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Ingmar Bergman's Film Trilogy

If you've come to this page of the website, you're either lost, curious, or, like the Leopard, a fan of the complex, challenging works of the Swedish film director and writer Ingmar Bergman. Three of my favorite Bergman films constitute what is often called the "faith" trilogy: Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1962), and The Silence (1963). Though the films form a thematic instead of a narrative trilogy and can be digested as individual statements, certain concepts recur in all three films, and the trilogy can be considered a meditation upon faith and doubt. In this following essay, I will attempt an analysis of the trilogy as a whole and form some conclusions on Bergman's philosophy. Numbers in parentheses after quotations from the films correspond to pages in the published screenplay. Other page citations refer to various texts listed at the end.

Two of the most common themes in Bergman's body of work are religion and human relationships, the former generally characterized by religious doubt and the latter by bitter and difficult human relations. In the "faith" trilogy, the two concepts interrelate in complex ways, suggesting that each character's personal relationship with God is reflected in his or her relationship with other characters. Father figures tend to serve as emblems for a fatherly god. Through the rich possibilities of this symbolism, Bergman explores the question of faith in the modern era. Through a Glass Darkly begins by suggesting two possible conceptions of God, which I will call "Spider God" and "God as Love." In Winter Light, both notions are tested; the film ends in a difficult faith that tends to affirm God as Love. The Silence denies this possibility and offers the human struggle as the only responsible alternative.

In Through a Glass Darkly, the character Karin conceives of God as a monstrous spider that emerges in her madness and attempts to rape her. In contrast, for her father David "God and love are one and the same phenomenon" (61). Both perspectives appear to be intimately associated with the characters' relationships with family. Karin lives in alienation: her brother Minus is repulsed by her sexuality, and her father David writes in his diary of a fascination with her madness and is prepared to exploit it for the purposes of his writing. Furthermore, Karin's husband Martin finds himself unable to reach her. She describes her relationship with him as "just a game" (43) and is willing to sacrifice him to her image of the emerging god. David even accuses Martin of wishing for Karin's death as a convenient means of escaping the situation. Family relations that could have been a source of comfort for Karin only serve as monstrous and alienating. At the end of the film, Karin is left to struggle in her madness and is taken away by a helicopter first seen as a menacing silhouette in the window. In his screenplay, Bergman describes the helicopter as "a gigantic dark insect" (57), an incarnation of the Spider God coming to claim Karin.

David's vision of God is the opposite of Karin's. His life's journey is a difficult one that climaxes in a suicide attempt. The experience results in an ego release and a void subsequently filled with a love for his family. Through this love David develops a conception of God as Love. He relates his belief to his son Minus and explains that it can be used as something to hold on to and that can aid Karin in her torment. Minus is impressed; "Daddy spoke to me!" (61) he says. He feels connected to his father, apprehending the familial and divine love David spoke to him about. Given its weight as the last line of the film, Minus' proclamation seems to stand as a metaphor for a personal connection with God. It is easy to interpret the formulation of God as Love as the message of the film. However, such a message appears rather disingenuous. David and Minus are eased by their vision of love, but Karin has still been left in the jaws of the Spider God, and David's claims of love for his family have done nothing to keep her from this demise. Indeed, Martin had earlier accused David of an insincere faith: "You've got a god you flirt with in your novels, but I can tell you, both your faith and your doubt are equally unconvincing" (45-6). Appropriately, Martin is absent for David's final discourse on love; his presence could have hampered the declaration of faith. We can think of David's God of Love conception as a possibility, a certain view of the world set in opposition to the Spider God thesis. The next film in the trilogy continues examining the struggle between the two views.

Winter Light focuses on the wavering faith of Tomas, a pastor. Tomas is inept in relations with his parishioners: he reacts coldly to the crippled Frövik, he is so preoccupied with his own anxieties that he cannot offer any consolation to Johan, and he cannot comfort Jonas's wife after the man's suicide. He cannot even overcome his revulsion enough to pray for Märta's eczemic hands. Tomas selfishly conceives of a God who loves him best. His comforting, personal God, an "echo-god" who gives "benign answers and reassuring blessings" (85), is constructed from a denial of the realities of life, including the reality of the Spanish Civil War that Tomas ignored. Inevitably, reality and a recognition of his self-involvement intrude, and Tomas's God transforms into the Spider God. Tomas has lived in alienation from the human community ever since the death of his wife. When he had her love his sermons were popular and he was a believer, but now that she is dead he is cut off from human relations. In this case, the Spider God manifests as a "dark forest" inhabited by "wild beasts" (43) and reflects Tomas's alienation and fears just as it mirrored Karin's isolation and terror of reality. The consolation achieved by David in Through a Glass Darkly is not possible for Tomas because Tomas is aware of his failings. In his reflections on the film, Bergman himself notes that "His [Tomas's] hell, because he truly believes in hell, is that he recognizes his situation" (265).

