Human Solitude in Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Winter Light’

If there is an essential problem that all art must confront, it is the vast and uncrossable gulf between individual human experience. All expression is flawed in that it can never express completely, because no point of view is perfectly able to be communicated between two beings. Something must always get lost in the shuffle. All communication (and art is, at its core, communication, even if the private artist communicates only with themselves) is approximation with a goal not of internalization but of baseline comprehension. It is in this problem that we find our own inescapable loneliness, a burden that, to live, must either be embraced completely or totally ignored; when we reach out to touch others, we must do so with the knowledge or ignorance that all connection is imperfect, and that even the most complete moments of connection are simply echoes of our own perspectives, not bridges between distant islands. Art, as such, exists not so much as this nonexistent bridge as is so often claimed, but as a light shed on another being, a mountaintop high enough that from its peak one can recognize the islands of others and to see that one is not alone in their solitude. Few films in the western canon address this distance and this unspeakable loneliness with such grace and perceptiveness as Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light.

The second film in Bergman’s “God’s Silence” trilogy (a trilogy only organized as such after the fact, but all thematically unified), Winter Light focuses on Tomas, a rural Swedish pastor in the grip of overwhelming doubt and fear, and follows him through one day in his life as he attempts to navigate a world that he finds without God, without reason, and without love. When the film begins, he is about to give communion at his noon service, a sparsely attended gathering that he seems to find inexpressibly disinteresting, almost contemptible. Afterwards, he meets with the Perssons, a small family in town shaken by the father Jonas’ existential despair and inability to relate to or connect with his loved ones. He’s struck with terror and dread, apparently upon hearing that China is building a nuclear bomb. Jonas seems unwilling to talk in front of his wife, so Tomas suggests he comes back later, after taking his wife home. This foreshadows an entire film built up of conversations between parties unable and unwilling to understand one another, beings adrift in a vast darkness, unable to reach out and touch one another.

When Märta, Tomas’ former mistress (and an atheist) arrives, she seems ignorant to the clear disinterest in her that radiates from him so directly, and when she tries to talk to him, he tells her, pointlessly, of his shaken faith. He speaks about the nature of his spirituality to her, bouncing his own thoughts off of her as an echo, as a sounding board existing only to serve himself, or in the very least only usable by himself as a mirror. It’s here that he first mention’s what he has found to be God’s silence, a recurring element that speaks precisely to the essential distance, not just between people, but between humanity and the divine, a distance that not even a clergyman such as himself is able cross. This silence is a universal one, an indication of Tomas’ isolation from all things, from all other beings, and the impossible distance between him and others. Märta and Tomas speak to each other, but they never hear what the other is saying, too narrow in their viewpoints to see the heart of the matter, to build a bridge of compromised experience.

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It is here, after Märta leaves, that Tomas reads the letter she sent him, an attempt at connection that, as he reads, the viewer sees in one unbroken shot as Märta reads aloud the letter to the audience, directly confronting both them and Tomas. Here, the audience is shown to be in Tomas’ position, the fourth wall played with as the camera fixes upon her face and she tells the audience the contents of the letter, and as such the contents of her own solitude, as if the viewers are Tomas, as if she is expecting a reaction from them, some sort of moment of truth, whether it be beautiful or ugly. It is an implication of the true identity of the moviegoer, and is one of the more stunning sequences in the film, attempting to break through the cold, distant air of the film until now with a desperate plea for love, or for hate, or for simple purpose; Märta begs a god she has no faith in for a role in life, a station, a task to allow her to bear her suffering. The letter exists as a challenge to Tomas and to the audience; it asks, it grovels for some sort of reaction, as it simultaneously restrains itself from the openly emotional form of melodrama, asking always for more reaction than the film could ever allow.

When Jonas finally returns, Tomas already knows that he is suicidal, and begins talking to him in pat ways, unable to find words or ideas outside of his own being. He pauses and rambles, grasping for some piece of connection to save this man’s life, but is unable to find anything. What he thinks might comfort Jonas is, really, only Tomas talking aloud to himself, alone in his suffering and expressing the only things he can understand to express. He speaks of his time in war, discovering that the god he grew up with, a god he believed he loved, was merely an echo of his own heart, placed at a remove just to throw stones at and watch them roll back. While doing this, he treats Jonas himself as this echo god, throwing words at him that are said only for Tomas’ sake, ending in a declaration of absolute spiritual loss; it is better for no god to exist, Tomas decides, because then suffering needs no rational explanation. It is a looming epiphany he discovers while offering useless help to a desperate man, emphasizing his own terrible inability to connect with people, no matter how intensely such a bond is needed. Jonas leaves and, unsurprisingly, kills himself on the way home, a victim of this silence in a very real way- not just the silence of God, but the silence of other hearts, the silence of community as an idea and as a comfort.

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From here, the same themes are repeated: at a remove, we see Tomas pray over Jonas’ body; in Märta’s home and schoolhouse, Tomas tells her that he is tired of her loving actions, that he does not have love within him to connect or even empathize; Tomas tells Jonas’ wife Karin of his death, unable to comfort her in any genuine way as she understands and speaks quickly of her own solitude. Each scene plays Tomas against others, showing repeatedly his loneliness and his suffering at such distance. The only openness he can muster is in his cruel shunning of Märta, a monologue that is essentially non-interactive, being built entirely of his own concerns and being. It is honesty, but it is purposefully not connection, signifying the frustrated inability of Tomas (and the audience) to use their experiences to share and communicate.

