“Winter Light” - Ingmar Bergman (1963)

Ingmar Berman’s Winter Light (1963) is, to me, his bleakest film. It is the second installment, after Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and before The Silence (1963), of what later came to be referred to as his “Trilogy of Faith”. All three of these films are concerned with the longing of people for a distant, silent God to reveal Himself to them. It is a continuation of the knight Antonius Block’s (The Seventh Seal), plea that God not hide in a fog of half-spoken promises.  

Winter Light concerns a Lutheran pastor’s crisis of faith, and Bergman once said that it was his personal favorite among his works.  Indeed the film must have been drawn from his own personal experiences, since Bergman was the son of a Lutheran minister and must have been familiar with the brooding atmosphere depicted in the film. In keeping with the dour seriousness of its subject, the mise en scene is austere and deliberate. The screen time almost matches the diegetic time, since the events depicted take place in a single afternoon, with the focalization on a single player and his interactions with a few principals. Moreover, viewing this kind of Bergman film (there are others along these lines) is something of a challenging experience, because the viewer is not given a clear-cut narrative pathway to follow. Instead we seem only to be given a series of dramatic encounters among a few people of contrasting personalities, and then we are left to see if we can draw some kind of not-very-certain conclusions about their personal and social circumstances.  To be sure, with any story it is up to the reader/viewer to provide much of the narrative construction in his or her own mind.  But with Bergman even more of this internal narrative construction is left to us.

The film opens with a noontime service woodenly ministered by Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Bjornstrand) and given to only about a half-dozen attendees. Among those attending the service are fisherman Jonas Persson (Max von Sydow) and his wife Karin (Gunnel Lindblom), as well as a bespectacled lady, Marta Lindblom (Ingrid Thulin), who we later learn has recently been Tomas’s mistress. Tomas shows no sign of human engagement on his face, even to Marta, when he administers the Communion. This slow, deliberate opening ceremony occupies 15 minutes of the 81-minute film and sets the prevailing tone of dry emptiness in response to spiritual seeking.  In fact the Swedish title of Winter Light is Nattvardsgästerna, which ironically means "The Communicants"; but for the most part, meaningful communication is absent here.  We eventually learn that not only is Tomas relatively uncommunicative with people around him; he has lost his contact with, and belief in, God, too.

After that opening service, Jonas and Karin Persson approach Tomas for a pastoral consultation concerning Jonas’s serious state of depression.  He has become obsessed with reports that China is willing to start a nuclear war.  (In truth this was no idle speculation: Mao Zedong asserted from the mid-1950s onwards that a nuclear war of mass annihilation would be to China’s advantage, since China would have enough survivors to rebuild, while Western capitalism would be destroyed.)  Tomas quickly recognizes that Jonas has lost his belief in life and is suicidal.  He reflexively tells Jonas that he should put his faith in God and that he should return for a talk after he escorts Karin home.

But Tomas’s ambivalence towards his professional calling is evident when, alone, he stares up at sculptured crucifix on the alter and says to himself, “what a ridiculous image”.  Then Marta comes up to him.

Marta is a local schoolteacher, and it is evident as she hugs and kisses Tomas in private that she is used to intimacy with him.  But a crucial spiritual difference separates them: while Tomas complains about God’s silence, Marta assures him that He doesn’t even exist.  Before she departs, she urges him to read a letter that she has sent to him.

Tomas goes back to his office to read the letter, but first he pulls out some photographs of his beloved deceased wife, whose death four years earlier had left Tomas emotionally devastated. Then he turns to Marta’s letter. It turns out that Marta pours her heart out to him in the letter in a way that she could not do to his face. To present the letter-reading, Bergman shows Marta reciting it in closeup, directly into the camera for more than six minutes, sincerely and emotionally pleading her case. (Breaking the “fourth wall” by directly gazing into the camera always induces a heightened sense of empathy, and it is effective here.) This is perhaps the most memorable scene in the film, because its attempt at direct communication (which curiously can sometimes be assisted by the veil of a written message) so starkly contrasts with the rest of the film’s depiction of failed and inauthentic interaction.

