Winter Light (1962)

Bergman’s Winter Light contains a wonderful sequence of shots that reveal much about Pastor Tomas and his struggle to (dis)believe. As Pastor Tomas battles with his health and his faith, he meets with Jonas Persson, who finds himself in a deep depression and fear over the possibility of a nuclear attack. Bergman’s framing of the scene, his cutting, the lighting, and the dialogue that occurs between the two all unite to create one of the more stunning scenes of the film.

This first frame is a wide shot. As you can see, Jonas and Tomas sit at the table, both men framed under an arch with Christ. The Pastor attempts to make eye contact but the shame Jonas feels causes him to drop his eyes in a distinctly similar way to Christ on the crucifix in the background. Note also that von Sydow’s sharp features mirror those of the suffering man behind. Yet while von Sydow’s downturned gaze causes him to look away from Tomas, the same gaze from Christ looks directly at him. This leaves an impression not of shame, but of a silent questioning.

Bergman then briefly cuts away to von Sydow, still with his eyes burning a hole in the ground. Then he comes back to Tomas. Here Bergman underlines the angles from the opening wide shot. Von Sydow still shares the turned down head with Christ, while Tomas becomes even larger in comparison to the crucified man behind him. This comes as Tomas draws ever nearer to his proclamation of atheism.

When Bergman cuts back to Tomas, Jonas is outside the frame. Now the focus is solely on the pastor, who looks defiant in the sight of Christ. The attitude hardens, and the dialogue becomes more and more focused on his own struggles with doubt, rather than those of his parishioner. Note also that the sign above Christ’s head proclaiming his kingship has now been removed from the frame.

As Bergman frames Tomas’s head more tightly, the pastor grows in the frame while Christ fades into the background, both getting smaller and sliding slightly out of focus.

Bergman cuts back to Tomas, so much tighter that the face of Christ is obscured from view. Tomas is now fully given over to himself and his own suffering. Rather than counsel Jonas off the suicidal ledge, Tomas gives Jonas every reason to die. However, because Tomas believes in his move to atheism, he sees this as a move to freedom, thus the desire to keep Jonas in the office and convince him of this new faith. Here it becomes clear that Tomas is actually advocating for a kind of anti-faith.

In this final image of the scene, after Jonas has left having received none of the counsel and comfort he came for, note how Tomas has moved away from the gaze of the suffering Christ. He now stands where Jonas stood, against a blank wall, criss-crossed with what look like shadows of bars. The light has just brightened the room, signaling some kind of illumination. And Tomas, now separated from his God, utters a line that, ironically, identifies him profoundly with Christ: “My God, why have you forsaken me?”

In this scene, Bergman’s camera and lighting move in unison with the burgeoning atheism of the film’s central character to produce a sequence that crystallizes the tension of faith present throughout the film.

2 thoughts on “Winter Light (1962)

  1. Thanks, Russ. I didn’t mention it in the post, but this scene comes almost precisely at the mid-point of the film, which I think puts it in direct relationship with the conversation about the suffering Christ and the quote from Isaiah that conclude the film.

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