On this appropriately bleak winter day, I sat down to view Ingmar Bergman’s stark masterpiece Winter Light.
From my forthcoming book Black & White Cinema: A Short History: “by 1962 with Winter Light, photographed by Sven Nykvist, Bergman had refined his vision into an austere, almost sculptural sensibility of blacks, whites, and varying shades of gray, striving for a complete simplicity in all his work. As Nykvist recalled of working with Bergman,
‘The whole crew meets two months before shooting to read the whole script, then we start to make tests. We build sets, and when everyone—the costume designer, the production designer, the makeup artist—is there, we make tests for the whole picture so we will never be surprised when we start shooting. We are already halfway through a picture when we start to shoot it, and that is psychologically very important for all the people because everyone, including the grips and electricians, feels that he or she is as important as all the others. . . . When you are operating the camera, you forget all about the other people around you. You just see this little scene and you live in that and you feel it. For me, operating the camera is a sport and it helps me do better lighting sometimes.
When Ingmar and I made Winter Light . . . which takes place in a church on a winter day in Sweden, we decided we should not see any shadow in it at all because there would be no logical shadow in that setting. I said, ‘Oh, that will be an easy picture for me because the light doesn’t change in three hours.’ Ingmar said, ‘That’s what you think. Let’s go to the churches in the north of Sweden.’ And there we sat for weeks, looking at the light during the three hours between eleven and two o’clock. We saw that it changed a lot, and it helped him in writing the script because he always writes the moods. . .
It has taken me 30 years to come to simplicity. Earlier, I made a lot of what I thought were beautiful shots with much backlighting and many effects, absolutely none of which were motivated by anything in the film at all. As soon as we had a painting on the wall, we thought it should have a glow around it. It was terrible and I can hardly stand to see my own films on television anymore. . . . I prefer to shoot on location because in the studio you have too many possibilities—too many lights to destroy your whole picture.’”
And as Roger Ebert observed of Winter Light in 2007, “on the day Ingmar Bergman died, the first film of his that came into my mind was Winter Light. Odd, because I had not seen it since teaching a film class in the 1970s. In the weeks that passed, I found it lingering there, asking to be seen again. What did I remember about it? That it was part of Bergman’s ‘Silence of God’ trilogy. That it was about a pastor who was unable to comfort a man in dread of nuclear holocaust. That the pastor rejected a woman who sought to comfort him. That Bergman and his cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, sat in a rural church for a winter day to note how the sunlight moved through the space. In short, I hardly remembered the film at all, because those sparse memories were not enough to ignite a need to see it again. Yet I felt one. Finally I took Winter Light down from the shelf, watched it again, and was awestruck by its bleak, courageous power.
It is, first of all, much more complex than the broad outlines I held in memory. It is about more than God, silent or not. It is about the silence of a man, Pastor Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Bjornstrand), who speaks enough in the film but is unable to say anything of use to himself or anyone else. About another man, the fisherman Jonas (Max Von Sydow), obsessed by evil in the world, who calls God’s bluff, so to speak, by killing himself. About Marta, a schoolteacher (Ingrid Thulin) who cares for the pastor, loves him, worries about him, and is thanked by coldness and hostility. And it is about two monologues in which the pastor and the teacher describe their real feelings, and deeply wound each other . . .
The film’s visual style is one of rigorous simplicity. Nykvist does not use a single camera movement for effect. He only wants to regard, to show. His compositions, while sometimes dramatic, are mostly static. He uses slow push-ins and pull-outs to underline dialogue of intensity. His gaze is so unblinking that sequences with the potential to be boring, like the opening scenes of the consecration and distribution of hosts and wine, become fascinating: More is going on here than ritual, and there are buried currents between the communicants. Nykvist focuses above all on faces, in closeup and medium shot, and they are even the real subject of longer shots, recalling Bergman’s belief that the human face is the most fascinating study for the cinema.”
Fortunately, there is also a feature on the making of Winter Light, available on the Criterion DVD set of the Bergman “Silence of God” trilogy, of which Criterion’s program notes add that “the year is 1961, and Ingmar Bergman is making a movie. While planted on the scene as apprentice to Bergman, Vilgot Sjöman suggests to Swedish Television that they take the opportunity to record with the acclaimed director. In August, Sjöman and the television crew begin to capture what would become a comprehensive five-part documentary on the making of Winter Light, offering views of script development, set construction and lighting, rehearsals and editing, as well as intimate conversations with Bergman and members of his cast and crew. Footage from the film’s Swedish premiere delivers immediate audience reactions and the critics’ reviews the following day. Originally recorded on 16mm film, Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie is presented here in its entirety for the first time outside of Sweden.”
A brilliant film, available on Criterion DVD; get a copy now, before it goes out of print.