Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

Winter Light (1963)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

Winter Light (1963, Swe.) (aka Nattvardsgästerna)

In director Ingmar Bergman's bleak and stark middle film in his so-called "Absence of God" trilogy, including Through a Glass Darkly (1961, Swe.) (aka Såsom i en spegel) and The Silence (1963, Swe.) (aka Tystnaden) - an exploration and questioning of religious faith and the problem of God's silence:

  • the opening ritualistic scene in a small-town Lutheran church in Mittsunda, Sweden during a soulless, wintry gray, mid-day Sunday service conducted by the grim, widowed pastor Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Bjornstrand); the poorly-attended Holy Communion service had only a total of five participants to receive the sacraments, including the pastor's own romantic admirer and ex-mistress - eczema-afflicted spinster and substitute school teacher Marta Lundberg (Ingrid Thulin), the troubled, suicidal apocalypse-fearing fisherman Jonas Persson (Max von Sydow) and his vulnerable, concerned pregnant wife Karin (Gunnel Lindblom), the pastor's devout hunchbacked sexton Algot Frövik (Allan Edwall), the church's clock-watching, impatient organist Fredrik Blom (Olof Thunberg), and a few others
  • the short scene, following the service, of disbelieving, cold, grim, faithless and empty-souled, still-grieving pastor Tomas, whose wife died four years earlier, not able to comfort and dissuade the paranoid fears and dread of one of his parishioners - the suicidal Jonas, who believed there would be a nuclear holocaust caused by an atom bomb set off by Chinese Communists; he told the couple: "It's so overwhelming, and God seems so very remote...I feel so helpless. I don't know what to say. I understand your anguish, but life must go on..."
  • the visually-stark depiction of the anguished, tested, detached and passionless pastor's crisis of faith, symbolically presented when he looked up at the altar's sculpture of the Crucifixion and thought to himself: "What a ridiculous image"
  • the scene of the oft-rejected, unstable Marta attempting to comfort the sickly, unloving pastor, and asking if he had read the letter she had recently written to him - it had arrived the day before; she spoke about her day and unrequited love for him: "Another Sunday in the vale of tears...You should marry me...Then I wouldn't have to leave this place...You can't marry me because you don't love me"; she also affirmed her atheistic beliefs to him: "God has never spoken because God doesn't exist. It's as simple as that"
  • after she left, the intense, lengthy letter-reading scene when Tomas read Marta's letter outloud to himself; the scene included a single static close-up shot of her face as the letter was read, implying how cruelly she had been treated by Tomas - mostly for her skin rash affliction: ("We find it difficult to talk to each other. We're both rather shy, and I tend to retreat into sarcasm. That's why I'm writing. I have something important to say. Do you remember last summer, when that awful rash broke out on my hands? One evening, we were in church arranging flowers on the altar, preparing for a confirmation. Do you recall what bad shape I was in? My hands all bandaged, and itching so much I couldn't sleep? The skin had flaked off, and my palms were like open sores. We busied ourselves with daisies and cornflowers, or whatever they were, and I was feeling irritable. Suddenly, I got mad at you and challenged you angrily, asking if you actually believed in the power of prayer. You replied that you did. In a nasty tone, I asked if you had prayed for my hands, but it hadn't occurred to you to do so. I melodramatically demanded that you do it then and there. Oddly enough, you agreed. Your compliance enraged me, and I tore off the bandages. You remember the rest. The sight of those open sores affected you greatly. You couldn't pray. The entire situation disgusted you. I came to understand you later, but you never understood me. We had lived together for some time at that point. Almost two years, which at least represented some capital in the face of our emotional poverty. Our caresses, and our clumsy attempts to evade the lack of love between us. When the rash spread to my forehead and scalp, I soon noticed how you avoided me. You found me repugnant though you tried to spare my feelings. Then the rash spread to my hands and feet. And our relationship ended. That came as a shock to me. I had to face the fact that we didn't love each other. There was no way to hide from that fact or turn a blind eye to it. Tomas, I have never believed in your faith, mainly because I've never been tortured by religious tribulations. My non-Christian family was characterized by warmth, togetherness and joy. God and Jesus existed only as vague notions. To me, your faith seems obscure and neurotic, somehow cruelly overwrought with emotion, primitive. One thing in particular I've never been able to fathom: your peculiar indifference to Jesus Christ. And now I'm going to tell you about answered prayers. Laugh if you feel like it. Personally, I don't believe the two are connected. Life is messy enough without taking the supernatural into account. You were going to pray for my weeping hands, but the rash left you dumbstruck with repulsion, something you later denied. I went beserk and tried to provoke you (she tore off her bandages and prayed: 'God, why have you created me so eternally dissatisfied, so frightened, so bitter? Why must I realize how wretched I am? Why must I suffer so hellishly for