preaching to mr. bergman

I saw my first Ingmar Bergman film when I was 21 years old, and I never got over it.

The film was Winter Light, one of the three films in Bergman’s so-called faith trilogy (with Through a Glass Darkly and The Silence). Taken as a whole, the trilogy isn’t really about finding faith so much as losing it, seemingly mirroring the Swedish director’s own doubt—and ultimate disillusionment—with the faith he had known. And yet it is hard even now to remember a more spiritual experience than watching that film.

In Winter Light, Gunnar Bjornstrand plays a priest whose own soul had become hollow. When a fisherman, played by Max Von Sydow, comes to him on the brink of suicide, he comes looking for the priest to give him a reason not to kill himself. But the priest is all out of his own reasons, and can’t think of anything to say to dissuade his parishioner. So the man goes through with it. The lonely priest, who had isolated himself from the handful of people that loved him, continues to slowly unravel until the powerful final scene. It’s time for the Sunday morning worship service to begin, and there are only three people in his tiny church. The priest seems undone. It is the moment where you expect him to strip off his collar, and finally abandon the crime scene of his long-dead faith. But in the last moment of the film, he comes to the pulpit to begin the liturgy — and then the credits roll.

I think many people interpret the priest’s final action as an act of cowardice. You could say he does not have the strength to follow through on his convictions, or his lack thereof, and falls on the sword of convention instead. I am not certain that faith and cowardice are distinct to begin with, or even if they would need to be. I do think that when he retreats into the liturgy, he is doing the only thing he knows how to do. Perhaps faith is always a kind of resignation—faith is Simon Peter saying to Jesus, “Lord, where else would we go?” The 21-year old version of me found the final scene inspiring. I did not see what was so bad about retreating into the liturgy as your only way of not giving in to the night entirely, or what was so bad about preaching as “whistling in the dark,” in Frederick Buechner’s phrase—to keep your own spirits up as much as anyone else’s. I don’t know that faith is somehow faith no longer just because you return to it when you have no other place to go.

Bergman’s perspective on his protagonist’s choice is unclear in the film, but he later said it was not until filming Winter Light that he realized he had lost his faith. The son of a Lutheran minister, he was always ill at ease at the answers he was given as a child. But the big soul questions burned in him, and he could spin their fire into us from his reels. If his own questions didn’t precisely lead him back to God, at least in the ways he understood Him before, they can’t help but take us into the divine presence on sheer force of their fearless, painful honesty.

For all angst-ridden souls who dare to live the hard questions, whether we aim them toward God or into the great beyond, Bermgan was a kind of priest; his films, sacrament. They were both more visceral and more tactile than movies are supposed to be—as marked by taste and texture as a look or a style. You cannot just watch Bergman films, you have to feel them go down in you, like the bread and wine. And when you are done consuming, the images burn in you still, in a place beyond words—in a place past prophecy.

My visit to “Bergman Island”

It was in the middle of my own season of unraveling that I arrived on Fårö, the island Bergman would call home for the second half of his life, filming many of his greatest works there.

It was the last weekend that the small Swedish island, only inhabited by around 500 residents even in the summer, would still be dotted by people. The wind was turning cold. Soon, only a handful of farmers and a parish of livestock would be left here on Ingmar Bergman’s church. The harshness of the weather in the cold months demands that most inhabitants have a place on the mainland, so they migrate to Wisby or Stockholm.

Standing outside in my topcoat, I could feel the jutting rocks call to me like sirens, the way they called out to Bergman. I could feel everything about the landscape of that enchanted place pulsing with beauty and heartbreak simultaneously. Lost in the splendor of the windy, rocky shoreline, I could drink the cocktail of my own loneliness and aliveness all the way down. It is the sort of place that seems to have very old ghosts, but is also the right place for you even if you’ve already packed your own.

I walked the jagged coast in the evening until the sun sunk slowly back into the ocean, and again early in the mornings, only seen by the black eyes of the sheep and a few horses—without judgment. In the cold beauty of Fårö, my outer world could reflect the starkness of my inner one.

I was thrilled to be in the creative haunt of my film patron saint, hoping to bring him my questions, or at least interview his muses. There was a group of about 30 of us there to pay tribute for Bergman weekend, and I was the only American. I landed there feeling like a refugee, the day after arriving in Sweden and promptly getting my rental car stuck in a small alley in nearby Wisby (an incident which, hilariously, made the local paper!), and subsequently misplacing my cell phone. Seemingly unable to perform the most basic tasks in this beautiful country, I felt more like a ten-year old boy lost at sea that an adult man finding new adventure.

The day I arrived, the silver-haired lady with small spectacles, soft eyes, and a fashionable scarf—the film professor who runs the Bergman Center—greeted me warmly. But my heart sunk when she told me her friend saw the picture in the local paper of me stuck in the alley, and called her that morning: “Your American seems to be having great difficulty getting to you,” she repeated. The trip was already having the same effect that Bergman’s films have on me internally—stripping the soul completely of its ego pretensions, until you’re naked as a skeleton. I was able to laugh at all my mishaps so far.

Bergman could do a hell of a lot of things from behind the camera, but comedy was never really one of them. I had brought the comedy with my slapstick strand of errors, and they continued even after I got to the Center. The Center Director had asked a sweet retired art professor to translate for me, but he didn’t feel quite comfortable enough to do so. Thus I went to all the sessions on that first day unable to understand a word. Yet the sense of isolation, of being a stranger in a strange land, may have been the best way to experience the bleak terrain of Bergman’s films all over again. After walking the shore where Through a Glass Darkly was filmed during the day, we watched the film together that night in a small room. Predictably at this point, the remote wasn’t working properly, so they could not activate the english subtitles for me.

