Favorite Films: Winter Light (1963)

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.

Creeping Marienbadism

Famous Shot from Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

I met Pauline Kael during my last year at Dartmouth. At the time, I was Assistant Director of the Dartmouth Film Society and involved in meeting and greeting visiting film dignitaries. We had dinner across the river in Norwich, Vermont, followed by an interesting conversation.

Pauline had just published her first book, entitled I Lost It at the Movies (1965), which I read and loved.

Although she went on to be film reviewer for the New Yorker between 1968 and 1991, Pauline had a strong streak of the old fashioned, with a strong preference for straight narrative and a disdain for art house films and Hollywood blockbusters. (She called The Sound of Music with the moniker The Sound of Money, which made her no new friends in Hollywood)

Film Critic Pauline Kael (1919-2001)

I am slowly re-reading I Lost It at the Movies, where I found some interesting ideas. She hated the Alain Resnais film Last Year at Marienbad and complained that “we can’t even leave Marienbad behind because, although it memorable (it isn’t even particularly offensive), a kind of creeping Marienbadism is is the new aesthetics of ‘poetic cinema.’”

She recalls:

In Los Angeles, among the independent filmmakers at their midnight screenings I was told that I belonged to the older generation, that Agee-alcohol generation they called it, who could not respond to the new films because I didn’t take pot or LSD and so couldn’t learn to accept everything. This narcotic approach of torpid acceptance, which is much like the lethargy of the undead in those failure-of-communication movies, may explain why these films have seemed so “true” to some people….

At the time, I was at the cusp of the whole postmodern movement myself. I remember being agonized by Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) because it so challenged my own way of thinking … at the time. (No longer: I now love the film.)

Liv Ullmanm and Bibi Andersson in Persona

I guess I have become thoroughly postmodern. A strong narrative line is no longer necessary for me to enjoy a film. I could just be drawn by a series of beautiful images, startling epiphanies, powerful acting, or something as wonky as my love of Geena Davis in Earth Girls Are Easy (1988).