Winter Light (1963)

Directed by Ingmar Bergman

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“Why hast thou forsaken me?”

Paster Tomas’ plight is such a bare, direct expression of his existential crisis.  His overt vulnerability is hard to take but also hard to deny because the rigidity of his devout despair refuses cliche or sentimentality.  Instead it’s almost robotic, like a programmed emotional breakdown, a biological impulse and not a conscious choice.  What his soul needs (and isn’t receiving) is as fundamental to his existence as breathing.

Tomas (Gunnar Björnstrand) started losing faith long before the events of this film begin.  When a parishioner comes to him seeking help for her depressed husband, Jonas (Max von Sydow), Tomas takes the time to elaborate on his depression.  Jonas’ struggle, in regards to the fear of nuclear war, is something to which Tomas can attach his own, silent disenchantment with the world.

He will attempt to talk Jonas back from the ledge, but it doesn’t work.  He has developed a sixth sense for his own insincerity, words he will refer to as “drivel.”  What he used to preach with the utmost confidence is now all an elaborate hoax behind which he doesn’t understand the true meaning.

Jonas will kill himself about halfway through the film, too early into the story to have become a meaningful character but far enough in that his death has a gut-wrenching impact.  We’ve seen Tomas try and comfort him, and now we’ve seen him fail.

Like many of Ingmar Bergman’s works, Winter Light is a quiet story.  His characters look for meaning and fail to find it.  Such a process is quite internal, meaning we rely on muttered sentence fragments, forlorn gazes and pure silence.

His characters are reckoning with a breakdown of the story they’ve always told themselves about how the world works.  They are actresses who lose the ability to speak (Persona), fathers who don’t know how to prepare for a family member’s worsening illness (Through a Glass Darkly) and priests who try and grapple with the idea that their supposed calling is based on a lie.

These are characters who no longer believe in the thing that gave them meaning.  And it’s not simple that they can pivot to something else, a new calling or, to take a step back, a hobby.  These characters are riddled with despair.  Realizing or believing that their life is a lie means there is no way to make up for lost time.  I suppose it’s a strange example of the sunk cost fallacy.  Pastor Tomas isn’t going to decide to learn sewing or become a painter as a way to find the sense of truth he has recently lost.  Because the thing he committed to may have been flawed, then everything else must be too.

These are some heavy-hearted characters, and their depression often shows itself through anger.  Tomas is a mean-spirited little sh*t, lashing out at the only person who shows him meaningful affection.  He accuses her of playing an “ugly parody” of his dead wife, and no matter how disturbing his words are, she remains by his side, seeing something in him that he can’t see in the rest of the world.

I’ve described already the entire story of Winter Light.  Tomas meets Jonas, fails to convince him of the thing he doesn’t really believe in anyway, then he lashes out at his only companion and eventually returns to give his next sermon, sleepwalking through a life that seems to have no meaning unless it’s framed neatly within a narrative film for us to discuss.

This story is the apparent basis for Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, almost beat for beat until Schrader takes his film in a more viscerally exciting, disturbing finale that harkens back to his own storytelling tendencies (as seen in Taxi DriverMishimaAffliction).

These are films I enjoy watching and sitting with but that I don’t care to watch again.  You can certainly pick something up from the film’s technical components, as certain moments beautifully frame devastating, raw performances.  The actors convey so much emotion and yet do it in ways that feel stripped of the same qualities which make us look human.  By that I mean that Pastor Tomas’ plight is so steep, and we can see it in the ways his humanity (kindness, empathy, joy) has been power washed away from him like cleaning the muck off a wooden deck.  What remains is all that he is, a desolate shell of a man.

Such a performance feels to be ripped out of a Robert Bresson film, in which the actors move like mannequins, purposefully devoid of human emotion or anything that makes them feel alive.  They are puppets, told where to stand and what to say, without the faintest sign of intonation.  They are a bunch of Siri’s reading directions, but even Siri has a little pep in her step.

It’s hard to know how to feel about a character like Paster Tomas.  I doubt many of us could stand by his side the way his companion Marta (Ingrid Thulin) does.  She can identify what’s eating him away at his core, and she understands that his outburst is a symptom of a deeper issue.  Still, it’s eaten so much of Tomas’ soul that I can’t imagine there’s anything left to care for.  This isn’t just someone experiencing depression, it’s someone defined by his depression, someone convinced the thing he’s devoted his entire life to is a lie.

He doesn’t blame himself, though, just God.  He seems to believe he might still be up there, just that he hasn’t returned his messages yet.  In that belief I guess there’s some optimism.  Tomas doesn’t seem ready to give up on the idea of God altogether, but he’s sure as hell tired of waiting to hear back from him.

Up Next: Elvis Presley: The Searcher (2018), Shoah (1985), Interstellar (2014)

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