For the second of this set of two films, I chose the very first Ingmar Bergman film (not Ingrid – we did get Casablanca) shown in the over four-year history of Cinema 1544 – and I certainly never thought it would take that long for one to show up. I was getting worried, because I had a perfect short to show. That, combined with the fact that Winter Light is one of my favorite films ever, was enough to convince me that it was time for Ingmar. Well, that and a random number generator (yeah, I was having a hard time deciding!)
Of course, the short comes first, and this one was also a first – the first appearance of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 gang at movie night. (What a travesty, I know!) The skit, taken from an episode lampooning a 1956 Russo-Finnish film called The Sword and the Dragon, is appropriately entitled “A Joke by Ingmar Bergman.
The elaborately set-up scene, which I will spoil completely, is really nothing more than a simple “Sven and Ole” joke. In black and white, with long, slow, camera pans and gull sounds in the distance, Sven and Ole have a plan while hanging out on a pier. “I vill count ze boards on ze pier, und you vill count ze shlits.” They trudge slowly across the pier. “One.” “One.” “Two.” “Two.” “Tuhwee.” “Tuhwee.” until finally around board six or seven the slits give out and Tom Servo (as Ole) falls off into the water.
“And so you see,” goes the moral/punchline, “Ven you are out of shlits, you are out of pier.”
If that’s still a bit obscure to you, spend a whole thirty seconds watching this:
Ah, beautiful puns in the style of stodgy Swedish directors! But on to the feature film!
Winter Light is the middle third of Ingmar Bergman’s so-called “God Trilogy” along with Through a Glass Darkly and The Silence. In Swedish, it was originally titled “Nattvardsgästerna”, which is most often translated directly as “The Communicants” and probably should be translated as “Those partaking in the rite of Communion”. Here is what Bergman himself had to say about Winter Light:
I think I have made just one picture that I really like, and that is Winter Light. That is my only picture about which I feel that I have started here and ended there and that everything along the way has obeyed me. Everything is exactly as I wanted to have it, in every second of this picture.
Strong stuff. So let’s get to the film.
It opens during the services of a small rural Swedish church. A rather nice building, all things considered. Clearly at one time, they were quite serious about their religion and as such built a magnificent church for the services, but here there are only a handful of attendees. For several minutes (which apparently put some viewers to sleep, for shame!) the pastor Tomas carries out the tail end of a service, with one of the final elements being the rite of Communion, for which five of the congregation come forward.
Tomas is clearly displeased that Märta Lundberg has come forward for Communion. We find out quite a bit more about Märta and Tomas as the story unfolds. But first the service ends, and as Tomas returns to his office he dismisses the organist and sexton (they will meet again in the afternoon to perform a 3 o’clock service in a nearby town) and considers reading a long letter he has received. However, he is interrupted by some parishoners, Karin and Jonas Persson. Jonas is having some existential difficulties dealing with the perceived threat of worldwide nuclear war, but he doesn’t much want to talk, though the pregnant Karin wants him to. Jonas eventually leaves to take Karin home, promising to return in about half an hour.
In comes Märta, and it’s immediately apparent that her relationship with the pastor is somewhat more than that of simply being one of his flock. She asks if he’s read her letter yet, which he hasn’t, and he brusquely gets her to leave after she re-expresses her steadfast atheism to him. No wonder he was a bit weirded about about giving her Communion. Anyway, once she leaves and he is waiting for Jonas to return, he reads the letter.
Bergman accomplishes this by showing Märta, sitting down in front of a gray wall, speaking out the contents of the letter. It takes about 6 minutes, and is only broken up by one scene which demonstrated Märta’s stigmata – the sores she once had on her hands which made her so repulsive to Tomas. We learn about their past, about Tomas’ dead wife (whom he still loves), and Märta’s concerns that Tomas doesn’t love her (which, to be fair, he doesn’t seem to).
Jonas returns later than expected, and Tomas tries to help him out but ends up getting stuck on his own doubts about his religion and the worst thing of all, “God’s silence”. Tomas feels forsaken, he is lost in his own life, and he does a great job of cheering up Jonas. Such a great job, in fact, that…well, we’ll figure that out in ten minutes. First, the quintessential shot from the film:
With Märta again in the scene, Tomas in his agnostic despair falls to his knees to reveal the low winter sun shining through a barren tree. Glorious! Tomas declares that he has finally decided that God does not exist and that he feels free – Märta can only hope he means he’s free to love her. But before too long a townswoman bursts into the church to tell us what has happened to Jonas – he has shot himself down by the river. That’s some counseling there, Tomas!
Tomas leaves to deal with the coroner down at the site and once again Märta shows up at the end. They head back to her place, have a big old fight over the fact that Tomas doesn’t love her – still preferring his dead wife – and finally it’s time for Tomas to head out for the 3 PM service. Märta, despite being kicked like a dog over the past fifteen minutes, wants to tag along. Although Tomas initially refuses to allow her, as he is leaving he changes his mind.
Of course, first it’s his duty to head over to Karin’s house because nobody has told her about Jonas yet.
She takes the news like any hardy rural pregnant Swede in a Bergman film ought. Stoically. “What’s going to happen to me? Well, I guess I ‘d better go tell the children.” I mean, this woman skipped through the first four stages of grief in about 10 microseconds. The pastor starts to look back to watch her inform the family through the window, then decides he wants no part of being a pillar of salt and hurries back to the car so he and Märta can head off to the 3 PM service.
The sexton and organist are already there, and as the lusty organist tries to convince Märta to give up on the clearly apathetic pastor, the sexton has an important question to ask Tomas. He, as a crippled, hunchbacked man, has clearly suffered more physical pain than Jesus did on the cross, certainly all told. Why do people focus so much on the physical pain when it was clearly the abandonment that hurt him most – first his disciples, and then on the cross, even God himself – “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Jesus said, and what must have hurt him most was God’s silence.
And Tomas understands.
The church, it turns out, is empty. No one has shown up for the service and the organist suggests they pack it up, but it is not to be. Tomas puts on his robes, and heads out to the altar to deliver a service to nobody save the sexton, the organist, and the atheist in the back.