Winter Light (1963)

Ingmar Bergman | 1hr 21min

In the 1950s, Ingmar Bergman directed three films with ‘Summer’ in their title, referring to the season of one’s life that blossoms with romance and vitality. Winter Light then clearly marks a drastic shift in the tone of his introspective meditations, isolating us in Father Thomas Ericsson’s lifeless, rural parish. His congregation at the Sunday noon mass is uninspiringly small, and as we sit through the last ten minutes of his service there is an overwhelming emptiness to the proceedings. The prayers, hymns, and liturgy of the Eucharist move by at a sluggish pace, while Bergman cuts between close-ups of the parishioners’ expressions ranging from deep in thought to downright bored. This church is not a sanctuary for Christians, as the minimalist beauty of its arched ceilings and rough stone walls rather mirrors the bleakness of the frozen landscapes outside, infusing Winter Light with a chilling severity that cuts right to the troubled hearts of its believers, sceptics, and doubters.

The first ten minutes of Winter Light is the most lifeless mass you have ever seen, and Bergman’s photography is at its bleakest.

The scope of this narrative is far narrower than many of Bergman’s previous films, taking place over the course of a few hours between two services on a frosty Sunday afternoon. Tomas’ spiritual crisis began a long time before we pick up on his story, and it will continue far beyond the point that we leave him, though this brief time frame applies an intensive focus to the point at which it cannot be contained any longer.

For the first time in his many collaborations with Bergman, Gunnar Björnstrand takes the leading role, bringing not just a brooding bitterness to Tomas’ ruminations, but also a common cold that plagued him throughout production. Rather than cutting around its interruptions, Bergman turns it into a part of his character, reflecting his spiritual sickness as a physical ailment. At one point after he echoes Christ’s words on the cross, “God, why have you forsaken me?”, a coughing fit even brings him to his knees in front of his altar, while Bergman shines a bright sun through the tall, arched window above him in a divine image of human frailty.

A divine composition from Bergman in Tomas’ church, his sickness bringing him to his knees at the altar.

In this moment, the only person there to hold him is his ex-mistress Märta, played by Ingrid Thulin with self-conscious modesty. She is deliberately dressed down here, drawing attention away from her natural looks and turning her into a figure who evokes pity, disdain, and occasionally affection from Tomas. She is a collection of contradictions that shouldn’t make sense from a strict religious perspective, being a firm atheist and yet believing more in the Christian virtue of compassion than any other character. Additionally, she is the most constant presence in Tomas’ masses besides his sexton and organist, driven to remain by his side out of a selfless love that he often pushes away.

To Björnstrand’s disillusioned priest though, she is a reminder of the material world he spurned to pursue a life of faith, which now seems to be worth little. Bergman offers both a pair of monologues which formally complement each other on either side of this ambivalent dynamic, holding a six-minute shot on Thulin as she laments a summer where Tomas reacted with disgust to her spreading rash, without once praying for her healing. Given Bergman’s usual talent for evocatively framed close-ups, this is far from his finest, though its breaking of the fourth wall does allow for a brutal honesty which only feeds Tomas’ insecurity.

“Your faith seems obscure and neurotic, somehow cruelly overwrought with emotion, primitive. One thing in particular I’ve never been able to fathom: your peculiar indifference to Jesus Christ.”

Ingrid Thulin gives one of her greatest performances as the atheistic Märta, offering immense warmth and compassion to Tomas’ doubting priest. The story of her rash even bears some resemblance to legends of stigmata affecting saints.

Throughout Winter Light he offers numerous reasons for his dwindling faith, including the horrors he witnessed during the Spanish Civil War, his wife’s premature death, and a recognition that he only took up this profession due to his father’s influence. And yet when it comes time for him to pour all of his disdain right back on her, he offers a far less sincere verbal assault, seeking to wound her for all his petty grievances.

“I’m tired of your loving care. Your fussing. Your good advice. Your candlesticks and table runners. I’m fed up with your short-sightedness. Your clumsy hands. Your anxiousness. Your timid displays of affection. You force me to occupy myself with your physical condition. Your poor digestion. Your rashes. Your periods. Your frostbitten cheeks. Once and for all I have to escape this junkyard of idiotic trivialities. I’m sick and tired of it all, of everything to do with you.”

Both Björnstrand and Thulin get a pair of monologues that feature some of Bergman’s best writing – one seeking truth, the other offering hate.

Björnstrand commands immense verbal power here, though it is Bergman’s savage pen which impresses most of all in this string of merciless barbs. Spouses have been tearing each other to pieces in his films ever since the 1940s, and while Tomas and Märta’s relationship is not the sole focus of Winter Light, this exchange goes toe to toe with Scenes from a Marriage as his quintessential depiction of undistilled resentment between lovers.