my insignificance? If there is a purpose to my suffering, then tell me so I can bear my pain without complaint. I'm strong. You made me so very strong in both body and soul, but you never give me a task worthy of my strength. Give my life meaning and I'll be your obedient slave.' This autumn, I realized that my prayers had been answered. I prayed for clarity of mind and I got it. I realized that I love you. I prayed for a task to apply my strength to, and I received one. That task is you. This is what the thoughts of a schoolmarm might run to when the phone refuses to ring, when it's dark and lonely. What I lack entirely is the capacity to show you my love. I haven't a clue how to do that. I've been so miserable, I've even considered praying some more. But I still have a shred of self-respect left in spite of it all. My dearest Tomas - this turned out to be a long letter, but now I've put down in writing what I never dared say when you were in my arms. I love you. And I live for you. Take me and use me. Beneath all my false pride and independent airs, I have only one wish: to be allowed to live for someone else. It's so terribly difficult. When I think about it, I can't see how I will be able to pull it off. Maybe it's all just a mistake. Tell me I'm not wrong, darling")
  • the second private session shortly later between Tomas and Jonas in the afternoon, when the pastor asked only a few superficial questions, and then spoke mostly about his own confusions, spiritual failures and despair, and growing disbelief in God, especially after his wife's death: ("I'm no good as a clergyman. I put my faith in an improbable and private image of a fatherly God, one who loved mankind, of course, but me most of all. Do you see, Jonas, what a monstrous mistake I made? An ignorant, spoiled, and anxious wretch makes a rotten clergyman. Picture my prayers to an echo-God who gave benign answers and reassuring blessings. Every time I confronted God with the realities I witnessed, he turned into something ugly and revolting. A spider-God, a monster...If there is no God, would it really make any difference? Life would become understandable. What a relief. And thus death would be a snuffing out of life. The dissolution of body and soul...There is no creator, no sustainer of life. No design"); even more depressed and uncomfortable by the discussion, Jonas left without any reassurances, and subsequently, it was reported that he had driven to the nearby river and shot himself in the head with his rifle
  • the scene of Tomas' cruel, tough, stern, berating and pitiless criticisms of the self-deprecating Marta to her face, triggered when she said to him in her apartment/schoolhouse building: "You sound so unfriendly. Sometimes you sound as if you hated me" - he bitterly described everything he detested about her: the humiliating gossip generated by their relationship, the damage to his reputation, her pitiful pleadings, her incessant talking, hysterical crying and her constant attention to him, and most importantly: "The real reason is that I don't want you...I'm tired of your loving care, your fussing, your good advice...I'm fed up with your shortsightedness, your clumsy hands, your anxiousness, your timid displays of affection. You force me to occupy myself with your physical condition...I'm sick and tired of it all, of everything to do with you"; he also said she was an ugly parody and mimic of his deceased wife - the only woman he had ever loved; he ended the conversation by grabbing her: "Can't you be quiet? Can't you leave me alone? Can't you just shut up?!"
  • in the last major scene, the thoughtful and enlightened conversation of the crippled, handicapped church sexton with Pastor Tomas about the meaning of the Passion and Christ's suffering when he was abandoned on the Cross - "Wouldn't you say the focus on his suffering is all wrong?...This emphasis on physical pain. It couldn't have been all that bad. It may sound presumptuous of me - but in my humble way, I've suffered as much physical pain as Jesus. And his torments were rather brief. Lasting some four hours, I gather? I feel that he was tormented far worse on another level. Maybe I've got it all wrong, but just think of Gethsemane, Pastor. Christ's disciples fell asleep. They hadn't understood the meaning of the Last Supper, or anything. And when the servants of the law appeared, they ran away. And Peter denied him. Christ had known his disciples for three years. They'd lived together day in and day out, but they never grasped what he meant. They abandoned him, down to the last man. He was left all alone. That must have been painful. To realize that no one understands. To be abandoned when you need someone to rely on. That must be excruciatingly painful. But the worse was yet to come. When Jesus was nailed to the cross - and hung there in torment - he cried out - 'God, my God! Why hast thou forsaken me?' He cried out as loud as he could. He thought that his heavenly father had abandoned him. He believed everything he'd ever preached was a lie. In the moments before he died, Christ was seized by doubt. Surely that must have been his greatest hardship? God's silence"; Tomas - who had been listening, simply answered in agreement: "Yes, yes"
  • Tomas' final words spoken from the Frostnas church altar toward a silent and empty church - delivered during another perfunctory and meaningless vespers service that afternoon with no outside attendees except Marta: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts. The whole earth is full of His glory"


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