The title is taken from Corinthians 13:12: For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. This verse is set within the context of love, or more specifically, charitable love (agape). Interpretations may vary. One interpretation: the dim mirror represents an imperfect and incomplete knowledge of oneself and God, whereas with charitable love there is a change in the person in that the person will have self-knowledge like God's knowledge of the person. It is uncertain if Ingmar Bergman was thematizing charitable love or a broader notion of love (that is, how it is generally understood) in relation to God. Throughout the film, the charitable love of all the characters is tested. If Bergman was thematizing a broader notion of love, then the film becomes even more ambiguous. It can be said that all the characters love each other just as much as they are alienated from each other and from God, if not from their own selves - this brings up the problematic of a false love. In any case, the dislocation of love and of God is perhaps the main motif of the film.
Bergman himself said:
A God descends into a human being and settles in her. First he is just an inner voice, a certain knowledge, or commandment. Threatening or pleading. Repulsive yet stimulating. Then he lets himself be more and more known to her, and the human being gets to test the strength of the god, learns to love him, sacrifices for him, and finds herself forced into the utmost devotion and then into complete emptiness. When this emptiness has been accomplished, the god takes possession of this human being and accomplishes his work through her hands. Then he leaves her empty and burned out, without any possibility of continuing to live in this world. That is what happens to Karin. And the borderline that she crosses is the bizarre pattern on the wallpaper. Through a Glass Darkly was a desperate attempt to present a simple philosophy: God is love and love is God. A person surrounded by love is also surrounded by God. That is what I… named "conquered certainty."
Through a Glass Darkly can be seen as a family drama where once alienated members rally around Karin's illness, and afterwards everyone is less alienated from each other. In a way, the film does have sort of a conventional structure and denouement, though it is broken up by depictions of Karin's psychosis. Perhaps Karin's illness is the very hand of God=love which has brought the others closer together (as the popular saying goes, "God works in mysterious ways"). In so doing, love prevails, and each is touched by God. This is a platitude, but that is how the drama unfolds. This appears to be how Bergman resolves certain contradictions in the film. However, there is a sense that the message of God=love is a false one, a false hope. That is, is the hopeful love of the others, specifically of David and Minus, some kind of defense mechanism against submitting totally to love? At the end, they seem to inhabit a limbo of emptiness and hope. Also, they seem self-absorbed. In other words, they seem not to want to face their emptiness but only to have false hopes in a desperate message of God=love. But is this also their absolute emptiness? Or is the hopeful message of love really another distraction from facing the absolute emptiness of God=love? In the end, do they really know God=love? And despite her saying "I have seen God," Karin feels the most intense loneliness. Even surrounded by the others' love, she is alone. There is a sense of being forsaken. Bergman leaves certain things unresolved, and perhaps the contradictions of the film and its intentions are what make it interesting. Perhaps Karin's psychosis is a sort of anamorphosis of the others' absolute emptiness. In other words, her absolute emptiness is the distorted picture or extreme case of the absolute emptiness experienced by the others. No doubt, Bergman is disassembling and reassembling the parts of spiritual crises. Perhaps in a profound spiritual crisis, there is a certain indistinguishability of things - between emptiness and hope, between loneliness and love, between God and silence. The film begins with a shot of the opaque surface of the sea then quickly shifts to a shot of the clear depths of the sea. This can be interpreted as a metaphor for Corinthians 13:12, the opaque surface being a dim mirror whereas the clear depths being Godly self-knowledge. But also, this can be a metaphor for the contiguity or the coalescence of absolute emptiness and God=love. Metaphysically, it can be a metaphor for a certain Augenblick conversion, an imminence (that is, Godly love is in all things, good and bad). Then there is a shot of all the characters emerging in unison from the sea, or more specifically, defining the horizon of the sea and the sky. The characters inhabit the horizon of their picture of themselves and God's knowledge of them. Also, their emergence from water can be seen as a sort of baptism, possibly a baptism into absolute emptiness. All this is very simply but effectively captured, sets the tone of the coming drama. The stark surroundings, the run-down house, the wrecked boat can be interpreted as metaphors for a derelict existence in the dual sense, abandoned by God=love but also abandoned to God=love; it is uncertain which choice is better. Perhaps the possibility of living in this world is also the impossibility of God, or the possibility of Godly love is exposed with the exposure to life's impossibility, its absolute emptiness. Despite the happy ending, Bergman does not really offer a convincing middle choice. The dilapidated room with the cracked decorative wallpaper was a particularly effective place to set Karin's plunge into psychosis, her meeting with God, as a place of absolute ruin and its imagination.
