Fear and Trembling
Michael Joshua Rowin on Winter Light

The published screenplays of Ingmar Bergman’s “religious trilogy” contain, as a sort of introduction, a single-page announcement of the director’s intentions. “The theme of these three films is a “reduction”—in the metaphysical sense of the word.” Then, as if Bergman wanted to descriptively reduce these films of reduction, one-line summations of each film of the trilogy follow: “Through a Glass Darkly—certainty achieved. Winter Light—certainty unmasked. The Silence—God’s silence: the negative impression.” While the first and the last entries seem inadequate to their respective films’ complexities, it is the middle that, if one has seen Winter Light, brings pause. “Certainty unmasked”: the two words at once totally evoke and yet only hint at what might be the greatest achievement of Bergman’s mature work, an incredibly—almost painful—personal struggle with the nonexistence of God and the responsibility to oneself and others in the harsh light of doubt. The unmasking of religious certainty informs Winter Light’s sparse, skeletal story and structure, in which Bergman sheds any artistic ornamentation that remained from earlier films like The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries. But, like a leafless tree in the dead of January, the film also contains jutting branches, subtle articulations of concept and character that touch upon a multitude of emotions, ideas, and considerations, eventually extending into one of the most spiritually ambiguous endings in all of cinema and provoking a profound and haunting transformation.

In Through a Glass Darkly Bergman first presented his vision of the “spider-god,” an insidious, corrupt obverse to the benevolent Christian God, a tormenting idea of God’s failure within a meaningless reality. As Bergman himself described the concept in interview, “It’s a question of the total dissolution of all notions of an otherworldly salvation.” Everything in this first film of the religious trilogy points to an Inferno, and yet Bergman backs off. Creating the character of Karin as a schizophrenic allowed him, as well as the viewer, to keep a safe distance from the consequences and possibilities of God-as-evil-manipulator. And after Karin completely succumbs to insanity, her father closes the film by letting son Minus and the viewer know that all is not lost, that “God is love” and that Karin is surrounded by this love. One senses that this speech ends the film on an utterly false note, offering a facile solution in face of an enormous existential dilemma—the director even admitted as much later on. While Bergman begins to grapple with religious uncertainty in Through a Glass Darkly, the process is undertaken with trepidation and lacks sustained moral conviction.

Winter Light, on the other hand, tackles the issue of a sick or absent God directly, with a greater sense of gravity and with precise mastery of form. For one thing, the mise-en-scène of Winter Light never overwhelms or startles as it does in the previous film, instead becoming quietly and effectively integrated with the action. The various settings of Through a Glass Darkly provide natural habitats for a spider-god, allowing Bergman to create expressionistic cinematic set pieces like the sea-wrecked ship and the room with ripped wallpaper. But in Winter Light the surroundings become muted, hushed, as if God’s silence had left a palpable expectancy in the very air the characters breathe. Bergman, like Ozu, is a seasonal director (Summer Interlude, Virgin Spring, Autumn Sonata, etc.), and the role winter plays is as important as the Reverend Tomas’s church, providing a cover of gray, melancholic resignation and suffering.

The film opens, however, within the interior of a cold, humble church in the rural Swedish town of Mittsunda. A service is in progress, with Rev. Tomas Eriksson leading the congregation. Tomas tells the story of Christ’s last supper with the disciples, in which he offers them his body and blood as eternal salvation. Thus Bergman introduces the film’s main theme—communication, a true giving and receiving between beings that redeems the meaninglessness of existence. As visual commentary, something occurs soon after that is, cinematically, almost preternatural in its simplicity and power. As the Reverend says the Lord’s Prayer, Bergman cuts to three exteriors (each fading into one another) that normally would serve as opening establishing shots, with the church looking like an abandoned ruin among winter trees, the hardened ground, and a half-frozen river. This unconventional but structurally integral insertion of a montage sequence at this point in the film creates a feeling of extreme alienation and loneliness—through a seemingly gratuitous move to the bitter outside world during a prayer of great strength and confiding, Bergman undermines the potential warmth of the words and transforms a God’s-eye-view into its opposite, a hollow, empty space where a caring God cannot reside. Communication and solace seem remote.

