Bergman’s Atheist Films

Ingmar Bergman’s Films and the Death of the Idea of God

The films of the Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman (1918 – 2007), belong to the realm of the highest creative endeavors undertaken by artists.  The totality of his films’ quality of scripts, sound effects, camera work and acting are frequently unmatched by other auteurs. But there is infinitely more to his films than his stunning mise-en-scenes.  Bergman’s oeuvre is replete with philosophical reflections and with questions that can be referred to as “ultimate concerns.”

He is preoccupied with the question of god.  God, as depicted in his films, is most frequently a tormenting absence. Bergman underscores the absence by the depiction of religious ceremonies and symbols that are empty and lack meaning or comfort for humans. Bergman has written: “When my top heavy religious super-structure collapsed, I also lost my inhibitions as a writer… In “Winter Light,” I swept my house clean.”

Bergman offers no comforting theodicy to his audience, no attempt to “justify the ways of god to man.” Left alone in a world that seems filled with evil, abandonment and anguish, Bergman’s films imply that we are a torment, but also a form of salvation for each other. He repeats the theme of human salvation over and over, in an attempt to show how we turn toward each other and then move away, an anguished dance of ambiguity.  But the films demonstrate how much we need each other in order to achieve love and understanding.  He emphasizes that such comfort is all we can expect from an empty universe.

But there is a reward for us if we can breach our loneliness and our mistrust of each other.  Bergman portrays the failure of humans to embrace one another and our inability to love as our ultimate defeat.  He is honest.  While he understands that to reach out to other humans can mean salvation for people, such salvation does not carry any promise of permanence. It is enough to have even fleeting moments of connection.

The most elaborate depiction of Bergman’s philosophy is embedded in a trio of films that has been termed by many critics and scholars as The Trilogy.  Some also call them The Chamber Films. These three films are the most overtly atheistic of his works, and also the most concerned with human love and understanding. Here is the director himself on the three films that most distinctly depict the utter absence of god. “Each film, you see, has a moment of contact, of human communication… What matters most in life is being able to make that contact with another human.”

Bergman goes on to state that if one can take that first step to love, to understanding another human being, one is saved. He is emphatic on this point, insisting that such human salvation is “all that really matters.”

Such themes and existential questions preoccupied Bergman during his remarkable years of making films. The most important works during his twenty-five years of directing were encompassed by “The Seventh Seal” (1957) to “Fanny and Alexander” (1982.)  Bruce F. Kawin has argued that Bergman is first and foremost a storyteller and not a formal philosopher. Other scholars and critics have also made this argument.  But such statements are only correct up to a point. Bergman has definitely managed to depict ethical and existential questions about life through the medium of film and storytelling.

Philosophy, in its best sense, concerns itself with many of the same questions that preoccupied Bergman during his long career. That is likely why his work is having a revival in many art houses.  Robert E. Lauder states that Bergman wrestles with questions such as: “Is there a god?” Can we be certain that there is a god? If there is a god, why is that god silent? What can we know? Can we love? What is death?” That the director deals with such weighty questions by storytelling does not preclude seeing and experiencing his works as philosophical ones.

This lecture will deal exclusively with the themes from The Trilogy, the most atheistic of all his oeuvre.  These films are “Through a Glass Darkly” (1961), “Winter Light” (1963), and “The Silence” (1963).  But it is not only the end of a belief in god that is depicted in the three films. They all deal with human love. Bergman is ruthless in his interrogation of human love and understanding. He depicts the failure of our human attempts to love and to touch each other.  But in all three of the films there are brief moments, particularly at the endings, which depict the sharing of human love and understanding, which contain a hint of salvation for his characters.

While Bergman was definitive about his lack of belief in a transcendent god, over the years he had moved firmly to a belief in humanity. Asked about god after his most atheistic film, “Winter Light,” Bergman replied that the problem of god had for him, dissolved.  He went on to explain that for him nothing at all had come out of the ideas of faith and skepticism.  He considered such ideas merely “convulsions.” But he was fully aware that for many people such problems would continue to exist. He stated: “I hope this generation will be the last to live under the scourge of religious anxiety.”

