DVD Review Of Winter Light

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/8/07


  Winter Light (Nattvardsgästerna- literally The Communicants) is the middle film in Ingmar Bergman’s Spider Trilogy (as it too references the God as a spider imagery), following Through A Glass Darkly, and preceding The Silence. Made in 1963, it represents a dramatic notching upward from the well made, but often melodramatic and symbolic, Through A Glass Darkly. Where the first film of the trilogy suffers from the overacting of Harriet Andersson, and some over the top displays of incest (for sex is a subject that the cerebral Bergman is at his weakest in handling) Winter Light is simply one of the greatest Socratic dialogues ever put to film, and as close to perfect a screenplay as a mortal is likely to produce. The acting, in every single role, is pitch perfect, yet Bergman regular Ingrid Thulin gives one of the great dominant female performances in film history, as Märta Lundberg, an atheistic substitute school teacher in a small town with a now unrequited love for a Lutheran Pastor named Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Björnstrand), head of a church whose congregation has dwindled to a handful. The gorgeous Thulin is at her frumpiest and dowdiest looking in this film, and it seems that after an illness, she lost the affection of Tomas, with whom she had lived with for two years.

  Even Tomas does not believe any longer. His is a rote life, ever since the death of his wife four years earlier. He gives communion to a congregation that is bored- a boy licks the pews, others try to stay awake- including the church organist who checks his watch and reads, and the church hierarchy is dominated by money hungry apparatchiks, and Märta’s swooning over Tomas is part of local gossip, which discomfits him. As he ends his noontime ceremony he is confronted by a fisherman, Jonas Persson (Max Von Sydow in a curly permanent wave) and his wife Karin (Gunnel Lindblom). The man is suffering from depression, ostensibly over the Chinese getting the atomic bomb. Of course, this is just a pretense, for we know Jonas is an unemployed fisherman, with three children and a fourth on the way, and even in the 1960s people were not so detached from reality to off themselves over an abstraction. Wisely, Bergman never reveals his true fears, as Tomas brushes him off and tells him to come back later, for a man to man talk. The Perssons leave, and then Tomas reads a letter Märta wrote him, confessing her love. It is a brilliant scene, shot with Thulin reading the words in two long takes, interspersed with a brief flashback. She addresses the camera so comfortably yet frankly that it puts the viewer in the place of Tomas, and we can later identify with his discomfit around this sincere, but needy and not altogether ‘there’ woman, who has suffered from a variety of ills which she feels had led Tomas to be repulsed by her. Yet, we are also drawn to her by the quiet brilliance with which she utterly guts religion with her atheistic views.

  He dozes off, due to its intensity, and the scene abruptly ends. When he wakes, Jonas is waiting for him, but instead of listening to Jonas’s fears, and actually trying to help the man, Tomas gets self-pitying, describing his own anomy and loss of faith. Mostly silent, Von Sydow’s character dominates this scene, for just the look in his eyes tells us he fears all is lost. Then, after Jonas leaves, Märta returns, until a call is received, and it seems that Jonas has suicided with a shot to the head, down by a stream. Tomas and Märta drive there, and the scenes of Tomas inspecting Jonas’s corpse, mostly silent, are as poetic as any images in Bergman’s canon, precisely because they are not framed in any special way. It is wholly believable, as is most of the cinematography by Sven Nykvist. Usually, Bergman films are so tightly wrought that they are pristine. This film is looser, more natural, void of artificiality, even though most of it was filmed inside a studio built church.

  When Tomas and Märta return to her schoolhouse, where she lives with her grandmother, he asks for some medicine, and Märta brings him inside and attends to him, after a brief scene with a boy and his dog, which shows that even the younger generation is outgrowing the religion. Here, Tomas lashes out, furiously denouncing Märta as mocking his dead wife with her pleadings of love. He is clearly expressing truths, but also overstating his case so to push her away, for we have seen that he has feelings for her- when he read her letter, and in a scene just prior, when the two, in her car, stop at a train crossing, and Tomas tells Märta that he was ‘forced’ into religion and the church by his parents, as a child. Clearly, he is going to reveal something deep and personal, but Bergman makes sure it stays between just the two of them, for the train’s noise drowns out their voices, and we notice each of the train cars resembles a black casket.

