Winter Light

Joe Gillis

Consider the odds.  What was the likelihood that anyone else in the Continental United States… or, what the hell, include Alaska and Hawaii…at that particular moment was watching Ingmar Bergman’s 1963 movie Winter Light, the middle film of the director’s existential trilogy bookended by Through a Glass Darkly and The Silence?

 

Consider the relative obscurity of the film and the lateness of the hour (3:13 a.m. PST) and that he wasn’t streaming the movie but watching his copy of the DVD.  What are the chances he was the only one in America watching that particular movie at that particular moment?

 

There are a little over 328.2 million people in the United States.  Let’s arbitrarily subtract those under 18.  That’s about 73 million, leaving 225,200,373 above the age of 18.  We might as well shave off 18 to 25 while we’re at it.  That’s another 30.8 million taking us to 194,400,373.  Approximately.

 

I suppose we could knock off people under thirty.  Call that another 20 million.  Now we’re down to about 174,400,373.  We’ve knocked out about half of the population.

 

Was it reasonable to believe that he was the only one, out of more than 174 million people, watching Winter Light?  Who would have had a reason to be watching Winter Light.  Who would want to watch Winter Light.  Who would have access to Winter Light.

 

All those 174 million people wouldn’t be awake right now.  Maybe half…make it a third…would be asleep.

He considered the numbers and decided it was reasonable to believe there was a strong possibility that he was the only human being in the contiguous 48 states plus Alaska and Hawaii who was watching Winter Light at that moment.

 

All alone with Winter Light.

 

Alone with Pastor Ericsson after noon service talking to Jonas Perssons and his wife Karin.  Talking mostly to Karin.  Jonas is largely silent, not even looking at the Pastor until the Pastor makes the mistake of blundering into the unsupportable argument that we simply have to keep on living because…well, we have to keep on living.  

 

Jonas Perssons is a fisherman and he has read something disturbing in the news.  He read that the Chinese were being taught to hate and would soon have the atomic bomb and have nothing to lose.  All those Chinese, being taught to hate him.  And they don’t even know who he is.

 

The Chinese.  What about the Chinese?  Wouldn’t most of them, or at least a substantial number of them be asleep at that moment?  They wouldn’t be watching Winter Light either.  What would Winter Light mean to the bulk of the Chinese population?

 

Perhaps his singularity wasn’t restricted to the United States. 

 

There are 1.398 billion people in China.  Assume half of them are asleep at the moment.  That would leave 699 million.  How many of that 699 million might possibly be watching Winter Light?  Possibly watching is probably the wrong question.  Why would any of those Chinese awake at that moment have a desire or need or duty to watch Winter Light?  Phrased in that fashion, the number of potential viewers shrinks dramatically.  You could argue that no one was watching the movie at that moment in China.  Argue convincingly.

 

Chillingly, and inevitably, this leads to further calculations.  The population of the world is 7.674 billion.  Take away the Chinese, you’re left with 6.276 billion.  Remove Americans and you’re at 5.948 billion.  Assume half of the remaining people are asleep and the number of potential viewers drops to 2.974 billion.

 

Karin Perssons dragged her husband to the noon service.  He’s not so much catatonic as he is lethargic and shut down over this Chinese business.  They have three small children, Karin is pregnant with a fourth, and her husband is fixated with the Chinese hating him, hating someone they don’t know.  She wants Pastor Ericsson to help, but Pastor Ericsson is in no condition to help anyone, least of all himself.  He has a terrible cold and he has lost his faith and his wife has been dead four years and his mistress, or possibly former mistress, is essentially demanding marriage so she can take care of him even though he’s been pretty much emotionally dead since his wife died.

 

Ericsson dredges up some astonishingly useless platitudes capping them all off with, “Well, yes, life is full of bad things, but we must live on.”  At which point Jonas Perssons looks the Pastor in the eye and asks, “Why?  Why do we have to go on living?”

 

Pastor Ericsson is sucker punched by the question and Jonas Perssons sees it, sees the man across from him crumble.  

 

Watching this part of the movie he was startled.  He used to think Perssons’ look was one of hopelessness.  But somehow Perssons’ look had changed.  But it can’t have changed.  The movie hasn’t changed.  Perssons’ look has been frozen that way for almost sixty years.  Something’s different.  Perssons’ look had become one of surprise.  Surprise at how easy it was to knock the wind out of the Pastor.  Surprise.  Then disappointment.  Then embarrassment.

 

Karin thought talking to the Pastor would relieve her husband’s fears, but instead it results in a  terrible confirmation.  There is no reason to go on living.  Jonas can see it in the Pastor’s face.  Jonas Perssons apologizes for wasting the Pastor’s time.  The Pastor knows how badly he’s screwed up, and begs Perssons to stay.  “It’s impossible,” the fisherman says.

 

Perssons’ wife thinks if she wasn’t in the room the two men could talk more openly and that might help.  Jonas promises to return in half an hour and leaves to drive his wife home.

