(Ingmar Bergman, 1961)
Can A Cold, Stony-Faced Father
Drive A Girl Insane?

Can a cold narcissistic father drive a girl insane? The short answer is yes. Wilfred Bion defined psychosis as hatred of reality. And, what is there to love about the reality of a self-obsessed father who cares more about his own desires than his children? Facing that is horror. We see it in Through A Glass Darkly, in Karin diagnosed as schizophrenic. She’s turned away from reality, can’t accept Martin’s love; searches in her other world for a kind father-God that might give her salvation and hope. When all she finds is a stony-faced spider trying to invade her, she must commit herself forever to insanity. And the ending tells us why.

Bergman, Unloving Fathers & God

About his 1961 film, Through A Glass Darkly, Bergman says: ‘We’re grasping for two things. Partly for communion with others, that’s the deepest instinct in us. And, partly we’re seeking security. By constant communion with others, we hope we shall be able to accept the horrible factor of our total solitude. We’re always reaching out for … new systems in order to abolish – partly or wholly – our insight into our own loneliness. If it weren’t so, religious systems would never arise.” (Taschen p. 279)

This film, another Bergman exploration that involves a plea for God to reveal himself versus a life without faith, was also Bergman’s struggle with his own unavailable, often punitive, Lutheran Minister father. Bergman, too, lived as Karin (Harriet Andersson) and Minus (Lars Passgård),  needing what he couldn’t get.

Yes, loneliness is certainly a theme in Through A Glass Darkly. An isolated, detached, walled off the loneliness that often comes from emotional abandonment. And, we do see a father’s heartless abandonment. Of course, that leaves a troubled child like Karin, searching for something else – a kind God that responds, speaks, loves and gives hope.

The need for communion with others, as Bergman calls it, begins with parents and children. When that doesn’t happen, where does it leave a child?

Minus says it well: “I wonder if everyone is caged in. You in your cage. I in mine. Each in his own little cube. Everybody.” When you are children thrown out in the wilderness, with no parents and no love, making safe contact with anyone is impossible. It is nowhere to be found.

What Loneliness Does To Children

Minus and Karin’s callously unavailable, severely depressed, and self-obsessed father, David (Gunnar Björnstrand) has passed on his inability to make contact. In keeping out the realities he can’t face in his own emotional life, he’s kept his children alone and without love. He confesses at the film’s end, to Karin:

“You see, Karin, one draws a magic circle around oneself to keep everything out that doesn’t fit one’s secret games. Each time life breaks through the games, one draws a new circle and builds new defenses.” Karin replies: “Poor little Papa.”

Poor little Papa? What about Karin? Her father doesn’t see her. She can’t reach him, as hard as she tries. He doesn’t want to be a father. The evening he gets home from months in Switzerland (and Karin’s return from a course of ECT and hospitalization), he lets slip that he will leave again in 1 month.

She looks stricken. He takes no note and shows no feeling. Conducting a tour in Yugoslavia and even staying on in Dubrovnik after the others leave is much more important than his troubled daughter: “I feel like a criminal for some reason.”

He should. Minus confronts him that he promised to stay. He denies any such promise.  Karin says: “This was to be a nice evening and instead we’re on the verge of tears.” He gives presents as if that should erase all emotional pain. They’re only to appease.

These are neglected kids. At the film’s end when Karin tries to comfort him when he should be there for her, “Poor little Papa;” David replies: “Yes, poor little Papa, forced to live in reality.” Which, because he destroyed her life with his magic circles, his games, his evasion of his children’s needs, she cannot do. 

Karin: The Troubled One

Martin (Max von Sydow), Karin’s physician husband, asks what she’s thinking about, getting ready for bed the night her father announces he’s off to Yugoslavia. “Sometimes we’re so defenseless. Like children cast out into the wilderness at night. The wolves bearing their teeth.” Yes, she has been cast out by her father, long ago.

And, she is defenseless. Against the wolves: all the feelings of hurt and anger she must run from in her insanity and search for God. Those feelings threaten to get their teeth into her very being and she can’t get away, except by turning away from reality.

