A Film Trilogy by Ingmar Bergman (1961-1963)

In a recent essay on Franz Kafka in The New Republic (3 November 2003), British novelist Zadie Smith writes that Kafka’s work implicitly raises the question, “Is it possible to be alive?” For Kafka, life is “a process to which we must submit,” rather than control and isolation is its overwhelming characteristic.

Much as Smith’s essay illuminates Kafka’s preoccupations, it also speaks to Ingmar Bergman’s early 1960s chamber trilogy, recently released by Criterion on DVD. The parallels between Kafka and Bergman are striking. Bergman’s trilogy — Through a Glass Darkly (Såsom i en spegel); Winter Light Nattvardsgästerna); and The Silence (Tystnaden) — is “novelistic” in a modernist sense, eschewing explicit causality, single perspectives, and traditional narrative techniques. At the same time, all three films are concerned with ideas, states of being, and subjective experience.

Each film begins with a prototypically existential situation: Karin (Harriet Andersson) suffers from schizophrenia in Through a Glass Darkly; Tomas (Gunner Björnstrand) is absorbed by self-hatred and lack of faith in Winter Light; and Ester (Ingrid Thulin) endures illness and a love-hate relationship with her sister Anna (Gunnel Lindblum) in The Silence. For all their experimentation with form, Bergman’s films are most “novelistic” in their metaphysical frameworks. In Through a Glass Darkly, Minus (Lars Passgård) echoes Kafka when he says, “I can’t live in this world.”

Bergman opens the trilogy with an ominous image of the expansive Baltic Sea in Through a Glass Darkly. Off in the distance, four swimmers make their way toward shore: David (Gunner Björnstrand), a writer, and his two children, Minus and Karin, along with Karin’s husband, Martin (Max von Sydow). All live together in the same house, and, now that Karin is home from a long stay at a hospital, the family enjoys dinner and Minus and Karin’s performance of a play. But their happiness is temporary. That evening, Karin finds herself drawn to a dilapidated room. As her schizophrenia flares, she hears voices and imagines strangers moving about and staring at a bright light, waiting for “him” to arrive. “Who is coming?” Minus asks. Karin’s answer is elliptical: perhaps God, but she is unsure.

While hiding in the empty hull of a wrecked boat, she suffers another breakdown, and each man responds differently. David watches his daughter with a clinician’s objectivity, recording the “progress” of her schizophrenia in his diary. Minus exhibits a post-pubescent obsession with female sexuality, and Martin, feeling powerless, lays his guilt on David, berating him for being callous and cowardly. They are so obsessed with their own desires that their lives, their commitments as family members, become “impossible.” And so they emotionally abandon Karin.

Abandonment despite physical proximity is also a central theme in Winter Light. Tomas is a small town pastor whose services are attended by a handful of parishioners or, sometimes, none at all. He is introspective enough to acknowledge that his own troubled faith makes him ill-suited for the clergy and that his bitterness over his wife’s early death is an emotional prison. He calls himself “an ignorant, spoiled and anxious wretch.”

Jonas (Max von Sydow), a feeble man obsessed with the possibility of nuclear war, seeks Tomas’ advice. “Why,” he asks, “must we go on living?” He desperately needs an answer, but all Tomas can do is drive Jonas away with talk about his own problems. Finally, Tomas admits, “God seems so remote.” As if to illustrate, Tomas’ lover Märta (Ingrid Thulin) describes in a long letter how the two have fallen out of love, how she cannot understand his “indifference” to God. She wants to salvage their relationship, but all he can do is withdraw further, saying he cannot tolerate her “idiotic trivialities.” As she is unable to leave him, her life is impossible as well.

The Silence, the final film in the trilogy, considers similar sufferings. Anna is on a homebound train with her son Johan (Jörgen Lindström) and sister Ester, when Ester’s unexplained illness forces them all to stop at a hotel in an unnamed foreign country. While Ester remains in bed, Anna goes to a bar and then a theater, while the restless Johan is left to explore the hotel on his own. Seeking her own escape, Anna has a sexual rendezvous with a stranger, just when her son and, especially, her sister need her most. Her distance is deliberate; “I wish Ester were dead,” she tells her stranger.

It is in The Silence that Bergman’s interest in human disconnections and oppositions is most developed. Anna, voluptuous and flamboyant, couldn’t be more different from her educated, more serene sibling. Anna consumes her environment, while Ester is sickened and intimidated by it. Ester isolates herself in her hotel room not only because she is ill, but also because she fears the life outside.

Like the other previous films, The Silence observes that the impossibility of living results partly from external forces: the tanks on the street, the illness that is killing Ester. Yet the more immediate causes lie in the aspects that separate Ester and Anna, Karin and her family, or Tomas and Märta: intolerance, fear, and, most of all, self-interest, what Zadie Smith, in her essay, terms “solipsism.”

It could be, the films suggest, that even God is a solipsist. God’s failure to “speak,” to respond to individuals and communities suffering might not negate His existence, but it demonstrates His neglect of those in need. This sense of abandonment structures The Silence, which features little dialogue (almost none in the first 10 minutes) and desperate desires. Ester wants not to die alone, Minus to find a reason for living, and Jonas to find security. Karin finally sees God, but the vision drives her mad. “God is a spider,” she declares; in His silence, He is monstrous.

In other words, as Peter Matthews writes in an essay included with Criterion’s DVD set, piety no longer offers consolation. Bergman’s trilogy does offer one possible consolation for the pain of daily isolation and unthinking cruelties. As David tells Minus, “Love exists in the real world.” Love cannot cure disease or stop war, but it may make living bearable.