Winter Light (1963) is the second film in Ingmar Bergman’s three consecutive films which became known as the ‘Faith trilogy’; or the "Silence of God" trilogy. Even though Hopscotch (and Criterion) released the three films on DVD in packaging called Essential Bergman The Faith Trilogy, I have read that Bergman did not see them as a trilogy when he was writing and directing them. Now, having watched the three films over a period of seven days, it appears to me that The Silence is potentially the beginning of a new style of film (or possibly better expressed, that Winter Light, is the end of a style, or type, of filmmaking by Bergman), to a cinema that is less focussed on matters of religion or faith or belief in God.
If anything Through a Glass Darkly suggests uncertainty in the act of faith that believes God exists, Winter Light suggests even greater uncertainty, or the actual loss of faith, by a minister, no less; and The Silence is a film set in an unnamed town in an unnamed country in which there is no God and people are free to do as they please. God is mentioned only in relation to the kind o cry that people make to a God, any God that maybe out there, in a moment of extreme pain, asking for help.
Winter Light (1963) follows Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and precedes The Silence (1963).
A priest, Tomas, finishes a service and talks with a couple who are in distress. The wife, Karin, is worried because her husband, Jonas, is deeply depressed. The husband commits suicide and the priest is shocked as he provided nothing of help to Jonas in the time they talked. Previously, Tomas has read a letter written to him from the local schoolteacher, Marta. He is accused of being unchristian and insensitive to her love for him. Tomas responds with the degree of unchristianess he’s accused of. Tomas tells Jonas’s family of his death and back at the church the sexton and organist confer with the minister and ask if they should even hold the next service as no one is in attendance. In an empty church the pastor follows the discipline of the service, and begins with the opening of the liturgy, ‘Holy holy, holy is the Lord of hosts’, witnessed by the non-believer, Marta.
One of the features of the film are long passages of the Protestant liturgy in a church service at the beginning of the film. It is presented by the writer-director with absolute truth and no irony or sarcasm. There are little visual comments which undermine the spirituality of the service. Not everyone there is congregating and worshipping. The organist takes one hand off the keyboard during one piece, to check his timepiece. Clearly he is doing his duty-job-obligation, but there’s somewhere else he wants to be or has to be. There are other people there, but the pews are sparsely populated and the people seem to be there as individuals rather than as a congregation.
The priest, as he appears in Ingmar Bergman films, often looks superior or is shot from an angle that makes him look powerful or arrogant. The Bishop in Fanny and Alexander is probably the most cruelly represented of the clergy but the minister at the bedside of the dead Agnes, also has a condescending manner. And it’s not just a carefully created look that is reserved for the ordained males. Men who are cruel or hateful are shown acting this way as well. Karin's husband in Cries and Whispers, sits across the table looking at her with disdain. Her husband diplomat masticates his food and swallows his red wine with the same disinterest on his face as he regards her. It’s a a look which Karin must have witnessed many times before, but which on this particular occasion drives her to slash her own genitals with a broken wine glass rather than have to have sex with him that night. The husband, Johan in Scenes From a Marriage looks that way too at the time he tells his wife Marianne that he hates her and has always hated her.
Winter Light (1963), ten years before Scenes, has a male similarly berate a woman, using a voice of emphatic cruelty. The suicide of Jonas ,who has become obsessed with a debilitating concern about China’s place in world power as they develop the Atom Bomb which firstly drove him into a deep depression, is the trigger for the minister’s doubt of his faith and the rejection of the local schoolteacher, Marta. She has taken it upon herself to support him and is often around to show that support. She has no idea that her behaviour has been resented so vehemently. She writes him a letter which expresses her disappointment. Feeling ill and overwhelmed and despairing of Jonas Perssons‘s suicide, Tomas becomes angry enough to lower the guard that gives pastors that appearance of being able to live the life they preach everyone else should live. It’s a hard place for leaders who are only human themselves to be placed in because they’re required to practice what they preach. What the church leaders preach is misunderstood by many. It is often thought of as the man’s opinion, not the teaching of the scriptures. No man can actual be like the person he encourages others to be. A preacher is not preaching a set of standards of his own creation but a reflection of those set in scripture by God, through Jesus Christ.
From the start of the film there is a weariness to Tomas, which is worn down with the news of the suicide and poor Marta is harangued as Tomas unleashes his real feelings. He’s aware that she is hanging around, desiring something he doesn’t want to, or even can’t, give.
He talks and talks and when he finally leaves a space after the first tirade of words, Marta bleets, “And your wife?”
Tomas tells her, “I loved her. Did you hear that? I loved her. And I don’t love you, because I love my wife. When she died, so did I.” Next, "I couldn’t care less what happens to me."