With the task of fostering his parish’s spiritual growth now seeming an impossible task, Tomas finds himself acting out in stubborn, angry protest. When one of his parishioners, Jonas Persson, confronts him after mass with concerns over an impending nuclear winter, Tomas cannot find the energy to offer the “benign answers and reassuring blessings” which his own “echo-god” keeps giving him. In an unsettling role reversal, it is the priest who starts confessing his lack of faith to the congregant, and all the while Bergman keeps underscoring the proximity between Tomas and the sculpture of a crucified Jesus hanging behind him on the wall. Christ’s tortured face looks down on his lost disciple with sorrow, and yet he remains as agonisingly silent as the God whose existence is being questioned.  

“If there is no God, would it really make any difference? Life would become understandable. What a relief. And thus death would be a snuffing out of life. The dissolution of body and soul. Cruelty, loneliness, and fear… All these things would be straightforward and transparent. Suffering is incomprehensible, so it needs no explanation. There is no creator. No sustainer of life. No design.”

Bergman is one of cinema’s great blockers of faces – but just note the detail in placing Christ’s tortured face above Tomas’ here. He looks down at the priest, who is in turn distracted and looking at Jonas, who is similarly refusing to look at the person trying to reach him.
A disconnection drawn between layers of the frame, fatefully distancing Tomas and Jonas.
Light starts to shine in the window behind Tomas in this close-up – Bergman is a master of these subtle lighting alterations to change our perception of a character’s expression.

Tomas does not have the awareness of how extreme Jonas’ concerns are to comprehend the danger of what he is saying, and yet the disconnection that Bergman captures between them through his depth of field is just as inconsolable as the priest’s separation from God. Jonas silently exits, and as Bergman shines fresh sunlight through the window behind Tomas’s head, he is also struck with the despairing recognition of what he has done. No more than a few minutes later does he receive the devastating news – Jonas has shot himself in the head with a rifle, leaving behind a mourning family.

Bergman again emphasises the freezing winter exteriors when Tomas comes across Jonas’ body – a severe landscape to match the souls of these characters.

Tomas has little time to process his guilt and console Jonas’ family before pressing forward onto his 3 o’clock service. It is here that Winter Light’s position in Bergman’s unofficial Faith trilogy becomes most evident. This is the second film in a row that sees him refer to God as a “spider”, but even more significantly we find Fredrik the organist mockingly quoting Through a Glass Darkly’s thesis that “Love proves the existence of God.” No longer does this seem like enough evidence for Bergman, who now finds himself wrestling with the part of Tomas, Jonas, and himself so lost in existential dread that even love cannot be found.

A second mass a mere few hours after the first to bookend the film, sending Tomas to preach to an even emptier church than before.

Then again, who can empathise with this fear of total abandonment more than Christ himself, hanging on the cross? This is the allegory that the sexton Algot unknowingly draws to Tomas’ own plight as they prepare for a mass that no one has turned up to, forsaken by men and God alike in their holy mission. Specifically, Algot questions the biblical focus on the physical pain Jesus suffered leading up to his death given its brevity, while the betrayals at the Last Supper, the Garden of Gethsemane, and in Peter’s denial were far more torturous.

“He believes everything he’d ever preached was a lie. In the moments before he died, Christ was seized by doubt. Surely that must have been his greatest hardship – God’s silence.”

A voice on Märta’s shoulder, forcing her own reckoning with her love for Tomas.

As such, the question of why one must then continue with an empty mass is equated to Jesus’ own following through with a sacrifice for which he is not guaranteed any real reward. This endurance is posed as the very crux of Christian faith, which even Märta is shown to possess in spite of her atheism. A thin sliver of light illuminates her profile as she kneels and prays, consumed in darkness yet nonetheless imploring some higher power for understanding between neighbours.

“If only we could feel safe and dare to show each other tenderness. If only we had some truth to believe in. If only we could believe.”

Immaculate, minimalist lighting as Märta prays – a thin sliver of lighting illuminating her profile as she kneels in reverence.

The answer to Märta’s prayer comes not in some grand gesture of goodwill, but simply the start of the 3 o’clock service, persisting in the absence of any real congregation. It is impossible to fully penetrate the mind of Björnstrand’s lonely pastor in this moment, but Winter Light’s formal bookending of a pair of church services at least suggests the tiniest shred of persevering faith in his soul, offering a link between people and God despite the mutual silence. Who else will keep this hope for salvation alive, if not him?

Much like Tomas, Bergman ends his film with open-ended questions, finding resolution only in the ongoing acceptance that answers may never be found. Perhaps it is ironic that this it was during this production that he later claimed to have lost his faith, and yet the incredible spiritual patience that emerges in both the Christians and atheists of Winter Light uncovers an inerasable, universal belief in human goodness, transcending the most rigid boundaries of organised religion.

Winter Light is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes.


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