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Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light (1963) is the middle film in his trilogy that included Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and The Silence (1963). An uncompromising masterpiece, with sharply realized performances by Gunnar Björnstrand and Ingrid Thulin and pathbreaking cinematography by Sven Nykvist, it depicts Tomas Ericsson, a pastor who works in an isolated country parish. He undergoes a spiritual crisis when he fails to prevent one of his parishioners from committing suicide. The rigorously constructed narrative takes place in the span of a single Sunday afternoon, from noon to 3 p.m.
In a 1964 interview for Playboy, Bergman stated about his 1960s trilogy: "My basic concern in making them was to dramatize the all-importance of communication, of the capacity for feeling. They are not concerned--as many critics have theorized--with God or his absence, but with the saving force of love." In that regard the original Swedish title--Nattvardgästerna--carries special significance. It translates literally as "The Communicants"--that is, people participating in the ceremony of Eucharist (Holy Communion). It further connotes a shared bond between people.
Bergman wrote the script in the summer of 1961, a couple of months after he had won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film with The Virgin Spring (1960), which had greatly increased international interest in him as a director. He had also just finished work on Through a Glass Darkly; that film would premiere a few months later, in October. In his memoir entitled Images: My Life in Film, Bergman writes of Winter Light: "My original thought was for the drama to take place in an abandoned church, which had been closed up and was waiting to be restored, with a ruined organ and rats running between the pews. It was a good idea! A man locks himself in an abandoned church with its high altar and triptych. Only the lighting effects any changes in the room to signify dawn, the bright sun, sunset, the darkness of night. Then there are the strange sounds of the wind and the silence."
One of the film's crucial plot elements--the suicide of Jonas--originated when Bergman and his wife at that time, the concert pianist Käbi Laretei, were vacationing in the countryside and went to visit a pastor whom Bergman knew. Bergman recalled in Vilgot Sjöman's 1963 multi-part TV documentary series Ingmar Bergman Makes a Film: "He was depressed and I asked him why. 'Well, a man took his life here, and I had spoken with him just the day before.' The priest blamed himself mercilessly for not realizing how serious the situation was. [...] He thought of how impervious he had been to the man's suffering." The film was further inspired by an incident when Bergman and his father, who was a pastor, went to a church near Uppsala and the pastor there said that he was too ill to hold communion. His father spoke with him privately, and the pastor held the service with the assistance of his father. "Thus I was given the end of Winter Light and the codification of a rule I have always followed and was to follow from then on: irrespective of everything, you will hold your communion. It is important to the churchgoer, but even more important to you." Bergman noted that initially he encountered opposition to the project, with its austere subject matter, at Svensk Filmindustri. However, the head of production at the studio, Carl Anders Dymling, was gravely ill and Bergman used the resulting leadership crisis as an opportunity to push the project through.
The film represented a major stylistic breakthrough for both Bergman and his director of photography, Sven Nykvist, thanks to its abandonment of conventional studio lighting techniques. To create the visual style they wanted, they visited a number of churches to study how light changed throughout the day. In the Sjöman documentary Nykvist explained, "Every ten minutes I would take a snapshot to see how the light was changing, and these proved very useful. I glued them into the script, and I'd look at them from time to time while filming." He added, "This time we tried to achieve a totally shadowless image, and that proved to be much more difficult than using conventional filming techniques. We didn't achieve it just with lights. We had to build special reflectors and large screens and work with waxed paper sheets and indirect lighting. And it was very difficult to light churches with indirect lighting." Even so, they ultimately decided that the interior of the church at Skattungbyn was not suitable because the light was, paradoxically, too visually striking for what they wanted. Instead the film's production designer, P. A. Lundgren, built a replica of the church interior, including the full ceiling, in the Råsunda film studios. Besides adding to the sense of realism, the low ceiling on the set helped them avoid the temptation to resort to conventional studio lighting. In a similar vein, the crew filmed outdoors "only when it was overcast or foggy," as Bergman later noted. "Not one shot was taken in direct sunlight."
