By the time he made The Virgin Spring in 1960, Ingmar Bergman – the son of a Lutheran pastor – already recognised that “The God concept had long ago begun to crack...” Bergman followed Spring with Through A Glass Darkly, Winter Light and The Silence, three films that are every bit as portentous and austere as many people believe all his films to be. Loosely slotting together to trace his crumbling faith, Bergman pronounced the films a trilogy, though 30 years later he would write, “Today I see this view as a rationalisation after the fact.”
Shot by Sven Nykvist, whose location photography on The Virgin Spring so impressed Bergman he dumped Seventh Seal cameraman Gunnar Fischer, all three films employ reduced casts in stark, isolated environments. Through A Glass Darkly is set on a desolate island as a father (Gunnar Björnstrand), husband (Max von Sydow) and brother (Lars Passgård) watch Karin (Harriet Andersson) find God as she loses her mind – he enters her dreams in the form of a spider and tries to rape her (“The whole time I saw his eyes. They were cold and calm.”) Winter Light, with its static camera and icy landscapes, records the soul-freeze of a village pastor (Gunnar Björnstrand again), his glacial emotions actually rendering Darkly’s concluding message – “God is love and love is God” – rather trite and hollow. The Silence, meanwhile, unspools in a nameless foreign country poised on the brink of war, with sisters Ester and Anna (Ingrid Thulin, Gunnel Lindblom) stranded in a vacant, cavernous hotel. Words fail, sirens wail.
Ascetic, caustic, pricked by pinholes of hope, the trilogy witnesses Bergman shaking off the shackles of his pious upbringing as he moves towards the searing relationship dramas that would dominate his ’60s and ’70s output (a move “from theology to psychology” as film scholar Leo Braudy puts it). Like so much of the director’s work, these films focus on the need for communication and connection… to find God in the human. Unavailable at press time, extras include introductions by Bergman specially recorded for DVD.