Winter Light (Nattvardsgästerna)

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman
Stars: Ingrid Thulin (Märta Lundberg), Gunnar Björnstrand (Tomas Ericsson), 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)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1962
Country: Sweden
Winter Light Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Winter Light

Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light (Nattvardsgästerna) is a difficult and dour film, perhaps the most challenging the great Swedish filmmaker ever made. The second of three “chamber films” that made up a loose trilogy in the early 1960s, Winter Light was a sort of “corrective” to the ending of his previous film, Through a Glass Darkly (1961), which dramatized the tensions within a group of family members, one of whom was sliding into schizophrenia. Like Winter Light, Through a Glass Darkly is an emotionally devastating film, although Bergman chose to end it with a relatively weak conclusion in which one character asserts to another that “we can’t know whether love proves God’s existence or whether love is itself God.” The film was, in Bergman’s words, “a desperate attempt to present a simple philosophy: God is love and love is God. A person surrounded by love is surrounded by God,” which is best embodied in the final monologue. Bergman later recanted this philosophy and, to a large extent, the film itself, writing in his autobiography that it is a “falsehood” reflective of his own spiritual struggles.

To counter that “falsehood,” Bergman concocted Winter Light, which takes place over an afternoon and dramatizes the collapsing faith of a small-town pastor named Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Björnstrand). Tomas, who is suffering from a cold and therefore appears frail and sickly, leads a small, dwindling congregation, and the lack of spiritual warmth is reflected in the icy winter outside, whose grim, gray light gives the film its title. Among the small gathering at his noon service are Märta (Ingrid Thulin), Tomas’s former mistress, and a married couple, Jonas and Karin Persson (Max von Sydow and Gunnel Lindblom). Jonas is in the throes of a deep depression, which has been worsened by his learning that China has developed an atomic bomb, and Tomas’s attempts to help him ultimately betray his own faltering faith, which has been slowly chipped away over the years by his witnessing atrocities during the Spanish Civil War and the loss of his wife, the only woman he claims he has ever loved. The narrative covers only three hours of Tomas’s life, but Bergman packs it with revelations, confrontations, and moments of deep spiritual gravity that attest to the fundamental challenge of reconciling the flawed nature of human existence with the divinity and grace of God—a topic that was frequently taken up by the great French filmmaker Robert Bresson, albeit with a significantly different conclusion than Bergman reaches here (whereas Bresson ultimately finds grace in the transcendence of death and the existence of an afterlife, Bergman finds only emptiness).

Winter Light is a film of great spiritual and philosophical weight, and it is not to be taken lightly. It is also an aesthetically fascinating film, particularly because it goes against the grain of Bergman’s previous work, which was often rigorously beautiful. Working again with cinematographer Sven Nykvist, Bergman captures the winter light of the title in a way that makes every frame feel cold to the bone; you can feel the chill in the air, which emphasizes the lack of connection among the characters. It is an often rough-looking film, almost documentary-like at times, although Bergman also sprinkles in beautiful, if austere compositions. He also takes a few genuine risks, such as the sequence in which Tomas reads a lengthy letter from Märta that details his various failures in their relationship. Rather than simply using voice-over, Bergman dramatizes the letter by having Ingrid Thulin deliver it directly to the viewer in a single, unbroken take. Thulin’s performance is so intense, so searing, so achingly real that she turns the sequence into the film’s high point, a true evocation of human longing, misery, and masochism.

Throughout Winter Light Bergman is evoking some of the deepest and most profound questions facing anyone who is willing to look beyond the material world into the great mystery of what lies beyond, but what he failed to do was inject any sense of human warmth—or even the possibility of it. Almost all of Bergman’s other existential dramas (I haven’t seen all of them, but I have seen most of them) find some room for compassion, decency, and human connection. Winter Light, on the other hand, is almost entirely void of those facets of humanity, leaving us only with desperation, dissolution, despair, and cruelty. As Bergman himself wrote in Images: My Life on Film, “I have always tried to make my films appealing in some way to my audience. But I was not so stupid as to believe that Winter Light would be a public favorite”—a deliberate understatement if ever there were one. As Bergman recognized, Tomas’s dilemma is not just religious: “The pastor is dying emotionally. He exists beyond love, actually beyond all human relations,” which makes him an extremely difficult character to connect with or empathize with. But, it goes beyond that because everyone in the film is dead—literally or figuratively—which gives us little to grasp emotionally, spiritually, or psychologically. Winter Light feels too much like it is wallowing in its despair, rather than grappling with it, which is what Bergman’s best films do.