In her letter Marta starts out by saying she knows that they don’t truly love each other.  For her part, it seems, she is acknowledging that her “love” was self-centered and therefore not true love.  She also painfully acknowledges her own weaknesses and faults, including the disfiguring skin rashes she is sometimes afflicted with and which she knows Tomas finds repugnant.  She tells Tomas that in her frustration with her excruciating sufferings, she finally prayed to the god she didn’t believe in to give her some reason to live, some task in the world that would justify her pain and call on all her strength. And she says that, amazingly, that prayer was actually answered!  She finally came to understand that her mission on this earth was to love Tomas unconditionally and unreservedly. 

Although the delivery of Marta’s letter is moving, Tomas’s reaction seems to be more that of irritation than of sympathy.

When Jonas returns for his consultation, Tomas, rather than reassuring him about the future and to trust God’s plan, opens up to him and confesses his own doubts about even the existence of God. Tomas suggests that there might by some intellectual relief in even knowing finally that “there is no creator, no sustainer of life, no design.” For once Tomas is willing to share his inner thoughts, but this is not the right moment and person with whom to share his philosophical despondency.  Jonas needs help, and Tomas is still wrapped up with is own selfish concerns and not sympathetic to the concerns and needs of those around him.  Jonas departs with a lost look on his face and shortly thereafter commits suicide.

Later, Marta affectionately tries to console Tomas and expresses her yearning to be his wife.  In another memorable moment of the film, Tomas responds by saying he is sick of her.  He had formerly loved his late wife, and now he is dead to human feeling. Then in exasperated tones, he definitively rejects his tearful supplicant:
“The real reason [I won’t marry you] is I don’t want you. . . . I’m tired of your shortsightedness, your clumsy hands, your anxiousness, your timid displays of affection. . . .  Once and for all I have to escape this junkyard of idiotic trivialities.”
For Tomas, it’s all about himself. God has deserted him, personally (at one point he asks rhetorically, “God, why have you forsaken me?”), and he doesn’t care about the pain of others. He dutifully goes to Karin Persson, who is suddenly a pregnant widow with three other children, and perfunctorily informs her of her husband’s death. Then he drives over to another nearby Church in Frostnas, where he is scheduled to give the 3pm service.  

There the church’s crippled sexton asks him a question that from his self-study of the Bible has has been bothering him.  Why does the Passion of Christ put so much emphasis on Jesus’s physical pain, he asks?  Wasn’t the fact that his selfish disciples failed to understand his true message much more painful, on the spiritual level?  Wasn’t the fact that Peter thrice denied Jesus the cause for even greater suffering – even leading Jesus to ask why God had forsaken Him? Tomas just listens.

Finally the service at the Frostnas church is supposed to begin, but there is only one worshiper in attendance – Marta.  The film ends with Tomas commencing with the Mass ceremony, and Marta with her head down in the back row of the church, praying.

One might say that in summary, Winter Light is only a negative presentation all the way.  Tomas, who when he was married had once believed that God is love and love is God, is now (during the film’s action) just an empty shell, merely going through the liturgical motions.  According to that account, there is little narrative movement, and the film is merely a depiction of incidents that expose the inner misery of a lost soul.

But I think Winter Light says more than that.  The key to the film is Marta, a role brilliantly performed by Ingrid Thulin. Marta, the avowed atheist, is shown devoutly praying in the film’s final moments. She is praying for Tomas. Actually Marta is Christlike in this story, with even her rash-damaged hands metaphorically evoking the image of crucified martyrdom. Tomas’s rejection of Marta is like Peter’s denial of Jesus.  So we see that the sexton’s story is reversed. Tomas is not the forsaken one, but the forsaking one. And Marta is the image of compassion, the saint. She feels the hurt, but, even more, she feels the selfless love. It is that final shot of Ingrid Thulin, as Marta, praying with her head down that uplifts the film and makes it worthwhile. And with that love, maybe there is even hope for Tomas.

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