"I loved her and she was everything you could never be, but that you insist on trying to be.
"The way you mimic her behaviour is such an ugly parody.
Marta counters, "I didn’t even know her".
Tomas pulls his emotions in a little and tells Marta, "I’d better be going before I spout even worse bits of senseless drivel."
Marta asks if it could actually get any worse?
He stares back at her and challenges her, "Stare all you like. I can take it."
She cares for him and suggests he can’t survive alone: "Nothing can save you. You’ll hate yourself to death."
Tomas stands over her and before stalking out of the room, exclaims, "Can’t you leave me alone. Can’t you just shut up!"
It’s the same sort of brutal writing from Scenes of a Marriage, except Jonas and Marianne were actually in love, and in a relationship. Here, Tomas is rejecting Marta – someone who is courting him, with the same intensity in Scenes as Jonas rejects Marianne. It comes with the same unexpected venom of a striking rattlesnake. Marianne is shocked, as is Marta.
Anyone who loves the balance of blacks and whites in photographs will love what Bergman and Nykvist create in so many films. There are the usual stunning establishing shots and beautifully lit interiors. Since I saw my first Bergman film 6 weeks ago, I’ve appreciated that out of every different set-up, in every film, most of them are, photographically, stunning.There’s a scene, which is deliberately out of character with the rest of the film (which are mostly long indoor sequences), with a swiftly running river in the background, snow falling, wind blowing, and it is one of the most beautifully photographed collection of images I’ve ever seen. The priest, Tomas, tries to participate in the wrapping up of Jonas’s dead body as it lies in the snow, so it can be removed. His dead body, wrapped up and removed, is a symbol for Tomas's now dead faith. Back at the church, however, he knows of nothing else to do than start the next church service even though nobody is there.
Depression and Mental Illness
These twin thieves of our being occur in some of the other twelve themes I've seen by Ingmar Bergman, particularly the previous film, Through a Glass Darkly (1961), which starts with a gathering of a family, including Karin, recently home with her husband Martin, after a period in a mental institution. The film ends with her evacuation from their island home, as she becomes confused and thinks the God is a spider on a wall, spectacularly rescued by a helicopter. The helicopter is almost like a spider, with it's many legs - spinning rotors - swooping down on it's silken thread and rescuing her. Her most recent experience of life with her family is 1), discovering that to her father, her mental plight means little more to him than that it provides a subject he can study for another book he is working on, and 2), finding herself drawn into an incestuous union with her brother Minus. If God is a spider and the helicopter is a spider, spinning down on a gossamer thread, then Karin has been rescued from her family by God.
Here, in Winter Light (1963) he develops the theme that events in the world in which we live are so distressing that it affects our mind. He develops it further in Persona (1966) where it affects our very being. The actress, Elisabet, becomes so distressed, in Persona, by the wider world around her that she stops talking. She becomes mute. She doesn't want to communicate anymore and for most of the film she is content to live and listen to the nurse, Anna, talk.
Ministers - Priests - Parsons - They're all Useless, Mean Men
In Winter Light, the parson, a widower, stops ministering to someone his faith, his belief, the book he lives his life by, says he should support. The death of Johan and the whining of Marta, about her problems and how she feels Tomas, the priest, has not supported her, combine to enrage him and unleash his real feelings towards her. She has been insinuating herself into his life and it's obvious she wants to be the new Mrs Ericsson. Tomas, however, is still so in love with his dead wife that he could never marry her. He also fails to minister effectively to Johan, a depressed member of his congregation, who immediately commits suicide when he can get no comfort or life-changing words from God, or from God's representative on earth, Tomas.
In Through the Glass Darkly the priest who visits Karin is ineffectual and severe looking.
In Cries and Whispers (1972), the priest is severe looking and does the bear minimum duty, and spouts some words over Agnes's dead body.
In Fanny and Alexander (1982), the most awful behaviour, by any man or priest in the twelve Ingmar Bergman films I've watched, unfolds as Bishop Edvard Vergerus, a widower who has remarried, demands levels of behaviour by his wife and adopted children which are difficult to achieve. When they fail he is merciless. This is a man who believes in God, follows the teaching of Jesus Christ, and lacks the three most important aspects of God and Christ, mercy, grace and sacrifice. His behaviour is so selfish, and he is so self-righteous, so monstrous, that only magic - or an act of God - can rescue Fanny and Alexander from the home in which he has imprisoned them.
In Scenes from a Marriage (1974), Johan is so abominable in his behaviour, that normally a priest would be the one who is so self-righteous and devoid of truthfulness and faithfulness in an Ingmar Bergman film.
Postscript: Bergman's father was a Lutheran minister.
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