“You are so kind and I’m so horrid,” she tells Martin as she rejects his amorous words and wishes to make love. Sex to her is an invasion. We see it with the Spider God. Love isn’t to be trusted. Take her father. Love is about him. Not her.

And, so she’s as stony-hearted to Martin as her father is to her. In fact, she confuses him with her father, as is a common transference in love. When he tells her:” It’s you, I love, “ she replies: “You always say the ‘right’ thing, but it comes out wrong. When you love someone, you do what’s right.” This is her father to a T, not Martin at all.

And, Martin says the same thing to David, confronting him with his callousness and disregard of anyone else’s feelings, especially his children’s. Perhaps Bergman is confronting his own callous father; devoted to his religion: “you’re void of all feeling. You lack common decency. You always have just the right words.

Yes, this is Karin’s father. And, this is why she doesn’t trust Martin’s love. Plus, Martin’s love is selfless. And, that too carries a burden of guilt for Karin.

Karin’s “Other World”

From all these unmanageable “wolves” – her self-effacing guilt and blame, fear of invasion by her father’s needs (and Martin’s), feeling cast aside and unimportant, her feelings unseen, Karin must escape to another world in her mind.

She wakes in the wee hours of the morning. Gets out of bed quietly, leaving Martin asleep. Ghost-walks upstairs. Listens at the wall where there’s a crack in the wallpaper.  Hearing voices muttering, Karin looks possessed, falls to her knees, writhes almost- sexually; what she wouldn’t give to Martin.

Hers is the ecstasy of the “other world” voices calling her. Yet, her father is in the other room. And, for the moment, she goes to him. Gives into her yearnings. It’s her father she longs for. His love.

She sits on his lap. He tentatively holds and strokes her, preoccupied with his writing. Calls her “little Katjsa.” When she falls asleep on his lap, he carries her to a cot and covers her, as she drifts into sleep, she yawns: “Just like when I was little.”

All he can do is pat her halfheartedly. When Karin awakes, her voices tell her to rummage through her absent father’s desk. Reading his journal she finds:

“Her illness is incurable with periods of improvement. It’s almost unbearable. I’m horrified by my curiosity, my urge to record its course, to make an accurate description of her gradual disintegration.”

This is the ultimate betrayal. Her father using her, in what is now her hopelessness. Crying, she shakes the sleeping Martin and confesses. Seeing more clearly her father’s true colors, being unable to reach him once again, sends her into a relapse.

She has no choice. The voices in her other world beckon her to search for a kind God/Father.  To replace the one she doesn’t have.

Karin & 17-Year-Old Minus

Like sister, like brother; Minus is also troubled. How could he not be? “I wish I could talk to Papa just once. He’s so wrapped up in himself.” And, he is. He uses Karin and he’s competitive with Minus. He takes Minus’ play as a personal affront.

Minus wrote 13 plays and an opera this summer: “It comes gushing out of me. Isn’t it the same for you?” No. David uses other people’s pain for his characters. And, that makes him enviously hate his son, who only wants his love.

Minus searches for something in his own way. Reads porn magazines and gets angry when Karin catches him. He too has no one to turn to. His father won’t speak to him.

But, Karin is the one who goes farther into her mad retreat. She needs to tell someone about her voices; her world behind the wall, where others beckon her. Minus doesn’t think she’s crazy. They have the same father. “You can trust me,” he says.

So, she tells him about the large room she enters, bright and peaceful, people waiting for God. Some talk to her. Not like a father who doesn’t and can’t connect.

Yes, hers is a world away from human connection and disconnection. A world where she’s the master. Self-created. One she must believe is real. A peaceful world away from inner torment and loss of hope in love.

No one is anxious there. God will come. She cries: “Sometimes I have this intense yearning.” But, she turns away from Martin and must sacrifice him in favor of her world. Martin doesn’t believe in God. He believes in love. Karin must believe in God. Where else is hope in a shattered child’s mind who cannot trust love?

Threat Of Emotional Storms

The rains come and Karin disappears. Minus, panicked, runs to the beach, everywhere, to find her – hiding in the hull of the abandoned wreckage of an old ship.

This is the grounded ship of Karin’s emotional life, in wreckage because of a father’s inability to love. Here is the root of her psychosis, turning away from the reality of the rains and storms of old emotional trauma that threaten to overwhelm her. 

