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Bogdan Petrov
Bogdan Petrov

Winter Light (1963) [UPD]

On the day Ingmar Bergman died, the first film of his that came into my mind was "Winter Light." Odd, because I had not seen it since teaching a film class in the 1970s. In the weeks that passed, I found it lingering there, asking to be seen again. What did I remember about it? That it was part of Bergman's "Silence of God" trilogy. That it was about a pastor who was unable to comfort a man in dread of nuclear holocaust. That the pastor rejected a woman who sought to comfort him. That Bergman and his cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, sat in a rural church for a winter day to note how the sunlight moved through the space.

Winter Light (1963)

But it is also about faith. The pastor is assisted in his duties by two men. One, the organist, is a clock-watcher, eager to see a service over with, already packing away his music while playing the final notes. The other, Algot (Allan Edwall), a man whose body has been crippled by a railroad accident, is the sexton who rings the bells, lights the candles, helps with the vestments. He has a monologue, too, about the passion of Christ, and he is the only character in the film who seems to have allowed the Christ story into his meaningful daily thoughts.

As the light reaches in through the windows, those who pray cower in their respective pews. Although the sun shines, everyone understands that the outside world is one of shivering bitterness and modern gasps of fear. Clinging, clinging, clinging to someone who will listen, quietly hoping for a reply within the shattered chambers of the church. The silence gives way to hardened spouts of regret and anguishing periods of hopelessness, but then again, does that even matter when one still happens to listen and the snow continues to descend?

Conceived as the centerpiece to Ingmar Bergman's sometimes hesitantly grouped "Silence of God" trilogy, Winter Light (or The Communicants [Nattvardsgästerna] in the literal Swedish translation) stands as one of the director's finest, most succinct existentialist works about the struggle and the resiliency of the human spirit. It also contains the most overt allusions to the trilogy's justification. Bergman himself strengthened the conviction of his own deliberations when he issued a statement in 1972 that claimed, "everything (was) exactly as (he) wanted to have it, in every second of this picture." (A rather self-critical filmmaker, he provided a similar statement after his other seasonal breakthrough, Summer Interlude, of 1951). Transmuting the small cast of the chamber play template and even emulating the kind of instrumental interaction in a chamber ensemble, Bergman arrives at a "reduction" in the literal and metaphysical sense in the 1960s; here, composer Igor Stravinsky receives the director's creative credit, as the "Symphony of Psalms" influences the nature of the story about a pastor's divine and humanistic realizations. Stravinsky's verses are a close counterpart, evoking a minister who locks himself in his church until God reveals Himself; it was actually in a church where Bergman found the moral backbone of Winter Light. Acknowledgment of his strict religious upbringing informs the three films in the trilogy that begins with the mid-summer familial exposé Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and concludes with The Silence (1963), a sexually charged tale in an alien country. In the case of this most assured and stark middle film, Bergman actually asked his father Erik, chaplain to Swedish royalty, to accompany him on a tour of Uppland churches near his birthplace. Through his father's persuasive actions to assume liturgical duties as a result of a minister's illness, Bergman found one redemptive, yet bleak moral- "whatever happens, one should do one's duty, especially in spiritual matters, even if it might seem meaningless." Adjoined to this wintry realization is the necessity of communication within its Swedish title, claiming human salvation from the brink of nothingness.

