You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

A Cold Season

Ingmar Berman's 'Winter Light.'

Ingmar Bergman's new film Winter Light is relatively short (80 minutes), but then none of his films is long. Most of them run 90 minutes or so. Like Through a Glass Darkly, the new one is a "chamber" work: i.e., he uses relatively few actors and settings. The time-span of the story is shorter than in the last film. There is no score; the only music occurs in church services.

It takes place on' one wintry Sunday in a country clergyman's life, between matins and vespers. The subject is another aspect of the subject of the last film, a crisis in faith. The pastor, a widower, is having an affair with a spinster schoolteacher who loves him and wants to marry him but whom he does not love. One of his parishioners, a fisherman with three children and a pregnant wife, is in a state of depression, deepened by the immanence in the world of nuclear-bomb threats. Brought by his wife, the fisherman talks to the pastor after the morning service. The pastor's own spiritual bankruptcy is glaringly revealed in their talk. After the fisherman leaves, there is an agonized dialogue between the pastor and the teacher; then word comes that the fisherman has killed himself. There is a visit to the death scene (by a stream); another tormented exchange between the teacher and the pastor in her schoolroom; a visit to the new widow to tell her the bad news; then on to another church at twilight, where the pastor slips back almost desperately into clerical routine.

The theme, again, is how, what, whether to believe. The protagonist is again middle-aged (played by the same Gunnar Bjornstrand who was the novelist in the last film. There is even a reference to the "spider God" which reminds us of the appearance of the insect during the daughter's hallucination in that film). Bereavement of his beloved wife, abrasion by the teacher's attentions, bewilderment by his incompetence in faith have put the pastor in a state of crisis. And the crisis is all the worse because it is a continuing one; nothing changes. His confession of spiritual vacancy does not alter his priesthood; he continues. Bergman seems to be saying that life was once lived in expectation of answers, now it is lived in continuity of questions. Crisis no longer leads to resolution.

For him the special agony is the tearing of the bond between God and man. Unlike Antonioni, whose work also concentrates on this matter, he does not believe that man invented God and must now be manly enough to admit it and to destroy him. Bergman is concerned to find a way of living with--at the very least--the memory of God. His films grow more spare. Economy of means in art is, almost always, a virtue, but in these last two pictures, the spareness seems connected with a feeling that a script has been filmed, rather than that it is a film per se. The distinction is between a story that has been worked out on paper, then illustrated on film; and a story that has merely been planned on paper for fulfillment on film. Bergman is such a master director that he can make these works seem like films. In Through A Glass Darkly the sheer pictures were exquisite and moving; in this film effects like the bravura of the letter scene are telling. (Alone, the pastor starts to read a letter from the teacher. We cut to a close-up of her face and, almost without a break, the camera holds on her for several minutes while she simply speaks the long letter for us.)

But here, as in the last film, the basic conception, the very compactness, have an unintended result. It would be no surprise to read that it had been adapted from a short story or novella; its atmosphere and ambition are literary. The definition of "cinematic" is not, of course, absolute, and it is men like Bergman who have the responsibility to keep re-defining it. But Winter Light reduces, in essence, to listening for verbal revelations, for explorations of self in words. This is doubly disadvantageous in a sub-titled film (or a dubbed one), but it cannot be prime cinema even for Swedes. The crucial matters have not been much externalized, do not depend much on anything we can see, in encounter of person and person, person and place, even (as in Wild Strawberries) place and place. There seems no organic reason why it had to be a film.

There is another weakness along with this, possibly underlying it. First, let us note that we never doubt the existence of his people. From the start, even though the first minutes are a communion service, he manages to convey personalities and individuals. But after we have noted the reality of the pastor and the teacher, the quiet, freezing helplessness of the fisherman, the film depends on the penetration in us of the pastor's arrows of doubt. Beneath the intelligence of the film's execution, the spiritual problem seems merely slated, merely recognizable. The arrows do not pierce. We understand well enough. "Oh, yes, that trouble." But it has not been vitalized and freshened to hurt us as it ought to. The tangential matters of the teacher's hopeless love and the fisherman's despair, which are supposed to reflect on the central problem, are more interesting in themselves. (Here, too, why does the suicide affect the pastor and the teacher so slightly?

The pastor's emptiness was the last barren place the fisherman touched, and he knows it, but he looks down calmly at the fisherman's body. And why the teacher's coolness about it? If Bergman means their apathy to be meaningful, the meaning is not drawn.)

Bjornstrand, Ingrid Thulin as the teacher. Max von Sydow as the fisherman, could not be bettered. They give human gravity to an almost abstract exercise in God-famished theology. I hope that in his next picture Bergman will use them and others of his "company" and his wonderful fluency in a work that does more than re-state a familiar problem as problem: that dramatizes it, even if it is familiar, and gives it life and insistence as film.

The New Yorker Theater in Manhattan, besides its interesting bills of revivals, has imported some worthy films that have been neglected in this country. Antonioni's Le Amiche was one such. Their latest importation is Kurosawa's two-and-three-quarter hour version of Dostoevsky's The Idiot. I was grateful for the chance to see it, but my gratitude diminished as time wore on. Masayuki Mori and Toshiro Mifune play well as the hero and his friend in this contemporary transposition, but it is difficult to believe that this film was made in 1951, after Rashomon, just before Ikiru. It displays almost none of the special powers and style that Kurosawa had developed by that time.

Richard S. Fuller of Philadelphia writes that Eclipse, as now being shown in New York, has been cut since I reviewed it. A call to the distributor brought the ready reply that this was true: three minutes have been taken out (half of it from the end) because "people were bored." The immediate reaction is outrage, yet on what ground does one stand in this outrage? Cutting of films after review is commonplace, especially in subsequent runs after the first-run. But the valid criterion is not that it is done after the review but after the artist has finished with it, even if this is before review. And that would apply, not only to films, but to books, which are often cut when translated, operas which are cut and transposed, and plays. (Does Kenneth Tynan's enthusiastic review of Frisch's Andorra, as he saw it in Berlin, apply to the play as adapted for Broadway?) I deplore the Eclipse cuts with all vigor, but I know that anyone's protest about these practices in general is useless. Nor can I think of any satisfactory labeling plan to warn the public. Ground rules would have to cover cuts by distributors, cuts by censors, additions made by producers after directors have finished, and several other variations. We simply have to console ourselves with the fact that, in the realm of performing arts, the film--as against theater, opera, ballet--is much the securest against tampering and, I suppose, be reluctantly grateful for that.

Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic.

By Stanely Kauffmann