second thursday film: winter light

We had a wonderful Second Thursday Film Night two nights ago. We watched Bergman’s “Winter Light,” and had delicious food and wine to boot. Well done to all who helped put it together! And thanks to all who came out.

Here is the little introduction I prepared and read before we hit the “play” button:

Ingmar Bergman’s classic 1962 film, Winter Light, is often regarded as his most autobiographical. Bergman cited Winter Light as his favorite among his many films, saying that it was only trough making it that he came to terms with who he really was as a person. It is therefore probably no coincidence that this is the film in which he deals most directly with issues of faith. As broadly autobiographical, Winter Light is informed specifically by the Swedish Lutheranism which was Bergman’s own religious background. But one need not be a Lutheran, nor even a Christian, to appreciate the questions Bergman raises, or the answers (or the shapes of answers) he suggests.

In keeping with much of the best of 20th century, post-war thought and art, there is an ambivalence in Bergman’s style and perspective in Winter Light, elicited likewise by the English title itself. Stylistically, and in other respects, the film is rather cold, and yet it is also suffused with light. Bergman’s ambivalence evokes, for example, the work of Marc Chagall, the Jewish visual artist who produced some of the 20th century’s most affecting representations of Christ’s suffering; or Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Anglo-Austrian philosopher who wrote:

What inclines even me to believe in Christ’s Resurrection?  It is as though I play with the thought. – If he did not rise from the dead, then he decomposed in the grave like any other man.  He is dead and decomposed.  In that case he is a teacher like any other and can no longer help; and once more we are orphaned and alone.  So we have to content ourselves with wisdom and speculation.  We are in a sort of hell  where we can do nothing but dream, roofed in, as it were, and cut off from heaven.

Winter Light speaks rather eloquently within this context of contemporary intellectual culture, in that Bergman raises many questions, but provides few neat answers, although he perhaps suggests the outlines of some.

In what is considered one of the most counterintuitive and cinematographically unprecedented shots in the film, Bergman at one point allows the camera to rest for a six-minute close-up of the character Marta, as she reads a letter excoriating Tomas, the main character. We, the audience, are trapped in this shot, forced to watch and listen as Marta seems almost to be addressing us. And we are thus invited to identify in some sense with Tomas’ failings, his helplessness, and his ostensive hypocrisy. One is reminded of the pastor who, after listening to a neighbor complain about all of the hypocrisy in the Church, as an excuse to stay away, replies: “Well, you’ll feel right at home.” No one is immune from the existential contagion of Winter Light.

The film is set, chronologically, between 12:00 noon and 3:00 pm on a single winter day. Those familiar with the Gospel narrative will note that this three hour period is that in which Christ hung on the cross, as darkness covered the land. St. Mark’s Gospel says: “And when the sixth hour [noon] had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour [3:00 pm]. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘E’lo-i, E’lo-i, la’ma sabach-tha’ni?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’” – words echoed by the main character toward the middle of the film.

This temporal coincidence could not have escaped the attention of Bergman. The suggestion therefore lies in the background that the psychic desolation portrayed so poignantly in Winter Light was first experienced by Christ himself.

The character of Algot, the hunchback sexton from the end of the film, explicitly draws this connection, pointing out to Tomas the breadth of Christ’s suffering, beyond what he had to endure bodily, but also in his betrayal by a disciple, the abandonment of his friends, and ultimately in the silence of his Father as Christ dies on the cross. When Algot asks Tomas whether this silence wasn’t the most acute form of Christ’s suffering, Tomas replies simply, “Yes.”

Algot arguably represents the vantage point of faith within the film, and Bergman commendably makes Algot a credible character – one who suffers physically more than any of the others, yet who is almost lit-up with hope and even joy. When only Marta shows up to church for services, Algot answers his own question as to whether they should go on with the service. “Yes,” he says with a resigned, knowing smile.

Which brings us to the inevitable question: in the (winter) light of this film, how then shall we live? As the drunken organist suggests toward the end, everything is “in the grip of death and decay” and love, after all, does not here seem to be the answer. Urging Marta to leave and to save herself, the organist’s perspective evokes the poem “This be the Verse” by Philip Larkin, which concludes: “Man hands on misery to man / it deepens like a coastal shelf / get out as early as you can / and don’t have any kids yourself.”

But even here, Christian tradition is ahead of us. As the Anglican Prayer Book avers: “in the midst of life we are in death.” And as Christ himself says concerning the advancement of the world’s decay: “because wickedness is multiplied, most men’s love will grow cold,” (Matt. 24.12).

This is not the final word of the film, though it comes close to it. We are, in the end, left with the painful resolution of the pastor, in the words of what many Christians have called the thrice-holy hymn, in praise of God’s very distance from us, a distance that the Christian tradition suggests in a sense keeps us alive – a distance which is guarded by spirits of fire, who forever sing: “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts. The whole earth is full of your glory.”

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About Fr Will

Fr Will Brown is rector of Holy Cross Dallas
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