Tomas' grievous reminiscence and reconstructed image of Märta is suddenly replaced by the re-appearance of Jonas at his side (who is often noted to be yet another mental representation). Ironically, as Tomas attempts to reconcile the man's shaken faith, he is defeated by his own hypocrisy and turns to personal turmoil and renunciation of God, stirring further anxiety. The detrimental meeting, even if imagined, is cataclysmic. Afterward, alluding to the minister in Stravinsky's composition, Tomas asks of God, "Why have You forsaken me?" and nearly collapses in exhaustion from this repudiation and the frigid season's effect on his body. The radiant light from the church's window provides no answer, but Märta sustains him. It is her everlasting image and will that seize the film's remaining movement- the pursuit of duty and love at any cost despite the escalating series of traumas, yearning, and outright cruelty. As Tomas arrives for afternoon service at the Frostnäs church, he meets with hunchbacked Sexton Algot Frövik (Allan Edwall), who poses a question about the misleading interpretations of Christ's crucifixion. Using his own handicap as a measuring tool, he reasons the endurance of physical pain in Christ's final hours was less than the harrowing emotional wound. "His disciples abandoned him down to the last man," Algot tells Tomas, and to feel as if no one had understood or answered his cries is a worse punishment. Clearly, his words resonate with the principal pastor, but they also elevate the crippled man's own perseverance. His demonstration and serious considerations of faith prove a loyalty that has been lost on Tomas throughout the film's duration. Algot is prompted by performing his duties as a man of God rather than obsession over his own despair, thus breaking the shackles of egoism. In a complementary scene moments later, Märta defies any fatalistic articulations by the church's organist Blom through prayer. In the intensive The Passion of Ingmar Bergman biography, author Frank Gado mentions the "recurrence of the conditional in her prayer (to) reflect the tentative nature of the film's ending: there is no truth to believe in except the truth created by belief." Yet, Winter Light is defined by the subtitle in the trilogy of "certainty unmasked," which implies an unveiling and momentous rebirth. In the end, Tomas, like Bergman's own father, seeks the light of pious obligation, pushing toward a new faith in people and perhaps a rapport with the woman who loves him.

There is a general tendency in Ingmar Bergman to complain of being misunderstood, yet also to boast about his outsider status. This is hardly the place for a psychological analysis of what lies behind this, yet it is obvious that with such an attitude, success is a double-edged sword. Seen in this light, it is logical that the film he is currently planning seems intended to give his adversaries new ammunition with which to attack him. And perhaps it is not so much an act of 'death defiance,' as one of psychological necessity.As so often in Bergman, the starting point for Winter Light was a piece of music. Whilst working on The Rake's Progress he listened to a great deal of Stravinsky, and when the 'Symphony of Psalms' was played on the radio one day over the Easter holiday, he decided he would like to make a film set in a solitary church on the plains of Uppland. In his workbook from the time, we can closely follow the film's genesis. This is the first note:

It was an early spring day with mist and bright light reflecting off the surrounding snow. We arrived in plenty of time at the little church north of Uppsala to find four churchgoers ahead of us waiting in the narrow pews. The churchwarden and the sexton were whispering on the porch while a female organist was rummaging in the organ loft. Even after the summoning bell had faded away over the plain, the pastor still had not appeared. A long silence ensued in heaven and on earth. Father shifted uneasily in his seat and muttered to himself and me. A few minutes later we heard the sound of a car speeding across the slippery ground outside; a door slammed, and after a minute the pastor cam puffing down the aisle.

The leaden-grey, contrast-free tones of Through a Glass Darkly were to be maintained and the demand for realistic light intensified. In common with everyone else, Nykvist recalls that the shooting was very demanding:

There is, however, one scene in which Bergman abandons his principles on what he refers to as 'logical' light, and this occurs in one of the last scenes, during Algot Frövik's discussion with Tomas about the suffering of Christ. 'Make a beautiful light, Sven', he had said, 'Frövik is an angel.' Nykvist also recalls that virtually all of the film was shot in cloudy weather.'Only in one scene, with Gunnar Björnstrand kneeling at the altar rail, was the sun to break through the clouds, God's mercy! It was the most difficult scene of all. In one pan we were supposed to follow the ray of sunshine that breaks through from the darkness of the church entrance, gliding slowly over the windows and finally coming to rest at the altar.' And, as he sums up: 'In terms of light, Winter Light is one of Ingmar's most striking films, yet something that few people think about when they are watching it. Plainness is more thankless than picturesque lighting. Nobody appreciates the work that lies behind it.'

On a cold winter's Sunday, the pastor of a small rural church (Tomas Ericsson) performs service for a tiny congregation; though he is suffering from a cold and a severe crisis of faith. After the service, he attempts to console a fisherman (Jonas Persson) who is tormented by anxiety, but Tomas can only speak about his own troubled relationship with God. A school teacher (Maerta Lundberg) offers Tomas her love as consolation for his loss of faith. But Tomas resists her love as desperately as she offers it to him. This is the second in Bergman's trilogy of films dealing with man's relationship with God. 041b061a72


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