The character Märta struggles with the God as Love conception that David and Minus responded to in Through a Glass Darkly. Her family did not believe in God, but they always surrounded her with the type of loving environment that David suggests will save Karin. Her caring, womanly tenderness is pitiable in Tomas's eyes because he cannot return her love. Märta is forced to question her position because she knows that her love has failed to save Tomas, who cruelly rejects her affections. According to Bergman, she realizes this fact as early as the eczema incident: "He begins to pull away since he finds her illness horrifying. She realizes with striking perception the lovelessness of their relationship" (268). Her faith is also threatened by the drunken, bored organist Blom, who tries to seduce her away from Tomas and ridicules the notion of God as Love.

As the bells ring before the beginning of Tomas's sermon in an empty church, Märta struggles in prayer, wishing that she could be sure of belief in love and God. She is in darkness; the scene dissolves to Tomas in a matching composition bathed in the glow of an electric lamp. Tomas is her only chance for faith; he is the light in the winter, an interpretation prefigured in the film's opening shots as Tomas at the pulpit is juxtaposed with images of a wintry landscape. But Tomas is considering canceling his sermon. His anguish originates in a feeling of abandonment. In the midst of his struggle, Frövik reminds him of the gospel, saying that what he finds most distressing is not the crucifixion itself but Christ's abandonment by the apostles and especially by God. Bergman has stated that he sees such betrayal as the key element in suffering: "True suffering comes from knowing the commandment of love and seeing how human beings betray themselves and each other when it comes to love. How they defile love. Christ's clear-sightedness must have caused his greatest suffering" (qtd. in Bergman 258). Tomas himself had reiterated Christ's lament: "God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" (87). We thus have an association between Tomas's suffering and Christ's as the former recognizes his disconnection from both God and the human community.

Nevertheless, Tomas agrees to do the sermon. It is likely that he only does so out of a sense of duty; Bergman himself has suggested as much: "if God is silent you still have to go on with your work" (qtd. in Mosley 112). However, the possibility exists that Tomas himself has felt a fledgling return of faith or at least the need to buttress the faith of others. In any case, his act suffices for Frövik's and Märta's faiths, which in turn accomplish God's presence. Of this moment, Bergman writes, "at that point it doesn't matter if God is silent or if he is speaking" (271). This faith certainly requires a greater leap than that of David and Minus in Through a Glass Darkly because it is accomplished despite a recognition of the realities of life. David and Minus do not fully understand the monstrousness of Karin's God, but Märta does understand Tomas's, and she has to nevertheless find a glimmer of faith in his willingness to continue with his work in the service of God.

The Silence stands at the end of the progression. In the first film, David and Minus find God in love; in the second, Tomas and Märta struggle and manage to find a tentative faith; and in The Silence, characters struggle but are left with nothing but the struggle itself in the face of God's silence. The references to father figures in the three films outline this progression. Minus is elated that his father speaks to him; Tomas calls his former, personal god a "fatherly god" (85) and recalls a childhood abandonment that prefigures his present anxiety: "I'd been left without Father and Mother in a completely dead world. I was sick with terror" (98). The Father-God is not present in The Silence, his absence symbolized by the sisters' dead father and the child Johan's absent father. Johan's aunt Ester takes on the role of surrogate father; she even dresses in male pyjamas and pries into her sister Anna's love life in the manner of a father. However, Anna finds Ester ineffective in this capacity: "When Father died you thought you could carry on in the same way. And went on about your principles, how meaningful everything was, how important! But it was just a lot of poppycock" (136). Indeed, God is not even mentioned in this film, but a striving for religious consolation is symbolized by attempts at human intimacy that inevitably fail in fundamental ways. Anna seeks this intimacy in an anonymous tryst with a waiter; significantly, the first coupling takes place in a church. In a hotel room, the sexuality becomes brutal, and Anna sobs in his embrace. A lamp is knocked over and extinguished; the electric light that illuminated Tomas as Märta prayed for him has gone dark. Anna and Ester had engaged in an incestuous affair, but when Ester tries to seduce Anna again she is faced with a rejection that culminates in Anna's leaving Ester to die.

