On Nykvist's Cinematography in Bergman's Winter Light
The first time I saw Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light* (1963) it was during the peak of the summer in New York City. I had just moved into my apartment, and there were no shades in the window: the sun dusted by face like so many brooms. I would awake dazed, my head baked from the glaring sun. The title remained a mystery, and the photography little more than ‘beautiful.’
When I revisited the film, however, it was during a Maine winter, and certain things about Sven Nykvist's photography became clearer. There is a tendency—especially when it snows—for time to seemingly stop. Morning and afternoon all share the same, gray light: muted, but blinding. 6AM and 4PM do not seem so different. The shift to night is sudden and equally enigmatic. There is a larger sense of stasis in winter than in summer because it is more difficult to distinguish the hours from one another.
It is this stasis, a dislocation with life and time, that affects the characters in Winter Light: they are trapped and cannot any exit, and solution to their problems. A pastor, Tomas (Gunnar Bjonstrand), confronts his waning congregation and loss of faith, both in fellow people and in religion. Jonas (Max Von Sydow) approaches the pastor with his own loss of faith, and his increasing distress over nuclear proliferation. He seeks comfort, but the pastor is too caught up in his own problems to provide sufficient guidance. Parallel to Tomas’s spiritual rejection of Jonas is his physical rejection of Marta (Ingrid Thulin), the atheistic schoolteacher in love with him.
Dispersed throughout the film are long, still shots of nature: trees, frozen ponds, snowy fields: nature under the heavy weight of snow. Bergman’s direction, then, calls particular attention to the relationship between the photographic elements of the film and the story. Contrary to Peter Cowie, who described Bergman as, “eschewing the mechanics—the magic—of the cinema,” with Winter Light, I feel Bergman is achieving something intrinsically cinematic: elements of time, movement (or lack thereof) and photography combine to create an environment filled with meaning (118). These characters are at once in a barren, open landscape, but one that is seemingly endless with no exit. With their loss of faith, the physical world is their only life, yet for them it is a trap they are unable to escape.
*According to http://www.bergmanorama.com/films/winter_light.htm, the original title Nattvardsgästerna means "The Communicants". The relationship of cinematography to the story does not change, however. The English title of the film served as a lens for examining the film, not as the metaphor itself.
Cowie, Peter. Antonioni/Bergman/Resnais: Three Monographs. Holland: International Film Guide, 1963.
Cullen Gallagher is a Brooklyn-based writer, musician, and curator whose work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Life Sentence, Moving Image Source, Bright Lights Film Journal, Beat to a Pulp, NoirCon, Crimefactory, Film Comment, The L Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Fandor, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, Hammer to Nail, Spinetingler, Between Lavas, Reverse Shot, and Guitar Review. He records instrumental music as Modern Silent Cinema and plays in the hardcore band Night Squad.