Through a Glass Darkly

The 1961 “Through a Glass Darkly,” with the actors Harriet Andersonn and Max Von Sydow, is one of Bergman’s most pessimistic films. Its themes address the philosophical and human failure of the artist (a novelist in this film) and the evil nature of an imagined god that manifests itself to a woman going insane as a lecherous spider.  The ending, which attempts some depiction of love as a healing belief and the reconciliation between father and son, seems somewhat “tacked on.” Bergman was not completely satisfied with it.

The characters in the film are on a remote, isolated island, apparently the father’s summer home or retreat. David, the father, is an author who has not been able to achieve any transcendence from the fantasy and lies in his novels.  He has been financially successful, but has not reached serious conclusions in his works.  His young son, Minus, is adrift. He is a precocious adolescent, who savages his father and his father’s writing, finding it banal, facile and empty. Early in the film, he stages a short play that attacks his father’s creativity, or lack thereof.

Karin, the author’s daughter, is on a downward path to irreversible mental illness.  She is perhaps schizophrenic, but her illness is not named. She is married to Martin, a doctor, whose love and care appear unable to save her from madness. Martin informs her father that Karin’s case is likely hopeless.  The audience sees scenes in which Karin tempts her young brother sexually. She is not a sympathetic character, but she is obviously wretched in her mental deterioration.

There are no extra diegetic sound effects in the movie, nor are there any in the other two films in The Trilogy. The sound effects come from sources within the film itself, making it seem at once more realistic, and also more stark. There is the wind, the sound of oars in the water, the howling of a storm, and the maddening sound of a helicopter outside the window near the end.

The films begins on a slightly hopeful note, the reunion of the four family members on the island.  But it quickly becomes obvious that the father, David, is much more immersed in his work rather than his family.  There is a scene of David and Martin talking together in a drifting rowboat, an implication that they themselves are adrift.  Martin accuses David of lacking in love. At the same time,  it is obvious that Martin’s love and protection cannot  save Karin either.  He explains to David that Karin is likely to become much worse, and that the doctors believe she will become permanently insane.  She seems doomed.

Left to herself while the men are in the rowboat, Karin commences to tease and tempt her brother. It is unclear what motivates her to engage in this behavior, but she is obviously not in control of her actions and desires. What does transpire during the course of the story is Karin’s belief in a god, one that she believes will reveal himself to her very soon.  She is anxious to enter the supernatural realm, as she is under unbearable strain living in the reality of the everyday world. She is torn between the two worlds and has chosen to be with her god in his domain. We see her moving off by herself into an empty room, appearing to hear murmuring voices and believing god is communicating to her through a crack in the wall.

To add to her difficulties, Karin had earlier been devastated when secretly reading her father’s diary.  He had written that while saddened by Karin’s illness, he is tempted to coldheartedly observe his daughter’s deterioration. We can be sure that he will use his observations in his work.

Martin and David go to get supplies from the mainland and a large storm blows up on the island.  Karin seduces her brother in a deserted vessel.  By the time the two older men return, her mental condition appears to have become much worse.  Karin throws off her pretense of being sane, or perhaps she is simply not able to maintain her charade any longer. She forces Martin to accompany her to the upstairs deserted room, where she hears the murmuring voices of the faithful believers and hopes to have “god” appear to her.

Martin kneels with her and prays with her.  But the god who comes through the large crack in the wall is a hallucination.  He appears to Karin as a huge, vicious spider who tries to crawl lecherously up her legs. The hysteria of the scene is intensified by the loud beating of the helicopter wings outside the window.  It is the medical vehicle to take her off the island and back to the mental hospital. Karin mistakes it for a manifestation of the spider god.

There is tragic irony in Karin’s expectation of a god that will save her.  Everyone but she understands that her “god” is a projection and a reflection of her madness. The spider resembles Karin herself when she wove a seductive spell around her young and vulnerable brother. There is no god present in this movie, only a projection of human fear and desire. Just before leaving, Karin murmurs: “I have seen god.”

