The Middle Film of Ingmar Bergman’s Trilogy on the Silence of God
The film is almost impossibly bleak. At the very beginning, a parishioner comes to the Lutheran pastor played by Gunnar Björnstrand and confesses that he is depressed because the Red Chinese have the atomic bomb, and they have no respect for human life. Because of the stresses of his own life, Björnstrand admits his own depression (he is a widower who has recently lost his beloved wife) and winds up sending him away even more depressed. Within minutes, we discover that he has committed suicide next to a roaring river by sending a rifle shell at his head.
It gets even worse. Björnstrand is being pursued by the local schoolteacher, played by Ingrid Thulin (in above photo). But the pastor remains stubbornly alone as, coming down with a cold, he must conduct a service at nearby Frostnäs. He goes there, with Thulin in tow, only to find that none of the parishioners have shown up. He gives the service anyhow, beginning with the words “Holy Holy Holy, Lord God Almighty; Heaven and Earth are full of Thy glory.”
Swedish Film Director Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007)
Bergman’s trilogy includes Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light and The Silence (both 1963). These are, in no sense of the word, cheery films, as they deal primarily with God’s silence or even absence in the light of an increasingly disjointed world.
So why would anyone want to see such depressing films? For the same reason that they would see a performance of King Lear or read Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. It doesn’t take long before one realizes that there is no laugh track in our lives. I keep thinking about what the Philosopher Karl Jaspers wrote regarding the study of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche:
We live, so to speak, in a seething cauldron of possibilities, continually threatened by confusion, but always ready in spite of everything to rise up again. In philosophizing, we must always be ready, out of the present questioning, to elicit those ideas which bring forth what is real to us: that is, our humanity.
Although I do not consider myself to be an atheist, I do believe that no one can accurately describe God or God’s relationship to mankind. The Christians have this book which is several thousand years old and written by a number of authors. Some religions, such as Buddhism and Taoism, do not even have a God in the Christian sense of the word.
So when a great artist like Ingmar Bergman is honest about his own doubt, I am refreshed by his honesty. The problem, to me, is not how to worship God, but how to make one’s way in this bewildering world without benefit of Providence or God’s love.
I used to be a devout Catholic. Then, in September 1966, I survived major brain surgery and moved to Los Angeles to begin graduate school in film history and criticism at UCLA. For a brief while, I felt grateful to God for my survival; then, I thought: Why did He try to destroy me with twelve years of excruciating pain? The only masses I have attended since then have been funerals and nostalgic visits to beautiful old South American churches.