A brief note on Ingmar Bergman’s film, “Winter Light” (1962, in Swedish).
I have come across several claims online and in a video commentary on DVD that Ingmar Bergman considered the film titled “Winter Light” in English to be his best film. Quite a claim for one of the foremost directors of film. "I think I have made just one picture that I really like, and that is `Winter Light.' Everything is exactly as I wanted to have it, in every second of this picture." Ingmar Bergman. (Note again: the film has the double entendre title in Swedish, “The Communicants,” which gets more at the inner meaning than the external, visual title in English, “Winter Light,” although both are suitable.) In the film, there is no communion with God, or with nature, and minimal communion between human beings. That is why the Swedish title is paradoxically fitting: “Communicants.”
I’ve been re-watching scenes from the film last night and again this morning, and I did some reading online. The movie is often ranked among the best ever made. Watching it, I do not feel a need to watch other Bergman films right now, not even three that I saw years ago, and which burned into my memory: “The Seventh Seal,” “Autumn Sonata” (perhaps actress Ingrid Bergman’s last film), and “Fanny and Alexander.” Others of his movies did not speak to me as much.
One could dismiss these films as “neurotic,” or “atheistic,” or “existentialist,” but I think that they capture much of the spirit of 20th century western world. There’s no pretense in “Winter Light,” no place to hide behind “faith” or “love.” It is starkly painful. Björnstrand’s performance, aided outwardly by his suffering at the time from bronchitis, is superb. He is an utter spiritual and emotional wasteland. I noticed that some reviewer complained that he could not relate to the character played by Björnstrand at all; I suspect the writer was a little superficial, and did not want to see the void within himself, or other, or in our “modern world” generally. Yes, it is painful, but realistic. No doubt the film portrays Ingmar Bergman himself, and it is his portrait of his father, too—a Lutheran pastor. Bergman’s existential void is common in the generation after Nietzsche (Bergman was born in 1918, died in 2007—so born just 17 years after Nietzsche’s death). But this spiritual void was alive and active in Europe already by the 15th century. It is “modernity” displayed for the viewer in utterly stark, black-and-white, no-thrill images, photographed (as I wrote recently) by the unsurpassed Sven Nyqvist ("new twig"). My father would have been awed by the photography if he had seen the film. It is not “spectacular scenery” at all, but piercingly stark black and white that leave the viewer no place to hide from what is displayed. This is typified or heightened in a 6-minute vignette in which nothing but the leading lady’s face is shown as she recites the letter she wrote to her pastor-lover. There is nothing to see but her face as she reveals his utter self-absorption and lovelessness. I think that many Americans would not want to see such a mirror on screen. It is a mirror of our own inner void.
The last scene / final visual shot of the film could not have been more perfect. In a virtually empty church, one sees nothing but the pastor who opens the Lutheran service with the Swedish for: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD God. Heaven and earth are full of his glory.” No moving shots, the pastor is viewed from a low angle, pinned against an image of the crucified. His tone is flat and dead, like his soul. Then immediately the film ends.
I think that the movie is more than most viewers want to bear. A lady I spoke to after our home Mass last evening said that she finds Bergman too “heavy,” and wants lighter films. Forgive my comment, but I would say, “And that is typically American, the desire to hide from stark reality.” Not many here stomach Nietzsche or Kafka. Far more appealing to Americans would be “The Sound of Music” (which I also enjoyed). We do not like seeing the wasteland that we as a people in history have become.
As I write I hear nothing but the ticking of my grand-father clock near me. And that is all one hears in a scene from “Winter Light:” The loud ticking of an old clock, and Pastor Eriksson’s starkly empty expression.
—21 June 2020
Click on the above Poetry and Tanka tabs to read a variety of styles of poetry.