Winter Light: Ingmar Bergman at the Lightbox Center

Bergman’s particular genius was to unfold a singular, uncompromising vision in images of great formal beauty and scenes of harrowing intensity.

2018 is the centennial year of Ingmar Bergman, Sweden’s most important cultural figure since Strindberg and arguably the one figure who has raised film to the level of the greatest art forms. There are festivals in his honor around the world, including one with relatively little fanfare going on at the Lightbox Film Center in Philadelphia, which is showing ten of his films from The Seventh Seal to Autumn Sonata through September 21.

Film became the defining art form around the world in the twentieth century, and it has not relinquished its position in the current one. At the same time, there is a sense now that film has already seen its best days. Yes, good films are still being made, but great and commanding figures are in short supply. Bergman’s contemporaries included Antonioni and Fellini, Bresson and Resnais, Ozu and Kurosawa. No such cadre exists today. In addition, the small screen has all but swallowed the large one; you can watch a film on your wrist today if you choose, but Rembrandt won’t fit on a postage stamp either.

Bergman’s particular genius was to unfold a singular, uncompromising vision in images of great formal beauty and scenes of harrowing intensity. You will not find every aspect of cinematic possibility in him; his work is always focused on the human, and we must look elsewhere for landscape and vista. His parallel career as a great theatrical director is evident in his film art, and it would be not untrue if not satisfactory to say that what film gave him that the stage did not was the close-up. Frame by frame, a Bergman film is a succession of stunning visual compositions, but his final subject is what the human face can reveal.

Two films I took in were Winter Light and The Silence, both from 1963 and both part, with Through a Glass Darkly, of what Bergman once called a trilogy, although he later withdrew this characterization. Winter Light, set in Swedish cold, is about a pastor’s loss of faith, and by extension that of Christian belief in the modern world. It begins with a celebration of high mass in a sparsely attended rural church, and the face of Gunnar Bjornstrand’s Tomas Ericsson, composed yet deeply troubled, tells us all we need to know about the crisis it depicts. The language of the scene is completely formulaic; the shots are few and mostly formal; there is no music—none at all in fact in the film, or in Bergman generally—and yet the sense of a world bereft of God is fully conveyed in the very act by which he is invoked, and the quiet tension of the scene enfolds the viewer.

There are two critical moments in the film. In the first, Tomas is seeking to counsel a suicidal parishioner, Jonas (Max von Sydow), who is obsessed with reports that the Chinese, indoctrinated with hatred of the West, are about to achieve the atomic bomb. This would seem an odd obsession for a rather simple-minded fisherman, but the unnerving sense of mass hatred and looming apocalypse has seemingly infected him. Tomas begins to give him conventional pastoral comfort, but abruptly stops to confess his own loss of faith. Jonas says nothing in reply, and leaves to blow his head off.

The second moment occurs when Tomas’ sexton, Algot (Allan Edwall), who has seemed a simple person himself to this point, offers a long-pondered observation about his sense of Jesus’ terrible isolation both from the disciples who have abandoned him and the God he can no longer find on the Cross. Tomas has nothing to say to this, as Jonas had nothing to say to him, but the point is borne home on us: what, except unspeakable tragedy, are we to make of a Christ who has lost God too?

In dramatic terms, the film’s climax comes when Tomas, turning on his companion Marta (Ingrid Thulin), tells her that she is repulsive to him. Stunned by this, Marta does not collapse, but responds that his coldness has inspired hatred in her too, and that his lack of feeling is a self-hatred that can only end in death. Struck in turn, and impressed by the return of violence for violence, Tomas understands that he and Marta are actually, if unhappily bound.

Hatred (and the emotional need it satisfies in the absence of love) is the theme too of The Silence, which depicts the journey of two sisters, Ester (Ingrid Thulin again) and Anna (Gunnel Lindblom), which passes through an unnamed, vaguely Central European country whose menace is indicated by a progression of tanks. Anna, the elder, is an intellectual who is ill, perhaps terminally, of an unspecified lung condition; Ester, who is accompanied by her small son Johan (Jorgen Lindstrom), is restlessly sensual. Here the atmosphere is not of cold but of unbearable summer heat. The tension between the sisters is palpable, and why they are traveling together—or for what purpose—is unclear: like Tomas and Marta, they seem to be tied by the urge to separate. Anna finally explodes, vents her life-long rage and resentment at Ester, and in fact abandons her to what may be her death.

Even in Bergman, this denouement is shocking; but Anna is left only with her own inner emptiness, and the loss—as she does not yet realize—of her child’s love. Love, in fact, is what everyone in both films is seeking, and hatred the consequence of its absence. That absence is tied in turn to a sense of existential meaninglessness, what Tomas calls “God’s silence.” God isn’t mentioned, if he is indeed conceivable in The Silence, but the title clearly refers to a world without him, and the film depicts it mercilessly. Only Johan seems to offer us a glimmer of hope at the end, with his intuition that something terrible has happened and that Ester is not to be forgotten.

Bergman is a stiff dose. But he is also a great artist, and his vision is if anything more challenging and prophetic than it was fifty years ago. Pick your own film, but don’t miss him as he is meant to be seen: on a real screen.

About Robert Zaller 91 Articles
Dr. Robert Zaller is an American author, playwright, and professor of history at Drexel University. An authority on British political history and constitutional thought, he writes extensively on politics, modern literature, film, music and art. He has been a Guggenheim fellow and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

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