Winter Light (1963)

Dir. Ingmar Bergman. Starring Gunnar Bjornstrand, Ingrid Thulin, Allan Edwall

There’s not much sympathy left in the world for Tomas Ericsson (Bjornstrand). Surely that must have been true, to some extent, in the ’60s, but it is all the more accurate five decades on. Tomas is financially stable. He is a practitioner of an old religion which hasn’t been so unfashionable in the West since the early fourth century. He is aging and white. He is short-tempered and as immune to the good intentions of others as he is helpless to improve himself. He does not even have any particular power to bring us back, period-style, to some other era which warms us as pleasingly pre-Internet quaint. I have no doubt that if I were Clinton liberal, I would be forced to dispose of Winter Light as hopelessly retrograde. Thank heavens that there’s something timeless in Winter Light, then, which is part of the vast majority of cultures on Earth. Say “God” to anyone in this movie and they know who you mean; ask if he exists, and there’s a range of answers and no satisfying choice to bubble in. For some people, it is as simple as what Marta (Thulin) tells Tomas: You don’t hear God because he doesn’t exist. For some people, it’s nowhere near that apparent or understandable. Tomas doesn’t seem to be much of a believer anymore, but there is too much of himself in the cup he raises to a few parishioners’ lips, too much of himself in the crucifixes which hang all around him. C.S. Lewis thought that God made parasites which infested new hosts; for Tomas Ericsson, run down by a flu throughout the picture, God is more like malaria, the divine Plasmodium who fells people years after the initial bite. Whether or not his absence or his presence is what sends the chills is the question, and Winter Light is disinclined to give an obvious answer.

It is not merely that Bergman populates Winter Light with simple, largely static shots, or that it is in black and white, or that it takes place in five different places over the course of eighty minutes or so. It is that the people he has built are so riven that the singleness of their purposes stands clearly. Tomas, the broken minister; Marta, the spinster “schoolmarm” devoted to him; Algot (Edwall), the crippled churchman; Karin (Gunnel Lindblom), the concerned wife; Jonas (Max von Sydow), the terrified husband. Of them all, only Thomas seems moved by more than one memory, or more than one obsession. Everyone else surely has something else hidden away, but this is the most emaciated fraction of its own thin slice of the world: if we care about the gaps, we are given some room to stretch out that slice. The example which comes to mind for me is the courtship of Jonas and Karin Persson, both minor players in this backwoods story, only comes to imagination after watching the movie. They fill types for Tomas to fail, making their backgrounds literally unimportant in the room that Winter Light fills. All the same, Max von Sydow and Gunnel Lindblom, both very much against type, complete the Perssons with more vitality than a couple of nameless actors might have done. Von Sydow looks shrunken and sad in a way that I’d never seen him play either before, where Lindblom is maternal (pregnant!) and nurturing as I’d never seen her. One can trace the creeping anxiety in the fisherman as clearly as one can track the muted desperation in the mother of his children, and thus does ten minutes of screentime with them feel like much more. It is not necessarily that these people matter less than Tomas—that’s the kind of mistake that he would make that the other characters would not—but that he requires explanation these people don’t.

It all revolves around Tomas, more because of convenience than anything else. He has hooks of varying strength in everybody, where a movie solely about Jonas or Algot would necessarily lose characters. Winter Light begins with eight minutes of church service, in prayer and recitation and Communion but never in sermon. That would require an act of personality in church, which Tomas seems temperamentally disinclined towards not just in his current condition but as a rule for him stretching back years. This is religion without spirituality in much the same way that Tomas is a man without a soul. One might argue that religion without spirituality is pointless, but what’s absent in this opening scene—much the opposite, in most cases, of people who define themselves as spiritual but not religious—is preening. There may only be eight people or so in this church, but all of them have some reason to be there. There is nothing showy about this faith. Perhaps the Perssons are there because Karin wants to segue the service into counseling for her suicidal husband. Perhaps Marta only takes Communion to feel Tomas’ physical nearness. Perhaps Tomas is only at this first service because it is his duty to be there. The motivations, whatever they are, are honest and personal. If nothing else, Winter Light is a movie which excels at bringing forth what is honest and personal.

There are four scenes which do so. The first belongs to Marta, narrating a long letter she’s written to Tomas, recounting a period where her skin ailment grew so pervasive that she could feel it repelling him. The second and third belong to Tomas; in the first, he outlines the reasons he lost his faith to Jonas, and in the second he categorically rejects Marta to her face. (She takes it better than he does; while he is listing her faults and the many reasons he will never love her, Jonas drives himself underneath a tree and shoots himself with a hunting rifle.) In the fourth and most striking scene, Algot raises a question which seems deeply blasphemous but is really quite reasonable. It’s strange, perhaps even wrong, Algot says, that the Gospels describe Christ’s physical suffering on the Cross. I’ve suffered more than Christ, Algot says, and as an audience we do the math and realize he’s probably right. Isn’t the real suffering that Christ experienced God’s silence? Tomas is moved, although Bjornstrand is marvelously subtle in depicting this emotional shift alongside the sniffling and shivering that’s come with his grippe. “Yes,” he says to Algot. One assumes he has suffered rather less than Christ on this front, whereas Algot can at least say he’s bested Jesus on that one front. But it’s enough. Jesus was part God, after all, and Tomas is only a man who believed, decades ago, that God loved him as much as any other person on the face of the planet. When Jesus’ faith dipped, he lingered long enough to be a sacrifice for all who believed in him. When Tomas’ faith dipped—and disappeared for good once his wife died—he allowed the sight of fear in another man to encourage him to loose his own. Jonas, beyond comfort and now beyond hope, preempts whatever Chinese missiles he was so anxious about. Jesus was reliable where Tomas is a failure.

In her letter to Tomas, Marta notes how strange it is that Tomas seems disinterested in Jesus. This is a fairly common disorder in ministers who become more interested in the church building or the culture wars or the flagging congregation or the alluring congregants than in the Son of God. (I’m always struck by ministers who become more infatuated with Paul, like players at darts who hit 19 over and over again and congratulate themselves on their relatively high scores.) For Tomas it’s not a tawdry sort of problem, though, even if it is a touch narcissistic. He simply does not believe in salvation specifically or redemption generally. In his cosmology there is no room for the failings of men to be fixed. To Jonas, he gives the Spanish Civil War as the primary reason, but it carries over much further than a hatred of bloodshed or a weak stomach for war crimes. Marta, a little simply, believes that she can fix the lovelessness and hurt in Tomas’ life. To Tomas, her coddling and nursing is vanity, prickling him because it’s annoying and crushing him because it means someone thinks there’s enough raw material to make something anew.

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