Minus holds Karin, not knowing what to do, as the rains flood in. They’re lonely emotionally abandoned children. Both. Karin gives up – choosing the other world, far away from life. From hatred. Of her father and herself. Hatred threatens love.

She must go away. From her guilty yearnings. The voices tell her to molest Minus, the boy so much like her. The boy she desperately needs, the only one that understands.

Poor Martin loves her, but cannot come close to entering her world. To know what torment lives inside her. And that is what she needs. Someone to reach in and help. Not electroconvulsive shock therapy, but a real understanding of her trauma.

Karin’s guilt drives her mad. Not being understood drives her mad. Being unloved drives her to listen to voices when there is no voice to reach her in her distress.

She cannot resist her voices. They take over, twist her needs; confuse her; make her believe in what they say. She searches for a kind Father/God/ who might forgive and understand. But, that isn’t what she has.

She tells her father she wants no more treatments. She’ll stay in the hospital now. Or get drawn in by her delusion of bright-faced people, pure people, people with hope in their faces, waiting for a God to come; to be loved and saved.

Spider God With Her Father’s Face

But, when after the storm, she searches in the room again, following the voices, beckoning her, telling her God will come this time, her search for God fails her too.

She talks to the voices upstairs: “I know. It won’t be long now. It’s a comfort to know that. But our waiting has been a time of joy.” She tries to get Martin to kneel beside her, for her. She knows he’s a non-believer. He’s distraught. Having lost her to insanity. 

She screams running to the corner. Martin gives her a sedating injection. To the buzzing/whirring/ of the ambulance helicopter above, signaling her retreat into the world of psychosis, the door opens. She waits for God.

Who enters? A spider. She sees his terrible stony face. He crawls up and tries to force himself inside her, into her, but she defends herself. The whole time she sees his eyes, they are cold and calm. Her father.

This is the eye of her insanity. “I have seen God.” And, there is none. God is no different than her betraying, molesting father, who took and couldn’t give. A father that betrayed her trust and was never there. This is what drove Karin insane in the first place. A stone cold face where there should be love. That is horror.

When he tries to apologize to Karin, he tells her: “I had a guilty conscience about you. So, I turned away.” Did he molest her? That would explain his guilty conscience, her confusion about sex, the molestation of Minus, and the Spider/God with her father’s stone-cold face trying to force its way inside her.

It would explain her hatred, and being driven away from reality much too awful to face. That would explain her distrust of love.

Where Is The Love in Through A Glass Darkly?

If not sexual abuse, David without question invaded Karin with despair, silent invasive demands to fill his void and take away his guilt. And, before she leaves to commit herself forever, she does: “Poor little Papa.”

Minus slides to the floor, sobbing. Papa stands at the window bereft.

Minus speaks: “Papa, I’m scared. When I sat holding Karin down in the wreck, reality burst open and I tumbled out. It’s like a dream. Anything can happen. I can’t live in this new world, Papa.” His father tells him: “Yes you can, but you must have something to hold onto.” Minus doesn’t trust him:

“What would that be? Give me some proof of God. You can’t.” Trying to comfort his son: “I can only give you a hint of my own hope. It’s knowing that love exists for real in the human world. I don’t know if love is proof of God’s existence or if love is God himself.”

Minus sighs: “For you, love and God are the same? Then Karin is surrounded by God because we love her. Can that help her?” Papa says: “I believe so.” Minus turns, gazing directly into the camera, Through The Glass Darkly’s last shot. He looks as if he’s just seen, God. And, if God is love, perhaps he has.

With his trance of surprised pleasure, the film ends: “Papa spoke to me.”

Being spoken to is love. And so is being seen. Can David sustain it? We don’t know. And, we can’t help but sadly remember that it’s too late for Karin, going off in her dark glasses to ward off her despair.

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Dr. Sandra E. Cohen

I’m Dr. Sandra Cohen, a psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Beverly Hills, CA. I work with creatives in therapy, story/character development, and entertainment consulting. If you are a writer, actor, or director and want help with a character – or a chance to do some of your own personal work - call at 310.273.4827 or email me at to schedule a confidential discussion to explore working together.

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