Winter Light, Community, and Crisis

Movies Features Ingmar Bergman
Winter Light, Community, and Crisis

There’s no church in barren wastelands, or so it seems there wasn’t much of a church in the Swedish countryside. In a nearly abandoned church in the plains of Uppland, a priest fails a parishioner to an astounding degree. There is no reconciliation, only grief.

In 1963, Ingmar Bergman released Winter Light, the story of an emotionally vacant priest who’s preoccupied with death, while parishioners beg him, to varying degrees, to do his job. At its core, Winter Light is about a failing community and the lack of empathy from its citizens. Tomas Ericsson (the exceptional Gunnar Bjornstrand) is the Lutheran priest grappling with the fact that he doesn’t believe in Christ and realizing he is devoid of any compassion after losing his wife. Ericsson is cold and observant, and his true unraveling begins with the suicide of Jonas Persson (Max von Sydow). Persson is an anxiety-ridden and terrified man, citing nuclear destruction as his cause for distress. Ericsson expresses that he cannot help because he has lost his faith and feels unfit to act as a pastor. Ericsson’s failure causes Persson to accept God’s theorized disappearance and attempt to withhold fate’s power by taking his life.

While Winter Light focuses on Atomic Age apprehension, the film’s themes are as relevant as ever. As we endure another year of a deadly virus and look to our leaders for help, the cries of the people seem to go ignored. The laments of the desperate go unheard while it seems those who are ignorant of the destruction are graced with unwavering faith. During the beginning of the pandemic, we saw working people trying to band together and assist each other in meaningful ways, while some celebrities and other members of the upper crust took to social media to insist that everyone was in this together. There was a massive disconnect between communities, highlighting the privileges of those who could afford to escape reality, or even question it.

Throughout Winter Light, there’s an idea that reflects the teaching of the Christian tradition: Earthly suffering results in a rewarded afterlife; pain and anguish at the universe’s hands are godly—not just one of the unavoidable consequences of existence. Persson’s cynicism is relatable as he questions the understanding of the human condition. He is our darkest thoughts personified. There is a brief scene in which Ericsson and Persson discuss suffering, and how other religions define suffering, and what must be practiced in order to be freed from it. The monologue mentions suffering aiding in belief and strengthening the afflicted. Father Ericsson’s parishes share the same indifferent guidance from the priest, creating a union of pain.

Over the last year or so, we have consistently had to understand sudden extinction. With the climate crisis worsening by the day, the seemingly never-ending pandemic and the blood-siphoning machine of capitalism, there is unrest and unease among young people. With the recent surge in the Omicron variant of COVID-19, those on their way to college are suffering again as they struggle to study. The insurmountable pressure applied by the education system, society and the student loan crisis is crippling their quality of life. Unfortunately, the CDC guidelines for managing the variant aren’t as helpful as most would prefer, with the suggestions now evolving into isolation periods of five days.

This sudden change in guidelines has many upset because it puts people at risk. With sick workers deciding if they should isolate without pay, or continue working, we are entering a late-stage capitalism battle royale. The lack of leadership, allowing managers to make the decisions about the physical well-being of workers, is a direct consequence of trying to maintain a wealthy state that prioritizes the interest of CEOs—not just with the ongoing pandemic, but with how we address climate change. While working people try to personally manage the pandemic, they are also being bombarded with the inevitability of climate change and the ramifications of the mistakes made.

A recent Netflix film satirized the political dysfunction around climate change. Climate anxiety is one of the latest stressors of modern life that impedes the mental wellbeing of youth. A recent study found that 75% of young people feel anxious about climate change (59% very or extremely worried, 84% at least moderately worried). Over 50% felt sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless and guilty. Over 45% said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life and functioning, and many reported a high number of negative thoughts about climate change. Respondents rated the governmental response negatively and reported greater feelings of betrayal than of reassurance.

Observing the lack of infrastructure needed to maintain a healthy society, lack of climate change policy and the ever-fluctuating economy where the cost of living keeps rising, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. The reality of the situation is entirely horrific, and it seems that on some occasions the wellness of the youth is secondary to “progress.”

A year of isolation. Three years of “15 days to flatten the curve,” bleaching groceries and scrubbing our skin raw to avoid endangering ourselves and others, trying to keep up with the medical advice and new episodes of primetime television to distract from the ongoing disasters. It’s hard to understand the callousness extended to us. There is an exhaustion that can’t be slept off or over-caffeinated away.

“My God, why have you forsaken me?”

The line is repeated throughout Winter Light, quoting Christ’s last words on the cross.

Failure of the father is the metaphor consistently threaded into the film’s fabric—and those left in the miscalculated wake of neglect are forced to face the ramifications of an emotionally absent priest. With an omnipresent father who never reveals himself or steps in, how can one be sure of his existence, and how can one forgive such an absent father?

Winter Light focuses on how trauma can cause us to use ignorance as a healing practice. Algot, a man whose body has suffered at the hands of capitalism after working on the railroad, says that Christ’s most significant pain was not the four hours of torture, as expressed in the gospels. Instead, the betrayal of his disciples and father, who turned from him and left him to die alone, was the most significant torture of all.

Now, people are reconciling with being forsaken and denied by the leaders who are supposed to guide us and help us create an environment in which we can all safely thrive. Personal accountability can only go so far. For example, one who is protecting themselves from the virus, and trying to reduce their carbon footprint, cannot be held liable for mass destruction when there is a small list documenting the companies that directly contribute to the destruction of the planet. Individual power is nothing in comparison to multibillion-dollar companies that constantly exploit the people.

This helplessness in the face of massive, institutional power is also present throughout Winter Light. Marta, Ericsson’s lover, writes a letter where she expresses her anger and confusion with the world around her, and begs Ericsson for some clarity as to why he doesn’t love her:

“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 that I can bear my pain without complaint. I’m strong. You made me so very strong in both body and soul. But you never gave me a task worthy of my strength. Give my life meaning and I’ll be your obedient slave.”

Ericsson chastises Marta for her behavior later in the film, for various reasons. However, the pair suffer in such consuming ways that they don’t recognize each other as fully realized humans, but rather as objects to possess and reject. As the film ends, we see Ericsson host service in the church, even though the only parishioners left are the staff and Marta. The dual parishes have been tragically condemned. The decision to continue the service while only atheists attend acts as the perfect metaphor for the inescapable plagues of the human condition.

The communities of Winter Light live and die, clinging to each other and their defeated priest for support—an exaggeration of the communal pain that leads people to question themselves and the reality of the situation. There is an abstract idea that pain endured equates to worth. One cannot be whole until one has suffered greatly. As society progresses and advocates for a focus on mental and emotional wellness, we are abandoning the idea that suffering makes humanity whole—something we observe in the communication between Ericsson’s parishioners, who are simply trying to survive. Ericsson’s abandonment creates the thread that binds the rest of the congregation to each other, an ever-present underlying traumatic bond that connects the characters.

In these distressing times, we bond with each other, comparing wounds and how we’ve adjusted to the “new normal.” Discussing and managing pain has become social currency, as we address the unifying horror that reunited us as a society. In this way, we are as intimately connected as long-term partners. Survival, at this point, is dependent, more than ever, on being able to embrace each other. Human connection is the most blessed sacrament of all; to love and be loved in return is the truest expression of humanity, and these days can’t be taken for granted.

Aging Goth and Detroit native Buhalis covers music, film, and culture, the more obscure, the better! A recent contributor to Paste, Buhalis, can be found writing in a dark Victorian mansion and has been known to only come out at night! You can follow Buhalis’ adventures on social media and Patreon.

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