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Winter Light
cast: Max Von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, Ingrid Thulin, and Koldjörn Knudsen

director: Ingmar Bergman

78 minutes (PG) 1962
Tartan DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 9/10
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.
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