Ingmar Bergman (1963)
A Man Who Need Cannot Love

Reverend Tomas Ericsson is a man who cannot need. And, because he can’t, he struggles with both God and love. Tomas over and over coldly rejects his desperately loving former lover, Marta. Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light 1963, slowly reveals the source of his loss of faith. Tomas loved his dead wife: “When she died, so did I.” This is a bitter man. Turned dead inside. Dead to his parishioners, his previous faith, the possibility of new love. Dead to a young congregant in despair who turns to him in terror for words of hope. All of this spells hopelessness and disaster.

Tomas’s Loss Of Faith

Winter Light opens. Reverend Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Björnstrand) stands in his almost empty chapel. Does his duty. Gives an uninspired sermon, ending: “May peace be with you.” This is a man far from peace, pain and despair etched into his stony features.  His few congregants approach and kneel for communion.

Tomas gives each a wafer and sip of wine, repeating “the body of Christ, the blood of Christ shed for thee. The Lord turns his face to you and grants you peace.” Yet, Tomas rails against a silent God, who has turned his back and will not speak. And, in turn, Tomas turns his back on Marta’s (Ingrid Thulin) offer of love.

He won’t open up. Can’t. He’s been hurt by love. The death of his wife 4 years ago has left him without faith in a God that would take her away. This is a common part of grief, questioning the purpose of life, doubts about God, isolation, and detachment. Yet, this isn’t normal grief, when a hopeless turning away from life becomes a trap.

For Tomas it is. His loss of faith extends to love. Love left him. God failed him. He’s alone with a silent God who doesn’t answer his pleas. His wife understood him. She’s gone. No one, he’s certain, can or will understand him now. He won’t let Marta, although she tries. And, he leaves her pleading for a love he won’t allow her or himself.

They spent two years living together, “awkward caresses … in the face of our emotional impoverishment.” Marta’s words. Then, he left her. This empty kind of love, Marta believes, is her lot. A spinster. Scared of love. And, yet to get any bit of it, she’ll sacrifice everything, even any semblance of pride she has left, if she must.

Marta’s Masochism

Marta never believed in God. Now, she’s losing faith in love, but she clings to it. Refuses to give up. When Tomas asks her why she took communion, she says: “It’s a love feast, isn’t it?”  Marta is ravenously hungry for Tomas’s love; the love he withholds.

The more he does, she clutches at him; smothers him with kisses; eats him up. She loves him desperately. Although he’s cruelly and callously rejecting, she shamelessly pleads with him to marry her. He says, “No.”

She knows he doesn’t love her, but Marta doesn’t love herself enough to give up and find someone who can. This is masochism. Her ultimate self-sacrifice. Turning herself over to his cruelty to get any little taste of love. In Marta’s masochism is her hatred –  of Tomas. That he fails to return her love. Her hate, though, is turned upon herself.

In a letter, she bears her desolate soul: “I prayed for a task to apply my strength. That task is you …I love you, I live for you, take me and use me.” She’ll buy his love and devote herself to this unwilling man.

Yet, Marta has her own guarded hostile walls when it comes to love; her sarcastic retaliation against her hurt. She’s not a believer and she taunts Tomas’s struggle: “God’s Silence. God hasn’t spoken because God doesn’t exist. It’s as simple as that.”

She doesn’t understand his pain. He doesn’t understand hers. But they’re stuck together out of resignation. Both lonely, yet can’t open up; both need each other and have no one else. Neither feels safe with love. Both bitter at their lots in life. Tomas’s bitterness spells disaster in Winter Light, Ingmar Bergman 1963, not only for him.

Bitterness Spells Disaster

Reverend Tomas Ericsson’s life is a tragedy.  Of course, it’s tragic to lose the one you love and count on. Yet, the bigger tragedy is Tomas’s inability to grieve. Only in grieving might he move on. But, he holds tight to the past. Bitterly and tenaciously. No one can or will replace the wife he lost.

And, no one will budge him. Marta tries to care for him. Sure, she’s overbearing, but Tomas will take nothing. He’s completely and totally a stone wall.  We see it in his face. His despair turns him as cold as the snow-covered land outside. He rejects her offer of help: “Won’t be necessary,” he acerbically responds.

“You have a lot to learn,” Marta tells him. “You must learn to love.” She’s right. But, Tomas won’t let her or anyone reach him. His refusal is as powerful as his God’s silence. Unbridgeable and unending.

The clock ticks loudly. Time passes. Tomas may be frozen in place, but time moves on., with or without him. He sets his watch, but he can’t live in present time. And, for him, the future is as uncertain as life’s fragility.

In Tomas’s bitterness towards a God and life that failed him, he doesn’t care if he lives or dies. And, because of this, he cannot reach out to a lonely, scared man in his despair. A man, Jonas Persson (Max Von Sydow) who has a pregnant wife and 3 children that need him. A man who’s turned to his clergyman as his one last hope.

Despair Without A Guiding Hand

Tomas lives in despair. Entrenched in it. And, because he’s shut down all hope for anything to change, he can’t give love when love is needed. Especially not to Jonas. 