 

There might be some Swedish people watching the movie while he was watching it.  Sweden is nine hours ahead of him.  Almost noon in Sweden.  People working, having lunch.  Pea soup and pancakes with lingonberry jam.  But hasn’t Bergman fallen out of favor?  In the late sixties they started to call him reactionary and bourgeois, not political enough.   So, what are the odds someone is watching Nattvardsgästerna over their pea soup and pancakes?  Slim to nil.

 

And if you can’t make a case for Sweden, where could you make a case?

 

It was possible, without stretching things too far, that he was the only person on Earth watching the movie.  The only person.  

 

The Perssons leave and he was alone with Pastor Ericsson and his persistent cough.  The pastor’s persistent cough.  Alone with the pastor’s persistent cough at 3:30 in the morning.  Just the two of them in an otherwise unaware world.

 

He remembered feeling a certain sympathy for Pastor Ericsson back in the day.  Back in college when evenings were filled with Bergman and Fellini and the knowledge that these were works of genius, accepting the fact of their genius, without understanding what was going on in them.  

 

Pastor Tomas Ericsson was a tragic figure.  Back in college.  Now, this morning, he didn’t seem so tragic.

 

Do they still teach Bergman and Fellini in college?  Or are they dead old men.  Reactionary.  Bourgeois.  Not political enough.

 

The Perssons leave and Märta, the pastor’s former or perhaps current mistress, arrives to ask if he’s read the letter she sent him.  He tells her he hasn’t.  She tells him she loves him, but she knows he doesn’t love her.  She leaves.  Pastor Ericsson reads Märta’s letter in which she describes his neglect of her, how he was repulsed by a severe rash she experienced and was unable to overcome his revulsion to pray for her.

 

Pastor Ericsson doesn’t finish reading the letter.  He shuffles the pages together out of order, shoves them into the envelope they came in then puts his head down on the desk and falls asleep.

 

Sleep.  The lack of sleep, the inability to achieve sleep, that’s why he was in the room watching this movie at 3:42 in the morning.

 

Night.  Darkness.  Being Horizontal.  Waiting for sleep.  That area of his life had changed over the months.  It had gone from a rather general void to a space haunted with every misstep and mistake he’d ever committed.  Every moment of thoughtless cruelty, every incident of casual selfishness would parade across the ceiling of his bedroom along with the vectoring shapes of the headlights from the cars in the street beyond the window.  As if some filter had been inserted in his memory that would now only let through timidity and greed.  The effect was to shake his perception of himself from someone of average worth to that of some sort of monster whose ability to hurt others was limited only by his laziness.

 

His rest had been suffocated by shame.

 

Pastor Tomas Ericsson opens his eyes.  He senses someone in the room with him, looks up and sees Jonas Perssons standing in his office.  We don’t know how long he’s been standing there.    Standing there, not knowing if he should wake the Pastor or let the poor man sleep.

 

He saw something else in Jonas Perssons’ face.  A particular kind of fear.  This is a dangerous room for him.  He looks at the Pastor the way someone might look at a bomb that could explode at any moment.  The idea of being afraid of being killed appears to confuse Perssons.  Why should he be afraid?  Isn’t he entertaining thoughts of suicide?  Entertaining thoughts of suicide.  Entertained by the thought of suicide.  Suicide as entertainment.

 

He paused the disc, went into the kitchen and took the bottle of vodka from the freezer.  It was a new bottle, purchased that day from one of the three liquor stores he shopped at in rotation so no one would think he was buying too much.  He may not have been buying too much recently, but he certainly was buying more.  He imagined one doesn’t feel the shift from “more” to “too much” in the moment.  It’s not like crossing a border; you were here and now you’re here.  One is only made aware of the change when they look back over their shoulder and see the frontier of empty bottles behind them.

 

Pastor Ericsson offers Perssons coffee.  Perssons declines.  There is an excruciating exchange of pleasantries about the season and ship building, then Pastor Ericsson asks if Perssons has been having money problems.  Perssons makes a noise very much like a laugh.  “Oh, if only I had money problems instead of the Chinese.”  Pastor Ericsson fumbles through a sort of apology; sometimes financial matters can be at the root of depression and suicidal thoughts.  You understand, it’s a question I’m obliged to ask.  Strictly routine.

 

It is becoming painfully clear that Ericsson has not only lost his faith, he’s forgotten how to interact with human beings.  Perssons is in emotional pain and not only can’t Ericsson help, he doesn’t seem to be aware of it.

 

This is not the Pastor Ericsson he remembered from college.  The tortured clergyman seeking answers has become a not particularly gifted civil servant, chugging through life, going through the motions.

 

Perhaps Pastor Ericsson senses this.  He tries a new tack.  In the process he makes things worse.

 

He tells the fisherman about his own faith, how he came to learn it was false.  Pastor Ericsson tells Jonas that things make more sense if we deny the existence of God, because then we wouldn’t have to explain man’s cruelty.  It’s just who we are.

 

Jonas leaves.  Pastor Ericsson looks at the crucifix in his office and declares himself finally free.