I had re-watched Through a Glass Darkly a few months before, and it strikes me as an awfully bleak-ass film even by Bergman canon standards. There is a lot going on in the film thematically, but the premise is basically this: A novelist, played by the same actor who starred in Winter Light, is with his son, daughter and son-in-law on holiday on an island. The daughter, recently released from an asylum, is there to recover from a mental breakdown. One evening, she accidentally discovers a manuscript where her father had been callously recording the details of her breakdown, and through it discovers that she is incurable. Along the way, she believes she has visions of God. The film climaxes when she sees what she believes to be God revealed as a spider, crawling out of a crack in the wall, coming to penetrate her. It is not exactly the feel-good hit of the year even in the best of times—but watching it without subtitles, unable to understand the words yet feeling my face pressed against the glass to behold these characters, was in its own category of desolation.

The next day my luck shifted when a kind, sixty-ish lady (who fortunately had once taught Swedish in an American university) offered to translate for me, just in time for our trip to Bergman’s former home. It seemed almost allegorical of my whole life then—to be the one lost in translation, dependent on the kindness of strangers to help me find a sense of place again. Drinking coffee on Bergman’s back porch, still feeling the chill underneath my skin, this gentle new friend spoke my language and warmed my spirit again.

She was there with her best friend since college, with whom she watched her first Bergman film when she was 20. On the bus, I asked her what her favorite Bergman film was. She said it was Persona. Her and her friend have apparently had a 40-year long debate over whether or not the two lead female characters in the film were intended to be two distinct people, or are in fact two sides of the same personality. I loved this detail especially, because it illuminated the side of Bergman’s filmmaking that had taught me so much about preaching: I had learned that bad sermons, like popcorn action movies, are forgotten the moment after you’ve watched them. But the great sermons echo the quality of Scripture itself, and won’t answer all of the questions for you. They linger long past their welcome, the way Bergman’s films do. Every once in a while, you may even hear one you could argue about with your friend for the next 40 years.

Mr. Bergman’s church

From Bergman’s house to the film locations themselves, the weekend felt like as much an immersion into the director himself than it did the island.

He was a famously tortured soul. On one hand, Bergman was beloved by the residents of his tiny island home, and the stories of his generosity are endless among the people on Fårö. But the brilliant director was notoriously difficult to get along with in his own closest relationships—with his five wives, scattered nine children and sometimes with close friends. By some accounts, his directorial genius seemed to almost plauge his personal life, with him too often trying to over “direct” the cast of friends and family.

Since Bergman was so often able to set my own soul on course through his work, I always wondered where he landed in his own experience of faith through his later years. Based on some of the fiction he wrote in the 90's, I assumed he had continued down the path he began earlier of abandoning his faith, at least in the form it was given to him, until his death in 2007.

But then we finally got to the little church—the only one on the island— where Bergman lies in the cemetery just outside. It was our last stop of the day. The lady giving us the tour was a retired math teacher and lifelong Fårö resident who had known Bergman well. As we walked through the church into the graveyard, she dazzled us with the story of his funeral—which like so much of his life, was scripted in meticulous detail. I was almost surprised that Bergman had his funeral in a church at all given his ambiguity about institutional religion. So when we finished the tour, I asked her about his relationship to the church.

Her answer surprised me. In the years after Bergman’s fifth and final wife died of stomach cancer, he went into deep depression. He stopped making films in 2003. He had a difficult hip sugery he never fully recovered from, affecting his mobility. Without his work and his companions, he felt increasingly alone. So for the last few years of his life, our guide said, he returned to the church of his childhood, attending service every Sunday. She told a beautiful story of a visiting children’s choir coming to do a concert one evening at the church, and of Bergman being moved to tears—giving them an enormous donation immediately following the performance.

Whatever judgments the younger Bergman may have once had on his priest in Winter Light, the priest’s journey became Bergman’s own. When he felt his own life fading, he went back to the only liturgy he knew. He returned to the Church and to the tradition of his father. Whether you call it an act of faith or cowardice is as open-ended as the conclusion of the film— and just as irrelevant, if faith and resignation are in fact indistinguishable.

I could not shake the image of the 89-year old director hobbling down the center aisle and taking his seat, nursing a lifetime’s worth of heartache. I imagined him sitting on the pew, just like anybody else, hoping something of the music or the sermon would fill something of the void in him, hoping for something that might alleviate his infinite loneliness. I pictured him there, watching the robed preacher climb the steps. And I wondered—did he sit on this pew just the way the same way I do at St. Peter’s Episcopal, hoping against the dark that the sermon might strike new life in him? Did he feel the anticipation start to shimmer in his stomach, hoping he could yet get lost in something outside himself again?

And then I wondered about the preacher. Did he speak tenderly into all the ache that enveloped him? What Bible stories did he tell to this master storyteller? I was seized by what struck me as a ridiculous but warm thought—that I would have loved to have preached to Mr. Bergman. It wasn’t that I was sanctimonious enough to think there was something in me that my favorite director would have needed. It was just that he had been a kind of companion to me in my own dark, lonely moments, and I would have loved to have been there for him in kind. I would have loved to massage the rough places on his heart the way he had mine. I would have loved to have spoken to him from my own heart, the way his films helped teach me to—proclaiming his belovedness to him. I would have loved to have placed the chalice in the old man’s frail hands.

Not knowing if I would ever come back to Fårö again, I lingered another moment alone in the graveyard after everyone else had boarded the bus. I imagined Mr. Bergman returning to his native wonder, the old man as bright-eyed as the boy in Fanny and Alexander—or like a boy in the children’s choir he loved so much that day. I imagined the tortured, beautiful soul melting completely at last into the sweet embrace of love Himself.

I smiled softly, thinking that the man who so studiously peered through the glass darkly of his camera had finally fallen straight into the wonder, and now sees face-to-face.