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Like Quattrocento Italian painting, Ming porcelain, or the late quartets of Beethoven, Ingmar Bergman’s “chamber” films are an acquired taste. Winter Light represents the Swedish director’s most concentrated inquiry into the significance of religion, and of Lutheranism specifically. Does it, can it, have any relevance in a world where—at least in 1962—the nuclear threat hangs indiscriminately over mankind? Or where one individual cannot show compassion to his lover?
Immaculately shot by Sven Nykvist, acted with extraordinary intensity by the entire cast—and by Gunnar Björnstrand as Tomas Ericsson and Ingrid Thulin as Märta Lundberg in particular—Winter Light clasps us by the throat with numbed fingers and demands a response. Gone is the baroque imagery, the grandiose dialogue of Bergman’s 1950s classics like The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries. Bergman, much influenced at this period by his Estonian wife, the pianist Käbi Laretei, whittles down his style to a level at which every word resonates with significance, every shot is unblinking, and every performance is so authentic as to make us shift uncomfortably in our seats. Björnstrand, playing the cowardly pastor, fell sick himself during the shooting and managed to complete his role only under a doctor’s care, and beneath Bergman’s relentless gaze.
“In 1959,” Bergman told then-apprentice Vilgot Sjöman during the production, “my wife and I went to say hello to the pastor who had married us. On the way, in the village shop, we saw his wife talking very seriously to a schoolgirl. When we reached the vicarage, the pastor told us that this little girl’s father had just committed suicide. The pastor had had several conversations with him earlier, but to no avail.” From such a small incident Bergman weaves the texture of his tale, in which one man’s suicide induces a spiritual crisis for the local pastor and his mistress.
While preparing Winter Light, Bergman visited several churches in Uppland (just north of Stockholm) and sat for an hour or two in each one, seeking inspiration for the close of the film. One Sunday, he asked his father to accompany him. As they waited for a Communion service to begin on a chill spring morning in one particular small church, the pastor declared that he was ill and could not preside over a full service. Bergman’s father hurried out to the vestry, and soon afterwards the Communion began, with Pastor Erik Bergman assisting his sick colleague. “Thus,” recalls the director in his autobiography, “I was given the end of Winter Light and the codification of a rule I have always followed and was to follow from then on: Irrespective of everything, you will hold your Communion. It is important to the churchgoer, but even more important to you.”
Winter Light unfolds in a rigorous time span of just a few hours, from Sunday morning Communion in one church to the start of an afternoon service at another close by. Its language and metaphors may be those of the established church, but it explores human relationships with a candor that goes way beyond Christianity. Tomas is a pitiful figure because he cannot choose between a worldly love (offered to him by the forlorn, ailing Märta) and the unattainable ideal implied in the religious dogma he intones before the altar.
When the anxious fisherman, Jonas Persson (Max von Sydow), comes to him in the vestry for reassurance, Tomas can do nothing but depress him still further. In baring his own misgivings, in lamenting his own situation rather than comprehending the fisherman’s, the doubting Tomas propels the man toward suicide. The pastor even admits to Jonas that he does not himself believe in God’s existence, and when his unfortunate parishioner has left the church, he turns to Märta and says, with shocking complacency, “Now I’m free.”
Later, before the service at Frostnäs Church, it becomes clear through a superb dialogue with his sideman, Algot Frövik (Allan Edwall), that Tomas resembles the disciples who understood nothing during their three years in the company of Jesus, and who deserted him in his hour of need.
Bergman takes more risks in this film than in any other, with the possible exception of Persona (1966). Not only does he commit to it some of the most searing lines ever written for the screen (for example, Tomas’ rejection of Märta as they sit together in the deserted schoolroom), but he shoots the picture with an uncompromising severity that demands total concentration from the spectator. In the opening sequence, the camera scrutinizes each churchgoer in close-up, and then from afar as they shuffle up to the altar rail for Communion; they appear frail, almost disjointed, like puppets on a string, and in desperate need of comfort.
Ingrid Thulin’s reading of Märta’s letter to Tomas is an extraordinary scene; her face seems to project every nuance of the words she is reciting and to express her sentiments with a frankness beyond the reach of the evasive, shifty-eyed Tomas. Not for nothing does the film title translate from the Swedish as “The Communicants.” For Bergman, here, as so often elsewhere, the irony of life is people’s failure to communicate with one another. When Tomas arrives at the riverside to attend the corpse of Jonas Persson, the incessant boom of the nearby rapids drowns out the conversation between the police and the pastor, as well as seeming to blur his emotional response.
There are other subtleties, too. Tomas and his churchwardens address each other in the third person, emphasizing the distance between them as well as the hierarchical structure of orthodox religion. As the worshippers kneel before the altar for Communion, they might as well be accepting medicine from a doctor as bread and wine from the priest. (Later in the film, Märta offers Tomas aspirin and cough mixture in much the same way….)
Film buffs who know Bergman’s earlier film Through a Glass Darkly will note the organist’s scornful dismissal of that work’s conclusion: “God is love; love is God.” Indeed, Winter Light stands as a bridge between Through a Glass Darkly and The Silence, as well as Bergman’s farewell to his own religious upbringing. Some might call it an exorcism….
Peter Cowie is the author of more than twenty books on cinema, including biographies of Ingmar Bergman and Francis Ford Coppola. His latest, Revolution! The Explosion of World Cinema in the Sixties (Faber and Faber), will be published in 2004.