-MONTHLY FILM & TV REVIEW-
cast: Max Von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, Ingrid Thulin, and Koldjörn Knudsen
director: Ingmar Bergman
78 minutes (PG) 1962
Tartan DVD Region 2 retail
reviewed by Jim Steel
This DVD comes with the option of watching a brief, relatively recent, introduction featuring
a genial Ingmar Bergman. Bergman doesn't add much to the film, but he does state that that
Winter Light (aka: Nattvardsgästerna) remains a personal favourite and
one of the few in his oeuvre that he could still bear to watch. The film was shot during
November, as he wanted to make use of the winter light to eliminate shadows.
In Britain, November is a time of nothing but shadows, but in Sweden the snow reflects
the light and washes the contrast from the screen. It is a fitting effect for this bleak
monochrome film, the second of Bergman's thematic trilogy that explores God's absence.
(The other films are Through
A Glass Darkly and The Silence.) Another point
about the winter light is its brevity. Daytime is such a short thing compared to the darkness
of the night, although none of the characters comment on it. Indeed, it might even have gone
unnoticed to the viewer if Märta Lundberg (Ingrid Thulin) had not informed her unseen
houseguest that she was going out to the Perssons' house but would be back by six o'clock.
The sun is already setting by the time she reaches there.
The film itself spans a very short period of time (beware of possible spoilers beyond this
point), and starts and finishes with two church services held on the same day. Minister
Thomas Ericsson (Gunnar Björnstrand) is holding a service for a very small congregation
in the morning and has to travel to another church for another one in the evening. Afterwards,
a couple, Karin (Gunnel Lindblom) and Jonas Persson (Max von Sydow), approach the minister.
Karin wishes that Ericsson would have a talk with her husband who has been plunged into despair.
Jonas is worried about the hated-filled Red Chinese getting the bomb and destroying the world.
It rings slightly hollow now, but Bergman's point is that Jonas was not worried about the
actuality of the Soviet bomb; he was despairing over a mere possibility. When Jonas comes
back later to talk to Ericsson alone, Ericsson rails against the silence of God and the
impossibility of his existence in a world such as this. Ericsson had managed to keep his
faith by ignoring what was in front of him during the Spanish Civil War, but seems to have
realised the futility of his vision after the death of his wife. Throughout it all, Jonas
remains a silent, glum figure, turning his face away from humanity where possible.
Another member of the congregation also visits Ericsson after the service. This time it
is his lover, the schoolteacher Märta Lundberg (a wonderful Ingrid Thulin). She loves
Ericsson unconditionally but he is unable to love her back, and is even capable of great
verbal cruelty towards her on occasion. She has written him a letter explaining her feelings
towards him, but he hasn't bothered to read it yet. When she departs, he finally reads it.
It is delivered to the viewer as a passionate and beautiful monologue from Thulin, but it
is wasted on the minister. Then news comes that Jonas has shot himself after leaving the
church, and Ericsson goes down to the river were the police are already at the scene. Ericsson
waits beside the covered body while they go to get a van to collect it. It is the one time
in the film where noise drenches the soundtrack as the roaring of the river overwhelms
everything else. Nature is indifferent to the acts of man.
By the end of the film, it is time for Ericsson to give his second sermon. Two of the
minor characters reappear. The organist (Olof Thunberg), by now noticeably slightly drunk
(it doesn't affect his ability to play), but showing a warmth that evades Ericsson, and
the crippled sexton, Algot Frövik (Koldjörn Knudsen). Frövik thanks Ericsson
for the time he advised him to read the gospels as a cure for insomnia. It worked! Also,
he has noticed that Christ's sufferings only lasted for around four hours or so, and this
has given him the strength to go on.
If such a big fuss has been made over Christ's suffering, then surely Frövik's endless
suffering must mean so much more. It's a brilliant scene. However, no one (unless they count
Lundberg) has turned up for the second service. They go ahead with it anyway. Are they merely
machines, or creatures stuck, alone, in an uncaring universe? The electric lights come on and
the church seems to be filled with some sort of soft warmth. It is the first time in the film
that this has happened. There is hope, if we create it for ourselves.
It's certainly not comfortable viewing, and the scenes with von Sydow tend to feel forced,
but it is a fine film from a genius at the height of his powers.