Similar in environmental effect is a scene in which Tomas visits the place where Jonas, the man whose fear of nuclear war he had previously attempted to address, has killed himself. The body lies near that same earlier shown river and, over the course of five long shots handled from two strategic camera positions, the viewer sees, in documentary-like footage, Tomas’s encounter with the rote process of tending to a fresh corpse: the body is covered with tarp, kept company by Tomas when the doctors leave the scene, and finally transported to a hospital van. Bergman shoots all of this in as subjective a manner as possible by remaining completely objective—that is, as Tomas now sees the world as being absent of any higher power, Bergman films the scene with attention to the concreteness, the pure materiality of the landscape, as if existence were pressing itself upon Tomas for the first time. There is no recourse to a close-up which would neatly spell out Tomas’s emotional state—Bergman demonstrates here his aesthetic restraint in creating a sorrow rooted in nature, in the half-glow of the dreary surroundings and the relentless rushing water nearby.

The languishing sadness of Jonas’s suicide comes from its particular pertinence to Tomas. Bergman unmistakably links both in their individual torments, Tomas’s an intensely personal one in his relationship to God, Jonas’s a global one in a sane assessment of an insane world’s death drive. The reverend’s earlier offhand, routine remark to Jonas—a seemingly pathetic try to dispel anxiety—haunts the screen during his lonely stay with the body: “We all go with the same dread, more or less.” Both fears emanate from the same, desperate place in the soul, the annihilation of the earth deeply related to the annihilation of the self’s significance in reality. Tomas’s existential dread carries with it a terrible possibility—might not the winter light that accompanied Tomas’s acceptance of meaninglessness also be the blinding flash of the A-bomb?

Tomas’s openness with Jonas is the crux around which the film revolves. Tomas reveals that God for him was once a secure “echo-god . . . who loved mankind, of course, but myself most of all,” one that became “a spider-god, a monster” emerging after his wife’s death. Although the nursing, unchallenging God of his conventional Christian upbringing and practice revealed its perversity in the face of personal tragedy, Tomas’ desperation is unlike Karin’s madness. Tomas’s spiritual and emotional breakthrough, his realization of God’s silence and the falsity of his role as a man of the cloth, brings with it freedom, a terrible existential vertigo. Winter Light here answers Through a Glass Darkly by allowing the “spider-god” a positive manifestation without falling back onto evasive reassurances like “God is love.” Thus, when Tomas cries out, in the midst of his consuming illness and after his monumental admission, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” the question is answered by the expressionist winter light of the title streaming through the windows, mysteriously illuminating the features of a man reborn.

The passage from exterior to the interior, from the absurdity of existence to the individual’s realization of that absurdity, takes place within this crucial moment. It was initiated, in part by Marta, Tomas’s mistress and the local schoolteacher. Marta is one of Bergman’s most complex characters, a substitute mother/wife, searching atheist, and stigmatized Christ figure all at once. In her extended letter to Tomas, Marta details her own struggle with God, reminding him of how one day she prayed “to be of use,” to put her abundant strength to a task that will give her life meaning. The prayer was prompted by eczema that, symbolically, afflicted her hands, feet and crown. The Christ symbolism is clear, and Marta easily sees Tomas’s religious compromises corresponding with the breakdown in their relationship—after mentioning the moment she realized Tomas didn’t love her she pinpoints his lack of faith, his “peculiar indifference to the gospels and to Jesus Christ.”

Tomas’s reading of the letter while waiting for Jonas is another example of Bergman’s simple, delicate and yet rich approach in dealing with storytelling. When the reverend begins to read Marta’s words it becomes rendered as—instead of, typically, a voiceover or flashback—a four-and-a-half minute shot of Marta, seated in front of a bare wall, talking directly at Tomas and the viewer. This is unmediated communication, openness and expressivity, the spiritual and emotional nakedness that has been lacking ever since the service that was conducted entirely with foreign (i.e., the Church’s) words, and not the characters’ own. Prefiguring the radical forms of address in Persona and Hour of the Wolf, it is as if Bergman announces the intent of the entire trilogy with this shot (a similar two minute shot follows a minute-long flashback scene), a complete demolition and removal of psychological, emotional, and cinematic defenses—an unmasking.