  Having been ‘put in her place’ by Tomas, and knowing she will never live up to a dead woman, he then asks Märta if she wants to return to church for the three o’clock service. She does, if only to still linger in the presence of the man she cannot get over. Seeing his own failure to save Jonas, he perfunctorily tells Karin the bad news, and she takes it in surprisingly easy stride. It is as if the whole town has been narcotized by the drabness of their lives. The church organist Fredrik Blom (Olof Thunberg), and the church sexton, a hunchback named Algot Frövik (Allan Edwall), see only Märta and ask if the service will go on. Fredrik is drunk and makes his sexual interest in Märta known, deriding her for wasting her time on Tomas, who will never reciprocate. Here, and through the organist, Bergman mocks and tweaks himself, and what many critics saw as his flawed ending to Through A Glass Darkly, where the father patly assents to the son’s views that God is love and love is the proof of God. In almost the exact same words Fredrik sneers and laughs at the notion. While not a pleasing alternative, the fact that Märta closes out love from another mirrors Tomas’s closing out of her from his life, and the presumed silence of God the film revolves upon. Meanwhile, in chambers, Algot (whose name literally means All God) speaks of his suffering and pain as a hunchback being far worse than the mortal suffering of Christ, yet he is a true believer, and feels that the true passion of the Christ came upon the realization of God’s abandoned silence toward his son’s suffering, not the physical pains.

  He states, ‘This emphasis on physical pain. It couldn’t have been all that bad. It may sound presumptuous of me- but in my humble way, I’ve suffered as much physical pain as Jesus. And his torments were rather brief. Lasting some four hours, I gather? I feel that he was tormented far worse on another level. Maybe I’ve got it all wrong. But just think of Gethsemane, Vicar. Christ’s disciples fell asleep. They hadn’t understood the meaning of the last supper, or anything. And when the servants of the law appeared, they ran away. And Peter denied him. Christ had known his disciples for three years. They’d lived together day in and day out- but they never grasped what he meant. They abandoned him, to the last man. And he was left alone. That must have been painful. Realizing that no one understands. To be abandoned when you need someone to rely on- that must be excruciatingly painful. But the worse was yet to come. When Jesus was nailed to the cross- and hung there in torment- he cried out: ‘God, my God! Why hast thou forsaken me?’ He cried out as loud as he could. He thought that his heavenly father had abandoned him. He believed everything he’d ever preached was a lie. The moments before he died, Christ was seized by doubt. Surely that must have been his greatest hardship- God’s silence?

  Yet, the sexton somehow finds comfort in his delusions. Tomas can merely grunt an assent, for ‘the show must go on’, and it does, with only Märta, Algot, and Fredrik there to witness Tomas’s forlorn machinations as the film ends.

  He has dedicated his life to nothingness, and one senses that his fears of Märta are due to his realization that she is right, and he cannot stand her mirroring of this truth, which we’ve seen displayed in his obliviousness to the demented sufferings of Jonas. Yet, just as we are never quite sure what motivates Jonas’s suicide (the Chinese have the bomb? Pshaw.), we never quite know the depths of Tomas’s despair nor the reason Märta is attracted to him. Is she really that clueless and/or masochistic that she (still quite attractive in this uglified role) would reject other suitors?

  At 80 minutes in length, it also has not a wasted scene nor shot. After his initial encounter with the Perssons, for example, Tomas has just spouted some canonical drivel, yet his doubt comes through as we see him nervously tap his desk blotter. There are also the aforementioned scenes over Jonas’s dead body, and at the train crossing, as well as another half dozen moments that would make any film that had just one of them memorable. But, unlike Through A Glass Darkly, there are no distracting side issues of sexuality. There is only emotional and intellectual inquiry, and Bergman is without peer, in filmic history, in this regard, and, again, this is a film that is often misinterpreted as gloomy, just as his later Shame was. But, like that film there is a glimmer of optimism. Yes, all four of the people in the final scene are going through the motions for differing reasons, but all hope for change. What that is they do not know, but hope for better, optimism is a key Bergman watchword.

  The DVD, which is part of the Spider Trilogy boxed set from The Criterion Collection, comes with a fourth DVD on the making of this film, shot for Swedish television, specifically, and it contains some key insights. This DVD has only a ten minute visual essay by Bergman scholar Peter Cowie, and the American film trailer, Luckily, this film comes with English language dubbing, as an alternative to the subtitles that distract most foreign films from a fully satisfying first viewing. The dubbing is nearly flawless, in terms of synchronization, but there were obviously other actors used to do the voices of Björnstrand’s and Von Sydow’s characters than there were in Through A Glass Darkly, yet, this works very well, since it truly makes the characters these actors play distinct from their earlier roles.

  Bergman, apparently, has always stated that this was his only perfectly realized film, and while others may add to that number, there is no denying the excellence of this filmic masterwork, which shows that while Bergman had his roots in the theater, he also knew exactly how to use the filmic medium. The original Swedish title, as The Communicants, would seem to be better title for this film, which deals with connections and communications, and their fragility. While Through A Glass Darkly deals with people on an island, this aloneness is handled even more deftly here, where winter seems to be the defining metaphor- whether as the winter of religiosity or human kindness. Winter Light ranks with Wild Strawberries and Shame as one of Bergman’s greatest works, which makes them essentials as films. It does not indulge in the technical masturbation of some later works, not does it rely too much on stagy overacting, as it deftly balances the inner and outer worlds of film and life. It is a truly great work of art.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Unspoken Cinema website.]

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