At the end of the film, David consoles Minus, that God and love may be the same thing - "God exists in love, every sort of love, maybe God is love." Especially after Karin's second schizophrenic breakdown which is a traumatizing episode for everyone involved, again, God=love may come off as a platitude, and the ending may be unsatisfactory. Following Bergman's own conceptualization, absolute emptiness may be Karin's alone. Nevertheless, the trauma of Karin's breakdown notably can be interpreted as inducing drastic anagnorises in all the characters, psychological and spiritual changes. The others undergo changes too, but it is difficult to locate the time of these changes. Except for Minus, the others do not express any drastic change. The others too experience emptiness, but does their emptiness approach an absolute one? While fishing, David tells Martin about his suicide attempt, how this left him in a certain emptiness through which he recognized his love for Karin, Minus, and Martin. Minus can be seen as being left in a certain emptiness after having incestuous sex with Karin. Martin is a more ambiguous figure. Perhaps he has been left in a certain emptiness since Karin's first schizophrenic breakdown. His emptiness is less pronounced, but it is obtusely signalized by his spurned sexual advances toward Karin which may be a metaphor for the his objectification of her and which in turn shows his own desperate destitution (it can be said, he is putting up a good front). Minus seems to have been most affected by the events of the breakdown (he did have sex with his sister after all), but then he is easily consoled at the end and is relieved mostly that "Papa spoke to me." If it is Bergman's intention to show that absolute emptiness is a sort of locus of God=love, Karin's is a bizarre case since she is raped by God as a spider, and devastated, she leaves for the hospital in sunglasses to avoid Godly light. There is also the issue of hope. Is absolute emptiness the voiding of hope for the possibility of continuing to live in this world? Whereas Karin does "choose" to leave this world, the others continue to live in it. As David tells Minus, God=love is "something to hold on to." Perhaps Bergman's intentions were contradictory, or as he said, "desperate." If anything, they are ambiguous. From our perspective, the drama can be seen merely as revolving around Karin's schizophrenic breakdown and her hallucinations.
Bergman's portrayal of the schizophrenic's world or psychosis in general is compelling. Moreover, the psychosexual dynamics are one of the most interesting aspects of the film. David is haunted by the loss of his wife which is embodied in his daughter, and he somewhat perversely wants to record Karin's deterioration. Minus is sexually repressed but also yearns for his father's affection (one can speculate that he is homosexual), and his incestuous liaison with Karin throws him into more confusion. Martin seems to compensate for his resignation to the fact that Karin is incurable by turning her into a sex object, though he is rebuffed. And Karin, her sexuality is purposely vexing, her sexual subjectivization being guided by voices, and her desire for God's desire (that is, the desire of the Other) becomes a sort of leitmotif of the film. The voices can be interpreted as a sort of short-circuited superegoic injunction that commands not enjoyment (within the circuit of desire and its metonymic incompletion) but jouissance - after all, Karin is shown having orgasm. However, jouissance is only perversely attained. Sexual coupling can be interpreted as a metaphor for loveless alienation, or a violation. So, if the film was to be politicized, it has a certain conservative message on sex (it goes so far as showing God to be a rapist). Bergman adroitly uses parallelism and symbolism - the play performed by Minus and Karin (where the artist cannot die for his art) is a harbinger of their incestuous liaison, the helicopter appears just when God as spider appears to Karin, and water symbolizes conversion. There is so much symbolism just in that sequence of Karin and Minus in the wrecked boat which is a partial shelter from the rain, symbolizing both dissolution and baptism. David the father can be seen as another superegoic voice, the injunction to desire and enjoy hopeful love so as not to tarry with a barren life. Even though he experiences a certain emptiness then love with his suicide attempt, he still is distant and distances himself from the others. He still cannot get over the death of his wife (who was also schizophrenic), face the truth. His writing displaces the truth (the critique implied in the play), so that even Karin's breakdown is an opportunity to write. It can be interpreted that David symbolizes castration - that is, the entry into the circulation of desire and language with the loss of jouissance. David yearns for his dead wife, Minus yearns for this father, Martin yearns for Karin - each yearns for a connection to someone who would displace the true emptiness of their lives. Each have fantasies of reconciliation, that which will reflect wholeness (secondary jouissance) - David with fantasies of his love for the others as well as of literary success, Minus with fantasies of revenge, Martin with fantasies of Karin's sexual readiness. Minus' mockery of his father through the play is his way of getting attention and finally affection. In fact, the play may be the dramatization of fundamental fantasy. Like the artist who only flirts with deadly truth, each is unable to truly confront their own spiritual paucity, and "love" too becomes a symptom of the confrontation's evasion. Each has a vague "love" for the other(s). "Love" (what is imagined to be the Other's desire) can be interpreted as objet petit a (cause of desire). In other words, they mistakenly expect their "love" to be returned somehow, to be justified. But in each, there is a misrecognition of another's desire. David plans to leave for a trip despite his family's wishes, Minus relents to Karin's amorous advances unquestioningly, Martin seems to misread Karin's vulnerability for sexual availability. But how does all this relate to Godly love? Is the choice only between a horrific God (God as spider) or hopeful love? The former is all too impossible and the latter is all too possible, which is also the impossibility of Godly love. Perhaps this is related to the impossibility of life. The message of God=love, that every sort of love is God, is a fragile one. "Love" may be necessary for livable life, but livable life may only go to show the superfluidity of Godly love. Bergman's argument seems to be almost apophatic, showing God by showing what is not God.