Tuesday, August 7, 2018


I can't remember the first time I saw Ingmar Bergman's WINTER LIGHT. It was probably in the mid-90s, when I was fresh out of high school and found myself living in Little Rock just down the street from a particularly well-stocked Hollywood Video. I was watching everything in those days, and it was certainly during this time that I discovered Bergman. Yet I don't remember first discovering WINTER LIGHT, perhaps because I was so immediately floored by other Bergman films like THE SEVENTH SEAL and THE VIRGIN SPRING. Those films are rich in allegory and daring imagery. They grabbed me.

By contrast, WINTER LIGHT is small, tight, modest. It tells the story of Tomas (Gunnar Bjornstrand), a vicar in moral crisis. He's lost his faith and when a suicidal member (Max von Sydow) of his tiny congregation comes to him for some kind of help, Tomas has none to give. The man almost immediately kills himself.

Over the years, WINTER LIGHT became my favorite Bergman film. Again, it's hard for me to say just when and how this happened, except that the story of the lost priest has taken on greater resonance for me the older I get. The ending is fascinating. Tomas lashes out at his sometimes girlfriend, Marta (Ingrid Thulin), and returns to his work at the church. Algot, the crippled church sexton, asks Tomas about the suffering of Christ on the cross, speculating that God's silence at that moment was the worst of Christ's torments. Then the tiny church holds its service. Is there hope here? Any kind of redemption?

I've reacted to the ending differently over the years. Sometimes I read it as hopeful, with the hope resting not in a silent watchful god, but in the connection, however flawed, between people. Other times, I'm not so sure. By the time you get to Bergman's next film, THE SILENCE, it seems that all hope of human connection has been abandoned, along with God himself.

I was thinking of WINTER LIGHT a few months ago when Paul Schrader's FIRST REFORMED was released in theaters. In some respects, the film is Schrader's retelling of WINTER LIGHT. Ethan Hawke stars as Ernst Toller, the pastor of a 250-year-old Dutch Reformed church in upstate New York. The church barely functions as a congregation anymore, and Toller is little more than a tour guide for visitors interested in the building as a historical landmark. Despite outward appearances, Toller is a man in crisis. His son, encouraged by Toller to enlist for military duty, was recently killed in Iraq. Toller's marriage collapsed and now the minister goes through the motions at work while quietly drinking too much at night.

Then, as in WINTER LIGHT, he is approached by a pregnant young woman (Amanda Seyfried) and her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger). The disturbed young man is consumed by fears about environmental collapse and even contemplates committing an act of terrorism against a rich industrialist polluter. Like von Sydow in Bergman's film, Michael seeks some kind of help and when he finds that the priest has none to give, he kills himself.

Here Schrader's film pivots away from Bergman's. Toller takes up Michael's lost environmental cause as his own and begins to fixate on carrying out Michael's suicide bombing. The film's ending is ambiguous, a last minute reprieve that might simply be the fantasy of a dying man.

For much of FIRST REFORMED, Schrader embraces the austere style of WINTER LIGHT. The camera work favors meticulously composed static shots, and the performances, especially Hawke's, are quietly measured. As the film enters its final act, which owes more than a little to Schrader's own TAXI DRIVER, the tone becomes more frantic. By this point in the film, the tightly wound pastor is operating at a state of near hysteria. 

WINTER LIGHT and FIRST REFORMED are very different films, though their points of connection are interesting. For instance, in both films there is an emphasis on the weakness of the body. In Bergman's film, Tomas is sick with the flu, while Marta has a bad rash and the sexton is disabled. In FIRST REFORMED, Toller is suffering from an aliment that might well be stomach cancer, evidenced by blood in his urine, and at the end of the film he tortures his own flesh by lashing his torso in rusty barbed wire. In both films, the body is a humiliating trap of disease and pain. Faith offers only fleeting reprieve from the problems of the flesh.

Each film is a work of its time. In WINTER LIGHT, the characters fear nuclear annihilation. In FIRST REFORMED, it is climate change. In each case, the danger is poised by the weaponized irrationality of humanity, and, again, faith, offers little in the way of hope against such forces. Indeed, in Schrader's the film, the church is financially underwritten by the same rich polluter who is poisoning the environment.

Schrader's film is more manic, less tightly controlled in its final act, yet the passion and fury in Bergman are simply encased under more Scandinavian ice. Both films are about existential fury turned inward. In Schrader's film, perhaps reflective of an America plagued by domestic terrorism and spree killings, the rage takes the form of suicidal ideation and the contemplation of mass murder.

What both films begrudgingly agree upon is that the only thing with the potential to save us is a connection to other people. Of course, that connection is fraught and fragile. But no one ever accused Bergman or Schrader of being purveyors of easy answers. Both of their desperate ministers have placed themselves above their congregations, only to discover, perhaps too late, that they need people as much as people need them. 


fragments of noir said...

Great post Jake ......Excellent analysis of Bergman in particular a director who often appeals to fans of Noir

Jacob said...

It's my belief Toller's starting of a journal and his ailment were lifted from Diary of a Country Priest directed by Bresson.