A cold, stoic production, Winter Light embodies much of Ingmar Bergman’s trademark styles. His characters are utilitarian–precise and purposeful. Bergman regular Gunnar Björnstrand plays a troubled pastor, Tomas Ericsson. His ex-mistress is an atheist, Märta Lundberg, played by Ingrid Thulin. They exist in a desolate small town, a locale that only exists in Bergman’s imaginations, where its bleakness fosters an alien-like abstractness, and little else.
Every shot is essential, and every word is precious. Bergman’s slow adventure, spanning a few hours, has no room for waste. Ericsson and Lundberg often speak directly to the screen. There is a sense of urgency and timelessness that encapsulates the film. Bergman is cold and calculated, and yet Winter Light feels alive and conscious.
There’s little romance between Ericsson and Lundberg. Lundberg is passionately in love with Ericsson–notably the only character in the film to love completely, and the only person to do so without faith. Ericsson is troubled by other matters. His wife passed many years ago, leaving a hole that’s festered and grown where faith and love used to occupy, waiting for a catalyst to break it open.
There’s a sense that before Winter Light, routine existed. And this film seeks to chronicle the breaking point, except there is no explosion, or implosion, or even a shattering, only silence. God’s silence. For Ericsson is troubled by God’s silence, his silence in the face of trying times puts his faith in jeopardy. Ericsson is thrust into an existential crisis after speaking to a man named Jonas, who’s recently become distraught about impending doom from an atomic bomb. Perhaps it’s the realization that such a profound and painful disaster would be out of his hands, or perhaps a resignation to the peculiarities of life and death, Jonas asks in exasperation, “Why do we have to keep living?” And Tomas Ericsson, who should be best equipped to offer something of comfort, is left speechless. And silent.
Winter Light is without soundtrack, which only fuels the dominating presence of the organs that are present during the church scenes. Organs fill the church interior, bells echo across the village. The religious experience is omnipresent, oppressive and suffocating. It’s the clerical collar that tightly wraps around Ericsson’s neck. Or the invisible barrier that separates pastor from atheist. It was also supposed to be an answer.
Outside of religion, the only sound is a ticking time clock, an ominous countdown to something morbid–maybe an atomic bomb. Bergman isn’t so much offering a sweeping damnation of Christianity, as an indictment on the Church of Sweden’s inability to serve what’s essential and important.
As for God’s silence, that may be the discomfort and uncertainty that emboldens religion, or breaks it. What does it matter anyways if we’re all going to die?