bergman demonstrates that it is our sheer incapacity to truly understand one another that reduces us to helpless groping, yearning desperately for a god to underwrite the meaningfulness of our utterances, to anchor the unending semiological slippage that seemingly thwarts our efforts to say anything.

However, the analogy is not entirely fitting inasmuch as we know what the remainder of Bach’s statement says. We have already heard the entire first half of the piece at the opening of the film. This iteration then takes on the character of a partial object, a crippled reminder of the plenitude that we had earlier experienced outside of the film’s diegetic frame; thus absence becomes palpable. What Karin experiences and what we experience are inversely proportional. She confronts the only form of communication possible from her father—a partial statement uttered beneath the guise not of David qua father but rather of David qua author. Yet it is still more than she had previously experienced; that is the shocking horror of it all—she got what she wanted but in a monstrous form. We, on the other hand, witness the fragmentation of what should properly be thought of as a meaning-statement. Although the units are complete in themselves, they are not properly formed (owing to the absence of a necessary constituent part) so that they will present a complete statement. We are aware of the loss if not through simple musical literacy then through our memory of the earlier presentation.

Later in the film, David and Martin depart on a boat for a fishing trip, leaving Minus and Karin alone. Minus witnesses Karin’s communication with the voices that speak to her from beyond the tattered wallpaper in an upstairs room. The voices promise the imminent arrival of God. Minus later finds Karin within the wreckage of a docked boat. She embraces him sensually and we are left to assume that he couples with her. The scene cuts to Minus holding his sister in what we may presume is his post-coital confusion as a heavy rain begins to pour through the decrepit structure. Minus attempts to cajole Karin into returning to the house but she refuses to move, asking only that he help her. Unsure how he is supposed to assist her, he runs to the house to fetch a blanket. Inside the house, he falls to his knees uttering a single word: “God.” Here Bach’s sarabande returns along with images of brother and sister wrapped in the blanket as the rain continues to fall on them. This time, however, Bach’s piece is cut off mid-phrase (during the second phrase).

Thus we can see that each successive iteration of the music marks the continual decline of Karin’s mental health and does so through an increasing level of incoherence. The first appearance of the sarabande (before the actual story begins) presents an essentially complete meaning unit: three full phrases, ending in a complete cadence that marks clearly a point of arrival. When Karin realizes that she has become an object of artistic fascination (and guilt) for her father owing to her mental instability, Bach’s sarabande returns in a relatively incomplete state: two complete phrases that are not closed by a cadence. Once Karin has transformed herself into an object of sexual fascination (and guilt) for her brother, Bach’s piece returns yet again but now in an even more drastically fragmented state. By cutting off mid-phrase, this iteration openly flaunts the inherent rupture of communication. If, as Jacques Lacan claimed, psychosis essentially involves the incommensurability of languages between the psychotic and the outside world (that is, the psychotic finds it increasingly difficult and ultimately unbearable to participate in and abide by the language rules that structure what we conceive to be “normal” existence), then perhaps Bergman’s successive fragmentation of the Bach sarabande serves as a musical homologue to that experience—in confronting recognizable traces of meaning units divorced from the complete statement that would allow them to cohere, the psychotic grasps at something understood to be meaningful and yet is now reduced to mere babble. Indeed, Karin herself seems to interpret her illness in a somewhat Lacanian fashion when she assures her father that she cannot go on living in between two worlds: the world of her family and the world calling to her from beyond the wallpaper, the world that promises a union with God.

Indeed, it is doubtless significant that Minus utters the name of God just prior to the deeply fragmented reappearance of the piece by Bach. If Bach’s music represents for Bergman, as he repeatedly claimed that it did, the only access to the luminous other realm, if it held some trace of our sacral past and the need for spiritual redemption despite our tenuous hold on religion, then the continual withdrawal of the meaningfulness of Bach’s sarabande for cello finds itself metonymically tied to the withdrawal of God’s grace that the characters of Through a Glass Darkly have experienced up to this point.

Bach’s sarabande appears one last time in the film, just prior to the oft-criticized final speech delivered by David to his son who seeks proof of the existence of God. Critics have decried the speech as platitudinous inasmuch as God is explained as “love in all its forms” but it is the very feebleness of David’s understanding of God that underwrites the power of the scene. David can come up with nothing better and indeed there may be no better assurance of the existence of God but it is the effect that the speech has on Minus that is vital to our understanding of the scene and ultimately of the film. After David walks away, Minus says to himself: “Papa spoke to me!” A strangely eloquent exclamation. In a film that seems to document the near impossibility of communication this final gesture holds out some modicum of hope. The shallowness of David’s definition of God demonstrates that communication is founded on effort and willingness more than intellectual insight. Just prior to the speech we hear Bach’s sarabande, beginning as it always has throughout the film. But this time Bergman manipulates the performance; he fades the recording out. It never actually ends; it merely becomes inaudible. And in so doing, it seems to continue on unheard and uninterrupted, opening up the space within which the only successful communication of the film takes place.

* * *

The Profound Consolation (Part 1)

The Profound Consolation (Part 3)

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