My Summer with Ingmar #2: Winter Light

An ongoing look at the work of Ingmar Bergman, who died a year ago.

Winter Light is the second in a trilogy of films (together with Through a Glass Darkly and The Silence) in which Bergman, the son of a clergyman, asks: can there be meaning to life without God? At first sight, in our largely secular age, this may seem to render them at best inconsequential, at worst irrelevant; but watching them in a week of Iranian missile tests, collapsing economies and new reports of ecological devastation made me wonder if Bergman is perhaps more relevant than ever. 

Winter Light is about as pared-down as film-making can be. Just eighty minutes long, it’s set over one cold winter afternoon, as Tomas (Gunnar Bjornstrand), a country priest, finishes his midday service and prepares for his next, at three. In these brief hours he has three important conversations: with Marta (Ingrid Thulin), whose love he cannot return; with Jonas (Max von Sydow), whose despair he cannot comfort; and with Frovik (Allan Edwall), whose faith he cannot share. Each is based around the central fact of the film: that Tomas, if he ever truly had it, has lost his faith, and hates himself for it. He stands in front of his congregation and speaks the words aloud, but his soul is empty, and he feels lost: as Marta tells him later in the movie, “You’ll hate yourself to death”. What, then, is his responsibility — to offer hope that he does not believe in, or to confront his congregation with his own sense of despair?

In a moment that crystalises the film as a whole, Jonas, a fisherman, haunted by the thought of nuclear war, asks Tomas how it’s possible to live, knowing that everything we love hangs in the balance. “We must trust in God,” says Tomas; but he can’t hold von Sydow’s gaze. At this point Bergman cuts to Tomas’s hand as it trembles briefly on his blotter; and it’s a measure of the power of the movie that the moment is as shocking as any jump cut in a horror film. For Jonas, who has come to Tomas as the ultimate source of consolation, this is not just a blow but a betrayal, deepened even further by Tomas’s anguished confession of his true feelings about God: “Every time I confronted God with the realities I witnessed – he turned into something ugly and revolting. A spider god, a monster. So I fled from the light, clutching my image to myself in the dark.” 

All of which is to say, if you’re looking for cheery escapism, try Mamma Mia. Why then, despite its gloom (and believe me, this isn’t the half of it — I’m trying to avoid spoilers) did I find Winter Light exhilarating, resonating with me for days afterwards? 

First, its formal daring. Winter Light is hardly showy film-making, but its nonetheless exciting cinema. In one scene Tomas reads a letter from Marta, the former lover whom he now rejects. Where most directors would have used voiceover, Bergman cuts to Thulin, holding close in on her face, as she speaks her letter straight to camera for six minutes. It’s an extraordinary sequence, raw and gripping, and it sums up his technique in Winter Light: we must look, look candidly at our situation, accept it for what it is, and only then, if we can find a way, progress beyond it. 

Second, its physical beauty. The film was a deliberate rejection of traditional aesthetics. Bergman and his cinematographer Sven Nyqvist spent days observing Sweden’s cool clear winter light, determined to shoot as plainly and naturally as they could. The filming of the cast is unforgiving, even Thulin’s luminesence dimmed. But look at the still at the top of this post: the play of the light, the composition, the priest scrawled like a spider, clinging to the rail. This is beautiful work, in its own brutal way.

Third, its performances. This is a wonderfully acted movie: Bjornstrand, aloof and cold, gains our deepest sympathy while rejecting us at every stage; Thulin is shockingly vulnerable, particularly in the scene where Tomas tells her, in excruciating detail, exactly why he doesn’t love her; and von Sydow (whose perfomance as the father in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is my favourite of the year so far) is superb as the sailor cast off from his certainties. But perhaps the most extraordinary performance comes from Edwall, the true believer in the film, who achieves a palpable saintliness in his few minutes on screen.

Finally, its intellectual rigour. This isn’t to say that it’s an academic film. It’s not.  Its language is emotional, not intellectual, and there are no long theological debates. But there’s a fierce refusal to duck the issue, or to look away which is refreshing. Most of us, today, may not worry about the absence of God, but the questions of the film are no less relevant: in a world that feels vulnerable and threatened, how can we find meaning, and where should we look for hope? In such moods it’s all to easy to reach for artificial comfort: the artistic equivalent of hot chocolate or a warm bath. Winter Light is a cold shower, or a long walk on a windswept cliff. It’s harsh, confrontational and unforgiving, but it leaves you refreshed and stimulated, looking at the world with open eyes. 

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