After Tomas’s uninspired service, Karin Persson (Gunnel Lindblom) approaches the Reverend. Jonas is too depressed to speak for himself. Karin isn’t a believer, but she knows her husband needs help:

“He won’t talk … he’s at his wit’s end … he read the Chinese are brought up with hate. It’s only a matter of time they have an atomic bomb. He can’t stop thinking about it …” 

Unfortunately, they’ve turned to a minister filled with hate towards God and life. All Tomas can say is: “God seems so remote. I feel so helpless. Don’t know what to say. I understand your anguish. We must go on living.” Unconvinced himself.

“Why must we go on living?” Jonas asks. “We’re helpless.” They arrange for a private talk. Tomas, knowing he’s added to Jonas’s hopelessness, waits anxiously. Jonas is a mirror image of the Reverend Tomas Ericsson’s despair.

Tomas can’t bear to see it. He waits for Jonas. Yet, Tomas is in conflict. If Jonas comes, he must face his own conviction that life is hopeless and God is silent. He’s a man of the cloth, but what does he have to give?

The clock continues its loud ticks. Time passes without sympathy. And Tomas has no sympathy for those in pain. He has none for his own. The Reverend has nothing to give. And, he’ll take nothing for himself. As he waits, he reads Marta’s letter, professing her love, folds it up, and pushes her love aside.

Giving Up On Life

Tomas gave up on life and love 4 years ago. He looks up. Jonas stands watching, his face a mask of wretched despair. A Sisyphean task to come for help he can’t believe in. Silently, he waits for Tomas to acknowledge him, not expecting much.

In fact, although Tomas is aware that Jonas is considering suicide, all he can do is talk about himself. He burdens Jonas with his story; that he’s not afraid to die; had no reason to go on when his wife died. But he did.

Tomas forces his despair and doubts on Jonas. Uses him; holds him captive, saying: “If there is no God, would it really make a difference? What a relief death would be, a snuffing out of life.” Where does this leave Jonas? Trying to find some reason to go on.

Jonas’s face takes up the entire screen. Trapped now in more utter despair. With no guiding hand. No one to give him words of solace or hope. He quickly and quietly leaves. Tomas, obsessed with his own pain  cries out: “God, why have you forsaken me?”  Yet, too soon we see he has forsaken Jonas.  Jonas shoots himself in the head.

Tomas can’t give love to anyone. And, Marta lives with her decision to sacrifice her life for a man that cannot love. Fredrick (Olof Thunberg), the organist, speaking to Marta, is the voice of this reality:

“The pastor you’re running after isn’t worth much. You don’t think a Spinster can be choosy? … get out as quickly as you can … his wife was his undoing. He had eyes only for her, he was smitten, so much for their love story.”

This is a cynical view of love. But, what is love?

Winter Light’s Cynical View Of Love

Love requires faith and trust, whether God exists at all. But, we see is little trust and faith. Not in Marta, and certainly not in Tomas. Fredrick continues: “God is love. Love is God. And, love proves God’s existence. Love is a real force for mankind. You see, I know the drill. I’ve been an attentive listener to the pastor’s outpourings …”

Marta, in the dark, alone, drops to her knees: “If only we could feel safe and show each other tenderness.” Tomas, in another room, his head laid in his hand: “If only we could believe.” The lights come on. Tomas enters an empty chapel, with only Marta, Algot (Allan Edwall), the candle lighter, and Frederick.

The bells brought no one else in. Who would come to hear a pastor that does not believe in life, love, or God? Bergman struggles with these questions. In Through The Glass Darkly (1961), a depressed father tells his lonely son:

“I can only give you a hint of my own hope. It’s knowing that love exists for real in the human world. I don’t know if love is proof of God’s existence or if love is God himself.” His son sighs: “For you, love and God are the same?” Papa says: “I believe so.”

Isn’t that the only real hope? That a belief in love is our strongest faith? Having love brings hope in life’s goodness and meaning.

Yet, from this 1961 film Winter Light Ingmar Bergman 1963, we have a darker view. In the face of loss, any kind of faith in love or God collapses into despair. Neither can be counted on, but life goes on anyway. With little else but resignation.

A Man Who Cannot Grieve Cannot Love

Winter Light ends with Tomas’s dutiful preaching: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts. This whole earth is full of his glory.” We know he’s just doing his drill.

There can be no faith in love where there is no grieving. For a dead wife, for unrequited love, a husband’s suicide, or a silent God that forces all to find meaning within the confines of their individual lives. In Winter Light Ingmar Bergman 1963, none can grieve. So, none are free. Tomas caught in his illusion that life cannot go on after a terrible loss.

Hope is dead in them all. We see this in Tomas’s resignation, and certainly in his lack of guilt. The guilt you’d hope he’d have for his failure to reach out to a desperate man; to try. His failure to take Marta’s love, desperate and cloying, but earnestly given.

Love cannot be taken if grief will not be felt. Leaving Tomas living in an icy landscape of a dead life, represented in the scene of Jonas’s death. There is rain where there should be tears. He cannot grieve for what he couldn’t give his desperate parishioner, or take for his needy self. Yet, this could set him free.

But, Tomas’s bitterness has cast a bitter spell across them all. There is dark where there needs to be light. Since a lack of grieving closes down the heart. When there is no grief, there can be no opening to love.

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Dr. Sandra E. Cohen

I’m Dr. Sandra Cohen, a psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Beverly Hills, CA. I work with creatives in therapy, story/character development, and entertainment consulting. If you are a writer, actor, or director and want help with a character – or a chance to do some of your own personal work - call at 310.273.4827 or email me at to schedule a confidential discussion to explore working together.

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