In the end, Märta and Tomas arrive at another church for his 3 o’clock service, finding it completely empty except for Algot, the disabled church sexton, and later Fredrik, the drunk organ player. While Tomas prepares in the vestry, Algot speaks to him about an issue that has been pressing on him, an issue that he wished to talk to Tomas about earlier before being callously dismissed. Algot has been reading the gospels at night (on Tomas’ recommendation) when the pain from his disability keeps him up, and he asks Tomas about the emphasis on Christ’s physical suffering. In his own way, Algot says, he has experienced as much physical pain as Christ had during the passion, and Algot’s pain has been ongoing for years and years where Christ’s was short and concentrated. It is a misguided portrayal of suffering handed down from the able-bodied and sure of faith, unable to understand where the pain of the passion truly stems from. In one of Bergma’s most powerful pieces of writing, Algot says:

“I feel that he was tormented far worse on another level. Maybe I’ve got it all wrong. But just think of Gethsemane, Vicar. 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, to the last man. And he was left alone. That must have been painful, realizing that no one understands. To be abandoned when you need someone to rely on- that must be excruciatingly painful. But the worst 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. The moments before he died, Christ was seized by doubt. Surely that must have been his greatest hardship? God’s silence.”

Tomas is only able to reply with a hushed, “Yes,” as the audience sees in his face a deep recognition of Algot’s words. It is on this that the entire film rests; true suffering, the heart of the matter, lies in our immense and inescapable loneliness. When Christ knew it, he was at his most human, and it is only through knowing this solitude that the Christian messianic narrative is completed. Sent to suffer for the sins of all, Christ had to know the true pain of God’s creation, of the people he was saving, or else salvation would not be possible. Our humanity is loneliness; God’s silence resonates within us. If we are created in God’s image, it is only natural that our own inability to connect must extend to our relationship with God, because it is God that we receive this loneliness from. The despair of Christ on the cross is reflected in the way we interact with others, our loneliness at being completely singular and separated. It is no wonder that Tomas (and the audience, inextricably linked with him) experiences such overwhelming silence, as he himself cannot connect with even the people who reach out to him, desperately.

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This is the key problem of art, and of human experience. Expression is imperfect because we are alone, and no bridge can be built to cross the gap between people. Tomas, Märta, Jonas, Algot, Fredrik, Karin- they all exist alone, unable to connect, unable to express in any form but the echo in all of it selfish ways. All the relationships are approximations because there is no true synchronicity between people. Bergman forces the audience into roles that he knows it will reject because the audience must reject them, and the audience must understand this rejection as inextricable from human life. The things lost in the shuffle between perspectives is humanity’s abandonment. Every being is alone, billions of islands dotted across uncrossable waters. Yet, if life is so bleak and lonely, and Winter Light works to express this immense loneliness, why does Tomas choose to continue with the service having no one but Märta in attendance? Finding himself alone, seeing his suffering in the suffering of Christ, what drives him to continue? In a broader way, the question becomes: why do people make art, knowing that the art will never succeed completely?

Albert Camus, in his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus”, used the titular mythological figure’s plight as a metaphor for the plight of the modern philosopher (or, more accurately, the modern human being). It is known that, at its core, rationality has a complete inability to find purpose or meaning in life; all arguments end at a place that cannot be argued, a core or nugget of belief that is impossible to justify. Reduction can only take one so far; beyond a certain threshold, a place is reached that is both irreducible and unarguable (in the sense that no basis exists for it to be argued): essentially illogical. Existentialism, absurdism, nihilism- they all stem from this realization. Meaning cannot be derived without this irrational basis, and humanity finds itself as beings in a universe which shuns all attempts at deriving meaning from it. An avenue must be found that allows one to continue on. Camus suggests that the mere act of defying a meaningless universe is justification enough for action; the creation of meaning is something that must be done, as it is the only recourse available. Like Sisyphus, the defier always finds their burden, returning to it over and over again, always trying once more to overcome it while knowing that completion of the task is impossible. The effort is the satisfaction; continuing, despite complete knowledge of one’s predicament, is the only meaningful act one can do.

This is why Tomas continues. He begins the next service, broken and alone, totally aware of his crushing solitude, because it is what he must do, regardless of its concrete hopelessness. Desperately, human beings need connection, and, paradoxically, all connection is imperfect; we need community, but we can never cease being alone. As such, the only meaningful action is not ignorance of this paradox, but defiance of it; Tomas continues because one must always continue, regardless of any knowledge of the continuation’s meaninglessness. The artist makes art, knowing full well its incompleteness, knowing that it will never succeed entirely, because that is what the artist must do. It is not acting as if a different result might occur- doing the same task over and over while expecting a different outcome would be ludicrous. The important act requires knowledge of that act’s futility and rebellion against the universe that makes all such acts futile.

Winter Light, in its own way, is one such important act; knowing the loneliness of people, the uncrossable boundaries between them all, Ingmar Bergman made a movie about those same boundaries, which means he made a movie, an expression, about the futility of expression, and in doing so commiserated in solitude with the solitude of others. The film is a lonely being in a crowd, yet the being knows the crowd is entirely filled with other lonely people, and for a brief moment, its Sisyphean task stands on the brink of success. Successful movies, successful art, successful acts all exist at this vantage point, standing perpetually just before success, and on the eve, of course, of failure. For a brief moment, the act pierces recognition. The task will always begin again, but great art serves to remind one of the beauty that can be found in the futile climb.

Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light is available from the Criterion collection along with its trilogy companions The Silence and Through A Glass Darkly, as well as the documentary Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie, in the boxset A Film Trilogy by Ingmar Bergman.

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