The father and son are together at the end of the film.  The father, David, tells his son that he takes consolation from love, love of all kinds.  He claims to believe that god is manifested in such different kinds of love.  Minus appears joyful at the end of the conversation, but it seems that it is not his father’s words but the closeness of the moment between the two that have made him happy.  He says: “Papa spoke to me!” Communication, no matter how faulty, seems to have been achieved between the two.  Bergman himself was not satisfied with the ending, which seems “tacked on.” The extreme pessimism of the rest of the film seems to undermine the end.

However, the ending is consistent with Bergman’s belief that salvation can be found through human love and communication. The title, “Through a Glass Darkly,” refers to 1 Corinthians 13:12 in the Bible.  In that verse, Paul discusses how what we see is only an image or reflection in a mirror. Paul goes on to explain that we humans are often non-authentic and speak falsely unless we have love. Bergman is far from the first artist to use that quotation, but he employs it most effectively and pointedly as the theme of his film.

Winter Light

“Winter Light,” (1963), is the most realistic and ironic of The Trilogy. The Swedish title of the film was “The Communicants.” The pastor, Tomas, and his sometime girlfriend, Marta, are played by Gunnar Bjorstrand and Ingrid Thalin, two stylish actors who in this film are made up to look realistic and rather unattractive.

There is a story that while Bergman was looking at churches and locales in which to film his story, his father, a cold and stern Lutheran minister, accompanied him one day in order to help with the search. At one locale, the pastor of the church was ill and could not perform his service.  Bergman’s father stepped in to carry out the rites, getting up early and going to the church.  The point of his action was to demonstrate that when one is in charge of a flock or group of faithful believers, the service must go on, even with illness threatening.

“Winter Light” opens on a communion service in a church located in a cold, remote area of Sweden. There is almost no one present at the service. Of those few in the pews, many are not attending because of faith in god.  Marta is the pastor’s former mistress. She is an atheist, from a loving, atheist family. Marta is present because she loves Tomas.  A man and his wife are there because the husband needs spiritual consolation.  The organist has no interest at all in the service and cannot wait to put his music away and leave. A disabled sexton who is paid to attend is present, but he seems genuinely devout.

Tomas, the minister, is revealed to the viewer almost immediately.  He is cold and aloof.  He looks at his tiny congregation with a stern and authoritarian visage. He seems to have no love for them or empathy with their sufferings. Throughout the course of the film, we learn of Tomas’s crisis of faith, which has resulted in his lack of belief in god.  The world is a disappointing place for Tomas, and he turns away from it and his parishioners. His beloved wife had died sometime before the action of the film and her death seems to have sped his crisis further along.

Marta has tried to help him, giving him love, care, warm drinks and medicine after his wife’s death.  But Tomas is unable and unwilling to love her.  She has written a letter to him and Bergman uses a most effective cinematic device to help the audience understand Marta’s struggle.  Tomas begins to read her letter, but the camera cuts to Marta, who looks into it and begins reciting her own words.  She had earlier suffered from eczema on her hands and face, which had repelled Tomas. She reproaches him for his lack of care but says that her prayer for meaning has been fulfilled.  (This is said ironically; she has no use for religious prayer.) She has found clarity in her meditations and wants to dedicate her life to Tomas.

In the meantime, Tomas has promised to speak with the young man who had attended the service with his wife.  Tomas is suffering from the flu and must conduct vespers in another church in the afternoon, yet feels bound to do his duty to his parishioner. The young man finally appears.  He is a farmer with a wife and three children, and his worried wife is pregnant with a fourth child.

The young farmer is suffering from an existential crisis and no longer wants to live in a world where hatred and violence exist.  Tomas fails him utterly. He selfishly recounts his own crisis of faith and confesses his lack of belief in god. He does not listen to his suffering communicant, but talks at great length of his own thoughts, struggles and feelings. He assures the poor man that they both can be free now that faith has been discarded. It is no surprise that a little later word is brought to the church that the young man has committed suicide.

Tomas appears to be utterly cut off from humanity. He shows no remorse or guilt for his failure to communicate any hope for living to the dead man.  After castigating and rejecting Marta in her school room, he suddenly asks her to accompany him to tell the suicide’s wife that her husband is dead. On the way to the wife’s home, he stops to help the authorities with the body, showing neither grief nor compassion.  He is simply doing his duty.

