Winter Light (Bergman, 1962)
Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light, an examination of faith and the onslaught of eventual doubt that can come with it, is one of the director’s most accomplished works. While it has a specific thematic trajectory, it manages to deal with many basic elements of human connection and the search for relevance. This is the second in Bergman’s trilogy of films that deals directly with religion, preceded by Through a Glass Darkly and followed by The Silence. Winter Light focuses on the realization that comes with Pastor Tomas Ericsson’s (Gunner Bjornstrand) loss of faith and the subsequent reexamining of himself, his place in the world and his relationship with schoolteacher Marta (Ingrid Thulin). Bergman confronts the issues mainly through the sparseness of the story which allows him to focus with great intensity and conviction on the human elements of the piece.
Pastor Tomas Ericsson resides in a small Swedish town and the film begins with him leading the morning congregation. The other characters of importance are in attendance. One of them is Marta, the woman Tomas has been seeing for some time since his wife passed away. The other two are a fisherman named Jonas (Max von Sydow) and his wife Karin (Gunnel Lindblom), the former of which will jump-start Tomas’ day of self-discovery, for better or worse.
It turns out that Jonas is suicidal and his wife is seeking guidance for him. She turns to Tomas in the hopes that he can bring Jonas out of his emotional rut. The threat of imminent nuclear extinction has led to Jonas failing to see relevance or meaning in anything. He no longer believes that a God could exist. At the start of the film, which takes place over a few short hours, Tomas is on the brink of admission and has been having doubts of his beliefs for some time now. Immediately after giving Jonas some standard advice, we see the look of fear on his face as he realizes that he does not believe his own words. What follows is a series of events that allow Tomas’ admissions of doubt to become very real and reinforced in more ways than one.
This might be the bleakest film of Bergman’s I have seen. He depicts both the existence of faith and the non-existence of faith with concern and hopelessness. The film itself seems to be viewing religious faith as a human-made concept and because of that it is depicted as problematic in its artificiality. In the long letter that Marta writes to Tomas we hear her thoughts on religion and the falsity of it. It is this letter in which Marta confesses her love that allows Tomas to finally break down and renounce his faith as he exclaims “I am free!” It is through his advice following Jonas’ return and his subsequent interactions with Marta that we see the damage he causes without his faith and the abhorrence he feels and projects onto others. Bergman does not seem to see either the existence or absence of faith as a positive.
Even though Winter Light is dealing faith in the big-picture sense, the film focuses minute attention on the individual characters. Tomas is living a lie in both his occupation and his relationship. His wife died four years prior to the film’s starting point. In a late scene he states that he died when his wife did. He has been using Marta as a corporeal form of denial whereas Marta dealing out her own denial. Their relationship is one that looks agreeable if unenthusiastic on the surface, but underneath has almost entirely disintegrated. The script allows each of them get an opportunity to express themselves.
Ingrid Thulin is shot head-on in one long take looking at the viewer and consequently putting us in Tomas’ position. She reads the letter to Tomas and the viewer. She professes her love for him, but it only comes after the bulk of the letter which describes her doubts about his love for her. This letter is not just a confession of her love but a confession of the fact that she understands that he does not love her. Her letter is a desperate effort for a definitive answer because she does not have the courage to end things herself. Similarly, Tomas does not have the courage to deal with his realization in a mature way. In addition to his selfish act with Jonas, he projects all of his self-pity onto Marta in what is surely one of the most brutal verbal denouncement in film. All of his pent up indifference towards her is turned into hate which he uses as an excuse to not deal with his own emotional state. The film is just as concerned about depicting its characters and their interactions in an intimate and detailed way as it is concerned with exploring the absence of faith.
Winter Light is also about the search for answers where there are none. With Tomas’ faith he at least had answers. Without faith, there are none and the lack of answers is what makes not having faith so terrifying. Tomas does not have answers or reassurance of any kind for Jonas when he returns, except his own empty conviction that he piles on top of Jonas, leading to his immediate suicide. The search for answers also manifests itself in other ways as Algot, Tomas’ crooked sideman ponders late into the film why emphasis has been put on Christ’s physical suffering as opposed to his emotional suffering.
Working hand in hand with the success of Bergman’s revealing screenplay is the great Sven Nykvist whose cinematography contains a palpable sense of control. His imagery is some of the more subtle work he has done as he juggles between intimate close-ups that isolate the characters and barren long shots that bring them together but in hollow surroundings. The most surprising aspect of the cinematography is how it manages to be so fierce in its simplicity. Both Bergman and Nykvist clearly knew exactly where and why they wanted the camera to be placed where it is at every moment.
Winter Light is a bleak and exploratory look at the loss of faith and what it can do to a person. As broad as its primary theme is, it functions as an intimate chamber piece with well developed characters in Tomas and Marta. It questions how to function in a world with no answers without providing any easy answers. With all the revelation in the film, nothing much changes outside of the death of Jonas. Without answers, change does not occur and thus life continues as it is. It confronts in its audience through its examination and demands the film be a personal and meaningful experience.