2018 Film Essays

Vague Visages Is FilmStruck: Marshall Shaffer on Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Silence of God’ Trilogy

Commonly referred to as either the “Silence of God” or “God and Man” trilogy, Ingmar Bergman’s triptych of Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1963) and The Silence (1963) showcases the diversity and intellectual rigor with which the Swedish director probed the relationship between the divine and the human. It’s an unlikely bunch, and apparently Bergman even retracted that the films bore such an explicit connection later in his career. But they are still worth considering in tandem. Unlike such spiritually-minded directors such as Martin Scorsese, whose primary interest lies in the institutions of faith and how they loom so large that their adherents internalize their values, or Terrence Malick, who depicts the ways humans have fallen out of grace, Bergman analyzes Christianity from several different angles. The result is a more holistic understanding and reckoning with an artist’s views on God and religion.

God the Father: Through a Glass Darkly

Through a Glass Darkly approaches humanity’s relationship with God through a metaphorical relationship between father and child. The patriarch is Gunnar Björnstrand’s David, a writer whose quest of creation has blinded him to the immediate needs of his children. This leads to the primary conflict of the film, David’s indifference to the pain of his daughter Karin (Harriet Andersson) that borders on outright ignorance. She’s fresh from an asylum stay for treatment of her schizophrenia and looking for any kind of love or affection to which she can attach herself.

A running theme throughout the film is this disconnect between the man in power and those who look up to him for some semblance of guidance or moral authority. David is more interested in the people around him as characters in a drama unfolding before him than he is in their actual wellbeing. The relationship calls to mind a key struggle in the Christian faith, acknowledging the presence and existence of God while feeling that He remains blind or unmoved to pleas for intervention on behalf of justice. In mainstream Christian thought, God the Father is widely recognized as the first person in the Holy Trinity, making His rejection sting all the more.

David ultimately comes to the conclusion, with help from Karin’s husband Martin (Bergman stalwart Max von Sydow), that his daughter’s illness is “beyond remedy.” It’s a position recalling an Old Testament deity’s attitude towards humanity — the disease of sin has left them unable to reconcile with God. When Adam and Eve chose to eat the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, God turned His back on them yet still loved them and desired to bring them back into the fold. This action is mirrored in David’s choice to abandon Karin and his son Minus (Lars Passgård) in their time of need following her breakdown. It was at first a choice to focus on his novel, but he claims that it ultimately rediscovered his love for them in that empty void of compassion that grew.

The film ends bleakly with Karin unable to avoid succumbing to her condition and getting carted back to a psychiatric institution. Before leaving, she has a chance to wax poetic about her breakdown, describing God as an attacking spider with “cold, calm eyes.” It’s in line with the view of a vengeful God meting out punishment rather than taking mercy on the suffering. The collapse is sufficiently disturbing enough to Minus that he questions the existence of any higher power to David. Asked by his son to prove the existence of God, he offers simply the existence of love — uncertain as to whether it is God or merely His manifestation in the world. David remains hopeful that God and love surrounds Karin in her darkest hour. It’s not the firmest rung on which to hang one’s hopes, but in the absence of concrete proof for Bergman and other Christians, it’s the closest thing available to reassurance amidst the grimness of the universe.

God the Son: Winter Light

Winter Light, the trilogy’s chapter most overtly dealing in questions of piety and religiosity, zeroes in on Christianity in practice through the experience of small-town priest Tomas Ericsson (Björnstrand again). Bergman uses his short 80-minute runtime to examine the prevalence of suffering in the Christian faith. More mainline denominations such as Bergman’s own Lutheranism tend to fixate on the tormenting of Jesus upon the cross, memorializing it in crucifixes spread throughout their houses of worship. Exploring the many dimensions of the iconography could fill its own article, but for Christians, this figure both centralizes earthly suffering in the practice of faith while also serving as a reminder that Jesus took on the burden of that punishment for humans in order to redeem us in the eyes of God.

Tomas is suffering, both emotionally and physically (Bergman cleverly strikes him with a head cold he can’t quite surmount). He can count the number of people attending his church services on one hand. His parishioners lack any enthusiasm or interest in the questions of faith. One man in the pews, Max Von Sydow’s Jonas Persson, has grown so nihilistic that his wife brings him in for counseling with Tomas. Jonas suffers from an existential crisis of faith triggered by the idea of China becoming a nuclear-armed nation.

Tomas later provides more direct counseling, confessing that he himself has lost faith after enduring the crucible of serving as a chaplain in the Spanish Civil War. After viewing such atrocities in the conflict, it was easier for him to renounce God altogether rather than reconcile what he believed with what he observed. Through the pain of Jesus on the cross, Christians believe that suffering is not in vain. Physical pain on earth is temporary, and those who can endure it while maintaining their faith in God will one day enter a dimension without pain. Tomas ultimately loses that patience for a more permanent, peaceful place, deciding that the promise a better future cannot justify the misery of the present. His feeling of abandonment in the world even reaches such a point that he literally cries out with the same refrain as Jesus on the cross: “God, why have you forsaken me?”

While most of Winter Light focuses on the physical suffering of Jesus and Christians, the film’s closing discussion between Tomas and the church’s sexton Algot (Allan Edwall) reframes the discussion in terms of mental suffering. Quoting the same passage exclaimed earlier by Tomas, Algot poses that the internal anguish of Jesus had to be worse than any nail driven through his flesh. “The moments before he died, Christ was seized by doubt,” he observes. “Surely that must have been his greatest hardship? God’s silence.” In this conclusion, Bergman confronts the idea that there might be something worse than facing the brunt of God’s wrath — the notion that He doesn’t exist at all, leaving a moral vacuum in the universe that will be filled by those with the sheer will to rise to power through brutality and oppression.

God the Spirit: The Silence

There’s nothing blatantly religious in Bergman’s The Silence. None of the characters really discuss the idea or concept of God. No one makes any explicit references to the Christian faith. But the complete absence of any spiritual presence is, in its own way, a statement on religion. The silence is deafening.

In this film, Bergman imagines a world without any kind of God or spiritual presence undergirding contemporary life. If God is love, as David suggests in Through a Glass Darkly, then the complete lack of empathy or compassion in the scenes depicted make the case that the world is a loveless place. People talk without communicating, listen without hearing, fornicate without feeling. It’s a detached, depraved domain where the lack of a higher power overseeing a master plan leads to bizarre collisions of fate.

The Silence presages a turn in Bergman’s style towards the more experimental and formalistic techniques explored in films like Persona. In many ways, it feels more deserving for discussion in conversation with these works. Writing about the film’s plot or other narrative events feels beside the point — it’s a canvas onto which an audience projects so much of themselves. The inestimable Bosley Crowther of The New York Times noted as much in his 1964 evaluation of the trilogy, writing, “Let us respect Mr. Bergman for trying to articulate how he felt. But let us hope he will get back to the substance of such of his rich films as Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal.”

Personally speaking, I’m not sure one chapter is “better” or “worse” than the other in Bergman’s storied career. But after watching this trio of films, I’m convinced that understanding the progression is a crucial bridge in any attempt to understand how the two distinct portions of Bergman’s filmography interact.

Watch ‘Through a Glass Darkly,’ ‘Winter Light’ and ‘The Silence’ at FilmStruck.

Follow Marshall Shaffer on Twitter (@media_marshall).