Critics have noted the film’s use of low-angle, direct lighting to depict the northern daylight, which is really a prolonged twilight.  The sun, with its warmth and illumination, is unable to come out.  The shots of the landscape depict a bitterly cold and hostile environment.

When Tomas talks to the dead man’s wife and tells her of his suicide, she is intensely grieved. But she is kind enough to tell Tomas that she is sure he has done all he could to help her husband.  As the audience knows better, the scene is bitterly ironic.  As Tomas and Marta drive away from the farm, a cry goes up from the man’s children who have been told that their father is dead.  It is truly a heart rending sound, underscored by the forbidding landscape surrounding the farm.

There is an important scene between the pastor and the disabled sexton near the end of the film.  The injured man lives on a small pension and tiny salary for helping in the church.  He is devout and studies the Bible. The sexton explains to Tomas that he has thought about Jesus’ suffering at length and has concluded that the physical suffering of Jesus was not the worst of his agony. The sexton explains that he too has suffered physically and such pain can be borne. 

The sexton tells Tomas that he believes it was Jesus’ emotional suffering that was unbearable. Jesus was forced to endure the desertion of his comrades and finally, the devastating sense that god was not there, that Jesus was alone in his final hours.  The pastor says nothing, but seems to agree with the thoughtful sexton.

Marta is the only person attending the service at the distant Frostnas church.  The organist takes the opportunity to hint to her that Tomas’ marriage was really not a very good one, that the dead wife was cold and distant.  The organist urges Marta to leave the barren place they are living in and go somewhere else.  But she remains in the back of the church, in an attitude of prayer. Tomas has been informed that the church is empty, but he comes out and performs the service of vespers for Marta.  His words are empty; he no longer believes in god, but Bergman allows a fragment of hope for him.

Tomas is performing the service for Marta.  With this gesture, he reaches out to her and attempts to communicate with her. There may be some salvation for the couple.  Human love and an attempt at communication has replaced the mirage of god.  God is dead, but human care and love remain.

The Silence

“The Silence” (1963) is the film in The Trilogy in which the presence or belief in god has virtually disappeared.  No character in the film mentions any idea of faith or any belief throughout the entire story.  The title is apt, not merely referring to the silence of a vanished god, but most importantly to the lack of communication and love between the characters.

The “silence” is underscored by the plot.  Two sisters, Anna (Gunnel Lindblum) and Ester (Ingrid Thulin), accompanied by Anna’s young son, Johan, (Jorgen Lindstrom) are traveling home when they take a room in a hotel. They are in a country called Timolka. A military convoy with tanks passes their train on their way into the city. This convoy, and other tanks which make their appearance in the town during the course of the movie, seem to imply a war that is either coming up or is in progress. Ester is a professional translator but does not know the language of this land.

Ester is seriously ill, coughing up blood in the train.  Their elegant hotel appears to be nearly deserted.  We see workmen caring for the chandeliers and performing other tasks, but the only other guests to be seen are members of a troop of performing dwarfs and their manager.  Ester’s condition worsens and an elderly serving man at the hotel takes care of her. They communicate through a few words, gestures and music. He turns the radio to Bach’s music for her.

Anna is a hypersexual character.  She is lovely, with a body that is lush and inviting.  Johan is enthralled by his mother but even by Swedish standards, Anna’s behavior seems overly sexual with regard to her own son.  She is nearly naked around him and sleeps undressed with the young boy.  He is still a child, but his teen years are not very distant. Anna’s behavior to Johan is seductive and overdone.

But Anna is bored, and quickly deserts the dying Ester and Johan to explore the city and to find a new lover.  At one point, she enters a nearly empty movie theatre, with a couple in the seats near her making animalistic love.  She leaves, only to quickly makes contact with a handsome waiter in order to have her own loveless sexual adventure. She has intercourse with her pickup in a church because it is private, deserted and cool. The church is no longer a sacred space, but a convenient spot for making love.

