The individual elements of Through a Glass Darkly are familiar. We’ve previously seen Bergman play with techniques familiar from the horror genre, especially in Hour of the Wolf. We’ve also seen his characters grapple with mental illness, as well as with religion and crises of faith. However, Through a Glass Darkly feels quite different from these other films – perhaps because of its intense focus on its central female character, another striking addition to the cast of women created by Bergman and his leading actresses throughout their collaborations. Bergman’s male protagonists are often weaker than his female characters, but this time, they are basically a supporting cast to the female lead. Without a doubt, the star of this film is Harriet Anderson.
I admit: when I saw the cast list of Through a Glass Darkly (1961), I thought that we were in for a return to the psychological relationship dramas of, say, Shame, The Passion of Anna or, well, about half of the Bergman films coming before this one in the Criterion box set. Here’s Max von Sydow again, and he’s playing a husband again. However, this time it isn’t Liv Ullmann who portrays her but another Bergman regular, and the marriage and characters we’re seeing are very different from those familiar from Bergman’s marital dramas.
Andersson’s range and the force of her performance in Through a Glass Darkly are utterly striking. I’d previously seen her as a series of young, flirtatious, girlish women, especially in Smiles of a Summer Night, Dreams and, obviously, in Summer with Monika, arguably the most nuanced and complex of these early parts. Andersson worked tremendously well in those films, but they did not even hint at what was to come in Through a Glass Darkly. Andersson’s character Karin, who has recently been released from a psychiatric institution where she was being treated for a mental illness that isn’t named but that seems to be schizophrenia, is a compelling paradox: her disease assaults her entire being, leaving her powerless to resist as it makes her do terrible things to herself and to others, yet she nonetheless comes across as the strongest, most resilient, and definitely the most self-aware of the film’s characters. Andersson’s performance is disturbing in its sexuality at times, at others it is intensely vulnerable.
We are lucky to have her performance, as apparently Andersson originally declined, believing the role to be too challenging for her. Through a Glass Darkly proves her wrong: she grounds a character that could be too much of a writer’s idea, little more than a vessel of Bergman’s ideas, and as a result she is central to the film’s success. Through a Glass Darkly deals with difficult, even shocking themes, from mental illness to incest, but Andersson holds it all together, turning themes, ideas and concepts into flesh and blood. She makes Karin into a rounded, credible human more than capable of evoking fear and pity. Even in a director’s filmography where there is no shortage of strong performances, in particular by women, Harriet Andersson’s performance performance stands out.