Marta’s confession of finding meaning in wanting to share a life with Tomas, as well as her critical insight into Tomas’s hidden jealousy and hatred toward God, shifts the focus of the film. Later, in reaction to Jonas’s suicide, in reaction to a meaninglessness that only further exasperates questions of responsibility and duty, Tomas flees from individual salvation by bluntly confronting Marta. His grievances—that she treats him like a child, repulses him with her various illnesses that require constant attention, and her failure to replace his true love, his late wife—come as a shock. So accustomed have we been to Tomas’s resignation that this outburst comes across as a frantic testing of freedom and at the same time a return to the spiritual stalemate in the struggle to understand God’s silence. Marta (the praying, physically suffering atheist) offers a new kind of faith in the form of human love and companionship for Tomas (the atheistic, physically suffering reverend) but—as the location of their conversation, a schoolhouse, suggests—the teacher’s lessons in love and connection cannot reach the confused, bitter priest-turned-pupil. Tomas’s renunciation of a dead God now only allows him to burrow deeper into his own pity and coldness.

Ironically, Tomas finds redemption in a church, a place he earlier damned for stifling his life with the false cover of servile Christian faith. There, Algot, the hunchback sexton, tells Tomas before the service something that has been troubling him about the Gospels: Christ’s physical agony could not have been as bad as his own. The true agony was Christ’s abandonment by the disciples and his ultimate moment of doubt on the cross when demanding to know why God had forsaken him. “To understand that no one has understood you. To be abandoned when one really needs someone to rely on . . . Surely that must have been his most monstrous suffering of all? I mean God’s silence.” Tomas responds in the form of a decision—will the service proceed in the absence of any congregates, save Marta? Bergman moves the entire sequence from gothic, candle-illuminated lighting to electric, reflecting both the otherworldliness of the atmosphere and its unbeautiful blandness. As Marta herself offers a silent prayer (“If we could dare to show each other affection . . . if we could believe in a truth . . . if we could believe . . .”), Tomas comes out to lead the service: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty. All the earth is full of His glory . . .”

In unmasking the certainty of religious faith, Bergman ends Winter Light with the almost unfathomable image of a godless reverend conducting a service for no reason other than his own sense of religious responsibility. Tomas’s final gesture suggests neither a reconciliation with God nor a turn toward self-parody, but a Sisyphian struggle in coming to terms with the absurdity of life. Marta’s prayer calls for the aspects (affection, truth, belief) still missing in the lives of damaged souls, while Tomas’s prayer confirms the ability to continually search for them, not through hollow ritual which made the first church service a theater of the grotesque, but through a personal, austere dedication to challenging and helping oneself and others in the face of meaninglessness. If God exists anywhere in Winter Light it is in that “absurd image,” as Tomas calls it, of Jesus on the cross questioning God as to the purpose of the Passion. The anguish of doubt, magnified in the cavernous, nearly empty church, proves that God need not exist for us “to be of use.” Instead, it proves that communication of that doubt—even absurdities like Tomas’s prayer to an empty church and a dead god—renders the silence bearable, makes it know that we are not dead in life, that we are constantly rediscovering ourselves in the midst of chaos and inertia, in the brilliance of that winter light which casts itself upon the valley of woe.

Bergman would complete the religious trilogy with The Silence, taking doubt to what is perhaps its inevitable flowering: communication, but for the faint candle that is Ester’s letter to Johan, becomes completely obliterated; war, only talked of in Winter Light, literally comes to town; and disease—that consistent Bergman metaphor—destroys mercilessly, hardly abated by human kindness or prayer. Persona moves further in this direction, with the relationship between Alma and Elisabeth a distillation of all the trilogy’s stumbling attempts at understanding. Winter Light, then, located in the middle of Bergman’s film career, stands as Bergman’s strongest testament to the nature of doubt, that paralytic wavering over the waters of faith and skepticism that infuses this singular film with its world-weary eyes and shivering soul.

This article originally appeared in Reverse Shot's 2004 symposium The Holy Moment.