Film and Television Features

Winter Light (Ingmar Bergman, 1963)

Conceived as the centerpiece to Ingmar Bergman's sometimes hesitantly grouped "Silence of God" trilogy, Winter Light (or The Communicants [Nattvardsgästerna] in the literal Swedish translation) stands as one of the director's finest, most succinct existentialist works about the struggle and the resiliency of the human spirit.  It also contains the most overt allusions to the trilogy's justification.  Bergman himself strengthened the conviction of his own deliberations when he issued a statement in 1972 that claimed, "everything (was) exactly as (he) wanted to have it, in every second of this picture."  (A rather self-critical filmmaker, he provided a similar statement after his other seasonal breakthrough, Summer Interlude, of 1951).  Transmuting the small cast of the chamber play template and even emulating the kind of instrumental interaction in a chamber ensemble, Bergman arrives at a "reduction" in the literal and metaphysical sense in the 1960s; here, composer Igor Stravinsky receives the director's creative credit, as the "Symphony of Psalms" influences the nature of the story about a pastor's divine and humanistic realizations.  Stravinsky's verses are a close counterpart, evoking a minister who locks himself in his church until God reveals Himself; it was actually in a church where Bergman found the moral backbone of Winter Light.  Acknowledgment of his strict religious upbringing informs the three films in the trilogy that begins with the mid-summer familial exposé Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and concludes with The Silence (1963), a sexually charged tale in an alien country.  In the case of this most assured and stark middle film, Bergman actually asked his father Erik, chaplain to Swedish royalty, to accompany him on a tour of Uppland churches near his birthplace.  Through his father's persuasive actions to assume liturgical duties as a result of a minister's illness, Bergman found one redemptive, yet bleak moral- "whatever happens, one should do one's duty, especially in spiritual matters, even if it might seem meaningless."  Adjoined to this wintry realization is the necessity of communication within its Swedish title, claiming human salvation from the brink of nothingness.

Opening on a meagerly attended communion in rural Mittsunda, Sweden, the scene approaches the desperate and futile, particularly with the cuts to snowy landscape and barren trees, a reflection of the heart of Pastor Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Björnstrand)'s convictions.  During a hymn, Sven Nykvist's camera also fixates upon the faces in the audience, each locked in their own moody range, perhaps to externalize the various internal conflicts of the man before them.  It is only after the service that the true nature of woe and suffering is heaved upon the audience and exacerbated further by married fisherman/carpenter Jonas Persson (Max von Sydow)'s moment of crisis.  Reading of China's nuclear capability, he fears impending annihilation.  Bergman uses such poetic restraint during this scene, choosing to allow Jonas' wife, Karin (Gunnel Lindblom), to articulate his desperation and implacable quandary.  Irresolution pervades, and a certain hopelessness forces the Perssons to leave, but Tomas first acquires Jonas' word that he will return as some vague symbol of optimism.  The introduction of Tomas' mistress Märta Lundberg (Ingrid Thulin), a schoolteacher, pulls any of the Perssons' vagueness into crushing clarity.  Pledging her undying commitment has done little to sway Tomas' affections due to this loss of his wife four years prior, and his self-loathing has become twisted into cosmic uncertainty.  As she bows away from him, Tomas opens her confessional letter.  As he reads it, Bergman employs a confrontational, uninterrupted five-minute close-up of Märta poised directly at the camera to emphasize the immensely strained relationship; Märta recites a monologue about a summer incident involving a severe skin rash, eczema, that spread throughout her body (like a substitute stigmata), as well as her shame, his resulting cowardice and avoidance.  Bergman does not let the audience escape from her naked emotion, just as Tomas is held deeply by her words but ultimately cannot find the means to reciprocate.  Even though she concludes that Tomas is indifferent to Jesus Christ and his faith feels obscure and neurotic, she is bound by the optimism of her love for him, to live in the hope that a person can change, that she can be the catalyst to communication.

Tomas' grievous reminiscence and reconstructed image of Märta is suddenly replaced by the re-appearance of Jonas at his side (who is often noted to be yet another mental representation).  Ironically, as Tomas attempts to reconcile the man's shaken faith, he is defeated by his own hypocrisy and turns to personal turmoil and renunciation of God, stirring further anxiety.  The detrimental meeting, even if imagined, is cataclysmic.  Afterward, alluding to the minister in Stravinsky's composition, Tomas asks of God, "Why have You forsaken me?" and nearly collapses in exhaustion from this repudiation and the frigid season's effect on his body.   The radiant light from the church's window provides no answer, but Märta sustains him.  It is her everlasting image and will that seize the film's remaining movement- the pursuit of duty and love at any cost despite the escalating series of traumas, yearning, and outright cruelty.  As Tomas arrives for afternoon service at the Frostnäs church, he meets with hunchbacked Sexton Algot Frövik (Allan Edwall), who poses a question about the misleading interpretations of Christ's crucifixion.  Using his own handicap as a measuring tool, he reasons the endurance of physical pain in Christ's final hours was less than the harrowing emotional wound.  "His disciples abandoned him down to the last man," Algot tells Tomas, and to feel as if no one had understood or answered his cries is a worse punishment.  Clearly, his words resonate with the principal pastor, but they also elevate the crippled man's own perseverance.  His demonstration and serious considerations of faith prove a loyalty that has been lost on Tomas throughout the film's duration.  Algot is prompted by performing his duties as a man of God rather than obsession over his own despair, thus breaking the shackles of egoism.  In a complementary scene moments later, Märta defies any fatalistic articulations by the church's organist Blom through prayer.  In the intensive The Passion of Ingmar Bergman biography, author Frank Gado mentions the "recurrence of the conditional in her prayer (to) reflect the tentative nature of the film's ending: there is no truth to believe in except the truth created by belief."  Yet, Winter Light is defined by the subtitle in the trilogy of "certainty unmasked," which implies an unveiling and momentous rebirth.  In the end, Tomas, like Bergman's own father, seeks the light of pious obligation, pushing toward a new faith in people and perhaps a rapport with the woman who loves him.