While Bergman ordinarily shot his films during the summer, this film began production in October 1961 and did not finish shooting until January 1962. Bergman recalled, "The shooting was extremely demanding, and dragged on for fifty-six days. It was one of the longest schedules I've ever had, and one of the shortest films I've ever made." According to the Ingmar Bergman Foundation website, during the production the crew jokingly referred to the film as "Snotty John and the Lip Balm." The lead actor, Gunnar Björnstrand, was one of Bergman's favorite actors but had specialized mainly in comic roles before this. Bergman commented, "Gunnar found it painful to portray a person who was unsympathetic to such a degree. His inner turmoil became so acute that he had trouble remembering his lines, a problem that never happened before. Furthermore, he had health problems, and for his sake we worked relatively short day shifts." Although the lead actress Ingrid Thulin was attractive and had even appeared in a Hollywood film -Vincente Minnelli's The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962)--for her role as Märta the schoolteacher, she wore dowdy clothing and took on a deliberately plain appearance. One of film's tour-de-force moments is the lengthy close-up of Thulin as she faces the camera directly for several minutes, without blinking, and speaks the text of her character Märta's letter to Tomas.
Never one of Bergman's more popular films, Winter Light nonetheless earned recognition for its rigor and seriousness of purpose. Writing for the New York Times, Bosley Crowther called it a "thoughtful, engrossing, shocking film" and praised both its "brilliant poetic images" and its acting, though he also called it a "dour and chilly picture" and interpreted it as a bleak commentary on Christianity in general. Margaret Harford, a reviewer at the Los Angeles Times, called it "one of his most profound and mature films, not arty or avant-garde but full of reverence and inquiry." The film was not as well received in Sweden, with its largely secular filmgoing audience; in a 1966 interview with Annika Holm for the Swedish magazine Dagens Nyheter, Bergmain stated, "I think that the negative response to Winter Light was the first blow. I was very close to that film, but it was maligned and audiences turned away from it." He claimed that even his wife Käbi Laretei said to him, "It's a masterpiece, but it's a dreary masterpiece." Years later, Bergman considered it one of his best films. In a 1971 interview with John Simon, he stated, "I think I have made just once picture that I really like, and that is Winter Light. That is my only picture about which I feel that I have started here and ended there and that everything along the way has obeyed me. Everything is exactly as I wanted to have it, in every second of this picture. I couldn't make this picture today; it's impossible; but I saw it a few weeks ago together with a friend and I was very satisfied."
Direction and Script: Ingmar Bergman
Director of Photography: Sven Nykvist
Production Manager: Lars Owe-Carlberg
Film Editor: Ulla Ryghe
Sets: P. A. Lundgren
Principal Cast: Gunnar Björnstrand (Tomas Ericsson); Ingrid Thulin (Märta Lundberg); Gunnel Lindblom (Karin Persson); Max von Sydow (Jonas Persson); Allan Edwall (Algot Frövik); Kolbjörn Knudsen (Knut Aronsson); Olof Thunberg (Fredrik Blom); Elsa Ebbesen (Magdalena Ledfors); Eddie Axberg (Johan Strand).
Bergman, Ingmar. Images: My Life in Film. Translated by Marianne Ruuth. New York: Arcade, 1994.
Bergman, Ingmar. The Magic Lantern: An Autobiography. Translated by Joan Tate. New York: Viking, 1988.
Cowie, Peter. Ingmar Bergman: A Critical Biography. New York: Scribner, 1982.
Crowther, Bosley. "Screen: 'Winter Light' by Bergman: Tale of Country Pastor Challenges Religion." New York Times, May 14, 1963, p. 32.
Harford, Margaret. "New Film Delves Into Atomic War Terrors." Los Angeles Times, April 5, 1963, p. D19.
Shargel, Raphael, ed. Ingmar Bergman Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007.
by James Steffen