The child, Johan, is left very much alone.  His aunt Ester loves him but she is very sick and her only attendant is the elderly serving man.  Even though they have limited communication abilities, the man’s caring is understood by her and provides her with a modicum of comfort.  Despite her coughing and pain, she continues to drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes.  She also tries to carry on with her translation tasks, but her deteriorating condition forces her to remain in bed most of the time.

When Anna returns to the hotel, the relationship between the two sisters is briefly revealed by their intense conversation.  The viewer learns that when younger, the two women had some sort of sexual relationship. The actual nature of this sexual affair is never spoken, only alluded to. It is also revealed that their father and Ester both dominated over Anna in the past, and she is now engaged in taking her freedom and revenge on them both.  She is contemptuous and uncaring to Ester, who is the more intelligent of the two sisters.

Ester is a lesbian, telling the serving man (who cannot understand her) that the smell of men’s semen has always disgusted her.  There seems to be a husband, whether separated or divorced from Anna, who is the father of Johan.  He is briefly mentioned as always being very busy.  This man is obviously no presence in the boy’s life.  The women mention to Johan that he will soon see his grandmother and an uncle, who will likely care for the neglected boy.

Left alone much of the time, Johan wanders the hotel. He enters the room inhabited by the troop of dwarfs.  They carry out a little celebration with him, dressing him in a girl’s dress.  Their manager appears and puts an end to the misrule.  The elderly servant allows Johan to enter his room. He kindly strokes the boy, but the pictures he shows Johan from his youth somewhere in the country appear to be of a funeral. The scene is quite creepy.

Johan has a toy pistol and he appears to engage in a natural, if somewhat naughty, attempt to assert his own masculine gender. He “play” shoots at the workers; he finds and buries the servant’s funeral pictures under a rug. Finally, he urinates on the hotel carpet.  He is demonstrating a rebellious rejection of the adults’ attempts to emasculate him.

Ester has learned a few words of the Timolkan language, such as the words for “face” and “head.” There is a scene when the suffering Ester has her arms spread out and this image might allude to a human crucifixion.  That image, and the scene where Anna and her lover take advantage of the empty church to make love, are the only religious allusions in the entire film. God is truly a silence; the idea of a deity has been not only discarded but forgotten in this film. The humans in this loveless world do not attempt to reach out to each other. The communication between the characters is either hostile or not understood.  The military presence suggests a people at war, with an accompanying indifference of one person to another.

Anna tells Ester that she and Johan are leaving for home immediately by train.  Ester is being left to die alone.  Anna is not merely indifferent to Ester’s plight; she is hostile and triumphant.  Johan conveys his care to his aunt, who is left in the hands of the helpful servant.  Ester had previously promised to translate some Timolkan words into their native language for Johan. Now she gives a sheet of paper with the translated words on it to Johan. We already know that two of the words are “hand” and “face.” She tells Johan that the message of the words is terribly important.

The boy reads the paper when he is on the train with Anna.  She demands to see the paper and grabs it from the boy.  When all she reads are translated words, she sneers at it and hands it back to Johan.

But the real message Ester has sent to Johan is the love she sends him away with.  She has worked at her translating even while dying.  Translations increase the ability for communication between people. She has tried to give her nephew a reminder of the love she has for him and to try to pass on to him the ability to love. He gazes fervently at the paper.

When he looks at his mother, it is clear that he is no longer gazing at her with adoration.  He has begun to mature and to see her dispassionately.  As time goes by, he may lose Ester’s paper, but he will retain her humanity and her strength. According to Bergman’s comments on the film, Johan will inherit Ester’s quality of being indestructibly human.

The Trilogy offers a most important message to audiences and particularly to atheist viewers.  God, or the idea of god, may be dead, and it is obvious that god never existed in reality.  He was only imagined because of human fear and longing.  Those critics who argue that there is no philosophy embodied in Bergman’s films are wrong.  There are no formal schools of logic or other systems of thought in his oeuvre, but the movies contain a  profound message for those of us who have undertaken a secular path.  It is a simple message as well as a profound one.  Bergman believed that it is only in human communication, understanding and love that we can attain human salvation.

I shall end this lecture with a quote from another great artist, the poet, W.H. Auden.  He said: “We must love one another or die.”


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