 

He had another shooter.  The drinking of straight vodka from the freezer was the final step in dropping the illusion he was enjoying cocktails.  Mixers and rituals faded, one by one, leaving the simple, nonjudgmental cold of the vodka, taken a shot glass at a time.  Sugar and flavor fell by the wayside, overtaken by the need for efficient intake.

 

Ericsson is on the floor in front of the alter in his church, coughing and weeping.  Märta is suddenly there, embracing him, listening to him tell her that he is free.  How it’s all illusions, dreams, lies.

 

That’s when an old parishioner comes into the church to tell Pastor Ericsson that Jonas Perssons is dead.  He left the church, got into his car, drove a short distance to the bank of a river and shot himself with his rifle.  His body was discovered by two boys.

 

Jonas Perssons’ vague feelings about the meaninglessness of life, about the threat of nuclear annihilation at the hands of millions of Chinese people who know nothing about him, were crystalized by a few short moments with his spiritual caregiver.  Jonas Perssons left the church with a sense of purpose.  And now he’s dead.

 

Pastor Ericsson drives to the river and helps cover Jonas’ body with a tarp.  The scene is filled with snow and the sound of the river rushing under a bridge near the tree where Jonas shot himself.

 

He reaches for the remote, freezes the image, and begins to weep at the awful cold loneliness of the scene.  Of how poor Jonas Perssons found the resolve to murder himself after listening to Pastor Ericsson.  And Ericsson doesn’t seem to know how culpable he is.  

 

He has some more vodka and a slice of processed Swiss cheese.  The slices are kept separate in their plastic package by pieces of paper with the feel of parchment to them.

 

The Chinese.  All those Chinese.  Poor Jonas Perssons couldn’t understand why all those people would want to hurt him when, really, it wasn’t the Chinese he should have been worried about.  The threat to his life was much closer.

 

And as the vodka traveled to his ears and fingertips, he remembered why he picked this movie to watch when he couldn’t sleep.  It wasn’t because of Ericsson’s trivial, bourgeois crisis.  It was because of poor Jonas Perssons.

 

It wasn’t the Chinese who were the threat.  Just as it wasn’t the Chinese who charged the Capitol, smashing and laughing and killing.  They were his fellow citizens doing that.  He imagined himself sitting next to Jonas Perssons on the sofa, watching CNN, unable to understand where all the hate came from.

 

He stood in the middle of the room, the cold bottle of vodka in one hand, a shot glass and the remote in the other, looking at the television.  He pushed play.  Pastor Ericsson watches two men load the body of Jonas Perssons into the back of a van and drive the dead fisherman out of the story and Ericsson’s concern.  

 

He drank some more.

 

Vodka from the freezer is a good friend.  Dependable.

 

Ericsson doesn’t go straight to the Perssons house to tell Karin her husband has killed himself.  He goes with Märta to the schoolhouse where she teaches.  The place is empty.  She gives him something to help his cold.  He tells her he doesn’t love her.  He loved his wife, but she’s dead and Märta could never replace her.

 

Only after he has crushed Märta’s feelings does he go to the Perssons’ house.

 

Ericsson tells Karin Perssons that her husband is dead and offers to read some scripture with her.  She tells them that won’t be necessary.  Then she puts her hand on her pregnant belly and goes in to tell her other three children that their father is dead.

 

Ericsson has left the house by then and observes the scene between the children and their mother through a window.  Like everything else, Ericsson watches this from a safe distance.

 

And Perssons is never mentioned again.  Ericsson never considers his part in the man’s suicide.  He remains focused on his cold and trying to get his mistress to leave him alone.

 

The film is almost over now.  It isn’t a very long film.  Less than ninety minutes.

 

Ericsson leaves the freshly widowed Karin and goes off to celebrate mass at another church in another town.  "Holy Holy Holy, Lord God Almighty; heaven and earth are full of your glory."

 

He moved to sit down on the couch and found it difficult to do so.  The room had grown unstable.  The vodka was taking over the helm.  He partially sat but mostly fell on the couch.  His fingers were numb as he seized the remote and ejected the disc.  He didn’t want to see the end of the movie.  There wasn’t much left of it anyway.  Just Ericsson being a selfish jerk to Sexton Algot, the only unalloyed good person in the film, who has a question about the nature of Jesus’ suffering on the cross.

 

The house was silent around him.  Silent except for the noises a house makes at night.  Clicks, creaks, the heater in the attic, the refrigerator in the kitchen.

 

He was the only person on the face of the earth who was watching Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light.  And he had shut it off before the end.  Now, it was as if the movie never existed.

 

There was a pulling inside his chest.  Something collapsing.  Like the crushing of an empty can in a vacuum chamber.  He could hear the metal crumpling behind his heart. 

 

There was a message on the screen of the television.  The message informed him that “Automatic Shut Down Will Occur in Two Minutes.”

 

He remained on the sofa.  Watching the screen.  Waiting.

Joe Gillis is a writer with a couple of "B" movies to his credit.

Return to Contents