The other familial bond in the film, that between Anna and Johan, is also broken as Johan is abandoned by his mother to wander in the hallways of the foreign hotel at night. There, Johan is subjected to a grotesque world, a creation of a Spider God's will. The town is readying for war; silhouettes of tanks drift by the train, indistinct like the shadowy helicopter in Through a Glass Darkly. Another tank lumbers in the courtyard outside the hotel. This world is prepared for the type of violent realities that filled Johan in Winter Light with fears of China's atom bomb and that Tomas tried vainly to ignore during the Spanish Civil War. The child Johan internalizes this violent reality. He engages in aggressive play as he shoots his toy gun at a man on a ladder. He projects his anger in a violent puppet show, the incoherence and raw aggressiveness of which contrast with Minus's play in Through a Glass Darkly, which was an ordered and composed expression of anger towards his father. Johan is subjected to what Robin Wood in comments on the film calls "disturbing overtones": the old waiter shows him pictures of corpses and bites the head off a sausage played with like a puppet, Anna sensually caresses Johan's body with perfume, and male dwarfs dress Johan like a girl (127).

The closest intimacies achieved in the film are between Ester and the old waiter and between Ester and Johan. The old waiter teaches Ester some words in his language, including "hand," "spirit," "anxiety," "joy," and "music." "Spirit" and "joy" both have religious associations; "anxiety" has an existential one. Bergman is quoted as finding the words "hand" and "music" the most significant because they represent the two meaningful things in the absence of God: "only the hand—fellowship—is left. And music" (qtd. in Gado 297). The music of Bach in particular plays an important part in the trilogy. In Through a Glass Darkly a Bach suite for cello evokes a traditional, comforting faith. However, in The Silence the sounds of Bach harpsichord music are dimly heard over the radio, reflecting a distancing from consolation. As Ester is cared for by the old waiter, she utters what she calls "before extreme unction, a confession" (140), the most explicit religious statement in the film. In her confession she discusses her loathing of male sexuality and her defeated attempts to defy womanhood roles; she has obviously had difficulty finding her way in the world. The old waiter, a stand-in for a priest listening to her confession, cannot understand her; in this case, God is not only silent, but he is also deaf. Although Ester is a translator, one who is devoted to removing blocks to human communication, she is now in a world she cannot comprehend with her skills. The old waiter can only wordlessly comfort her. Anna and Johan leave her in a wild-eyed silence. She is abandoned just as Karin was in Through a Glass Darkly, but this time the other characters understand the gravity of their actions.

By this point, Ester has given Johan the list of words she has translated from the foreign language. This list is all she has gained during her attempts at human communication. On the train as Johan and Anna leave, Johan tries to show the letter to Anna, but she turns away and goes to the window to let rain fall on her face. A successful connection has been made between Ester and Johan as he treasures the legacy of what Ester has achieved. Meanwhile, Anna experiences a sort of baptism in the rain, but she does so within an ignorance of reality such as the one David inhabits in Through a Glass Darkly because she has effectively abandoned both her son and her sister, the two human relationships that could have meaning for her. She instead chose the sensual but cold coupling with the waiter; "how nice it is that we don't understand each other" (133) she says to him, preferring the distance of sexual anonymity to an understanding she cannot cope with in the close relationship with her sister. In his comments on the film, Frank Gado suggests that even Anna is aware of the failure of her baptism: "the look on her face bespeaks a terror that the water will not wash away" (298). The alternative to Anna's method are the examples of Ester and Johan. They continue to struggle to understand their incomprehensible environment. In a world where the silence of God reigns, struggle for its own sake is the only possible source of meaning for those fully engaged with reality.

Examined together, Bergman's three films represent a journey through faith and doubt. Both optimistic and pessimistic visions are conceived, discarded, and revived; the former is represented by the classic, Christian consolation of God as a source of mercy and love, whereas the latter is imaged as a monstrous, fearful world created by a malignant god. The trilogy's final statement fails to rest comfortably in either version. The noblest survivors of The Silence neither selfishly cling to ignorant redemptions nor achieve hard-won faiths; rather, their consolation is an existential one, a source of meaning found in the struggle for meaning. Humankind strives to decipher God's codes in a world that defies an ordered Christian sensibility, and a few words may be all that one can hope to understand, but those strong enough to find meaning in this achievement have seized a victory and have forged the human bonds necessary for solace in the absence of God.


Published screenplay:

Three Films by Ingmar Bergman. Translated by Paul Britten Austin. New York: Grove, 1963.

Other references:

Bergman, Ingmar. Images: My Life in Film. Translated by Marianne Ruth. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1994.

Gado, Frank. The Passion of Ingmar Bergman. Durham: Duke University Press, 1986.

Mosley, Philip. Ingmar Bergman: The Cinema as Mistress. London: Marion Boyars, 1981.

Wood, Robin. Ingmar Bergman. New York: Praeger, 1969.

Last update for this page: 13 August 2006