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.

Winter Light (1962)

The second of Bergman’s “Faith Trilogy,” Winter Light has always been my favorite. Seeing it again last week (though for the first time with an audience), rekindled and deepened my appreciation and love for the film.As I’ve said about Bergman before, what I most appreciate about him is how he frames the big questions of life. I’m not always excited about where he ends up, but the questions take on such a great significance in his films, and they are asked so precisely, with such a keen attention to detail, that I can’t help but appreciate what he’s doing.

This is especially so in Winter Light, during which Pastor Tomas (Gunnar Björnstrand) doubts his faith, and about halfway through the film, “frees” himself from it, adopting an atheism that he asserts “makes sense” of everything. You see, Tomas is overwhelmed with the randomness of existence, not understanding why his wife has been taken from him (she died several years earlier). So he adopts an atheism which embraces the randomness and meaninglessness of life. Nothing really matters, he doesn’t have to care for anyone, and now he can go about his business without the weight of having to make sense of everything because there’s some orderly God in heaven running this world.

Yet on this viewing, I note three specific things that happen after Tomas declares his freedom – three things that call his decision into question. First, he makes his atheistic declaration during one of the more beautiful shots of the film, in front of a large window with the sun shining through it. As Tomas has just made his decision to leave his faith behind, he steps in front of the light, briefly blocking it from our view. Yet almost as soon as he does this, he is forced to the ground by a coughing fit. The light shines back through.

Second, later in the schoolroom with Märta (Ingrid Thulin), Tomas again asserts that he cares about nothing. Märta, a professing atheist, seems strangely troubled by all this. This is one of those places where Bergman’s questions are so rigorously framed. In light of Tomas’ embrace of the meaningless, Märta sees right through him, and asks a stinging question (though the question pains Tomas, she delivers it with a gentle grace). “The question, paraphrased here: “Did you love your wife?” Tomas, repelled by the suggestion he didn’t love her, fires back quickly and forcefully that he did. Clearly there is to be no discussion on this point. Yet Märta has seen the inconsistency in his embrace of the meaningless: His newfound atheism asserts a meaningless existence, yet there is still evidence of meaning in his heart even then. He cannot escape the light that pursues him.

Finally, we go backwards just a bit to the scene when Tomas waits with the body of Jonas (Max von Sydow). This scene stands out from the rest in a very peculiar way – its volume. This is the film’s loudest moment, so much so that we cannot even hear the characters speak to one another. The noise, of course, comes from the rushing river in the background. Tomas has already declared his newfound atheism, yet at this crucial moment, we (and presumably he) cannot think of anything but the raging river in the background.

In the final scene of the movie, Tomas begins the service with the quotation of Isaiah 6:3: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” This particular passage speaks directly to that earlier scene near the river. Just after Tomas has made his atheistic declaration, the first time he leaves the church, he ends up at the side of a raging river, which according to this verse in Isaiah, declares the glory of God. He cannot escape the light that pursues him. This is evident in the final scene at the church at Frostnäs, which is filled with light of all kinds – electricity, the sun, lit candles. Bergman seems to emphasize the light in this scene, offering a close-up of the candles, having the sun shine through the window as Märta prays, lighting Märta’s face after she prays, and then by having Algot make such a big deal about the electric lights. While Tomas’ final words may be uttered in ambiguous fashion, there is doubt that the light continues to surround him.