Winter Light Blu-ray
Three Film by Ingmar BergmanWinter Light is available as part of The Criterion Collection’s “A Film Trilogy by Ingmar Bergman” boxset, which also includes Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and The Silence (1963).
Aspect Ratio1.37:1 (all three films)
  • Swedish Linear PCM 1.0 monaural (all three films)
  • English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural (all three films)
  • Subtitles English
    SupplementsThrough a Glass Darkly
  • Introduction to the film by director Ingmar Bergman, recorded in 2003
  • Interview from 2003 with film scholar Peter Cowie
  • Interview from 2012 with actor Harriet Andersson
  • Audio interview from 1962 with actor Gunnar Björnstrand
  • Illustrated audio interview with cinematographer Sven Nykvist, recorded in 1981
  • Original U.S. theatrical trailer
  • Winter Light
  • Introduction to the film by director Ingmar Bergman, recorded in 2003
  • Interview from 2003 with film scholar Peter Cowie
  • Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie, a five-part documentary by Vilgot Sjöman made for Swedish television during the production of Winter Light
  • Original U.S. theatrical trailer
  • The Silence
  • Introduction to the film by director Ingmar Bergman, recorded in 2003
  • Interview from 2003 with film scholar Peter Cowie
  • Poster gallery for the films of the trilogy
  • Original U.S. theatrical trailer
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJune 4, 2019

    Each of the films in Bergman’s trilogy has been restored and given a new 2K transfer by the Swedish Film Institute. Through a Glass Darkly and The Silence were transferred from 35mm interpositives, while Winter Light was transferred from the original 35mm camera negative. All three films look appreciably better than the DVDs Criterion released back in 2003, with sharper detail, better contrast, and less visible damage and wear. Winter Light is probably the most improved of the three, as it gains substantially in clarity and detail without losing the slightly rough quality that Bergman and Nykvist sought to achieve. All three films remain beautifully filmlike in motion, with clear and present grain that adds texture and depth to the images. All the films come with two soundtracks: the original Swedish language track and an optional English-language dub. The English dubs are intriguing from a historical perspective, attesting to Bergman’s popularity and eminence in English-speaking countries in the early 1960s, but the Swedish tracks are clearly superior. The liner notes don’t list the transfer materials, but all three soundtracks sound clear and pleasant in their original monaural mixes. Composed mostly of dialogue and atmosphere, they are obviously limited in range, but work well for the films.

    In terms of supplements, Criterion has ported over all the material that was originally included in the 2003 DVD boxset. This includes short interviews about the significance of each film with film scholar and historian Peter Cowie (author of Ingmar Bergman: A Critical Biography), the original U.S. theatrical trailers and poster galleries for each film, and the 146-minute five-part documentary Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie, in which director Vilgot Sjöman chronicled the production of Winter Light (this was originally included on its own disc in the DVD box as spine #212, but here it is included on the Winter Light Blu-ray). In additional to that material, Criterion has added introductions to each film in which Bergman is briefly interviewed in his screening room on Fåro by filmmaker Marie Nyeröd (these were recorded in 2003 to precede the airings of his films on Swedish TV, and they have appeared on many Criterion releases of his other films); a 2012 interview with actor Harriet Andersson that was filmed at the Midnight Sun Film Festival in Sodankylä, Finland; and archival audio interviews, one with cinematographer Sven Nykvist that was recorded in February 1981 and one with actor Gunnar Bjornstrand that was recorded in 1962 at the Berlin Film Festival.

    Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (2.5)

    James Kendrick

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