Bergman himself deemed these three films a trilogy of faith called the Silence of God trilogy, but he later rejected this connection; many critics retain the name.

In February and March of this Bergman centennial year, the Pacific Film showed this trilogy and professor Bart Testa, senior lecturer at Innis College and the Cinema Studies Institute at the University of Toronto, lectured on it. To discuss the trilogy it seems best to quickly summarize the plot and then discuss the meaning of each film, before considering what might cohesively bind these three films together.


Through A Glass Darkly (Såsom i en spegel, 1961)
David goes to the family cabin with his teenage son Fredrik (aka Minus), his daughter Karin and her husband Martin. Karin was recently hospitalized for schizophrenia but yearns for a union with God and rejoining the family. Minus hopes for attention from his father who is busy observing Karin for his next book. During a rainstorm she shelters in an old boat hull, and when Minus finds her, they conjoin. Karin later escapes to the attic to be enraptured by God but flees screaming, saying she has seen God who is a spider. Alone, Minus and David finally talk. Minus says, “Papa talked to me!”

Acknowledging the superb acting, the illuminating photography, and the compelling script and directing, let us examine the story as a whole and its meaning. While they enjoy each other’s company, all four characters are empty and searching for fulfillment. Each has framed his or her expectation of reward, according to previous social and religious norms.
Perhaps that is the problem. In searching for God, they impose limits on “Him” and confine “Him” to an anticipated appearance; such human hubris for divine omniscience and omnipotence! They are looking for the God that has been preached to them, rather than for a divine essence, whatever its manifestation.
A most curious aspect of the film is the penultimate scene in the wrecked and dripping boat, where Karin has sought refuge, and together with Minus has experienced a fulfillment. This setting, the boat itself, becomes rather symbolic of their condition. In an earlier scene with her brother in the attic, she anticipates the rapture of a sexual union that seemed to be her only vocabulary for imagining the Lord revealing himself to her.
What is so interesting to me is that both Karin and Minus use their father as their confessor. More significantly, both describe to him, in almost the same vernacular, the same dualistic challenge (mundane vs heightened reality) seen from different perspectives, and each comes to different conclusions. Both confess they are at a dilemma to choose between these two aspects of reality. However, Karin chooses to return to the sterile asylum, where her urges can be controlled and suppressed unnaturally by drugs and restraints; whereas Minus is taught by his father that his longings can be managed as long as he has “something to hold onto.”
If we focus on the final conversation between father and son, and how the son views it as a personal form of salvation, the words cannot be ironic. And no one could conclude a film of this magnitude without taking the meaning of the dialogue seriously: God is love, or more importantly, love is God. If that is the case then, like Karin, we must become shattered when the form of God is transformed into something not merely unexpected but dreaded.
But if Karin were an arachnologist seeking God, she would not recoil in horror at the appearance of the domestic spider in the attic. A scientist might admire the wondrous way God adapted to her expectations, to meet her in a way she could appreciate how His power applies to all creation.
So, we are left with the problem of faith and the manifestation of god, being the problem of the perceiver, not the problem of God. Perhaps after all, pantheism — appreciating daily miracles in physical nature and human nature — might be more helpful in discovering divinity. No one seeing this film and understanding its references can help but conclude that though the course to the morale may be tortuous, the lesson is clear: Love is the great commandment for all.

Winter Light (Nattvardsgästerna, 1963)
The ironically named Pastor Tomas Ericsson not only doubts God’s existence but also fraudulently continues to minister. After a sermon, Jonas a parishioner, worried by the specter of the new atomic bomb, seeks counsel for doubting God. The pastor confesses that he too no longer believes in God. Subsequently Jonas commits suicide. Märta, a schoolteacher and atheist, admits her love for the pastor; she takes him in but he brutally rejects her. Then he asks her to drive him to Jonas’s grieving family. The pastor cannot console the pregnant widow. Märta then drives him to his second service in a nearby parish where the hunchbacked sexton, Algot, who suffers daily from his affliction. The organist, Fredrik, also an atheist, advises Märta to abandon Tomas and enjoy life, but she prays as Tomas preaches to an empty church.

This movie goes beyond the first one. Here an isolated church official, who despite his avowed atheism, fraudulently continues his practice. His isolation is so complete that he cannot comprehend his own personal salvation standing in front of him: Märta’s unconditional love. For that matter, one pities her for not heeding the organist’s advice to leave Tomas, especially in light of Bergman’s lesson in this story: that religion may provide meaning for many, but it is not necessary for everyone to enjoy a fulfilling life. If God had no concern for the wartime atrocities that Tomas witnessed, then we must be equally wary of humans as the cause of these.
The intellectual sexton makes a telling point to the contemporary concern at the time of this movie, about the silence of God in the face of a threat such as the atom bomb. There is no universal salvation from a humanly maniacal instrument such as this bomb. Above all, this film proclaims that man is not merely faithless but blind, and cannot recognize divinity in love even when it stands before him. While Märta’s love is unlikely to wear out Tomas’ resistance, Fredrik — who clearly is in love with Märta though she cannot see this — it seems a terrible price for one person to pay for another’s blindness. But such is this condition that when we do not comprehend the central role of love, we can never find meaningful religion.

The Silence (Tystnaden, 1963)
Two grown sisters are traveling by train from a warring Central European country, where they don’t speak the language. The older sister, Ester, the intellectual, is dying; Anna is sensual and travels with her 10-year-old son, Johan. Because Ester is sick, Anna agrees to disembark at Timoka. While Ester remains at the hotel, smoking, drinking and befriending Johan, Anna walks the town. She goes to the theater and is seated near a fiercely intimate couple. Afterward, she brushes by an attractive waiter she saw on her way in. Johan sees her kissing the waiter and entering another room in the hotel. The next morning Anna tells Ester that she and Johan are leaving; on the train, Johan opens a parting gift from his dying aunt: a list of five words that she has translated.

To understand The Silence, we must comprehend several crucial themes: alienation, love and sex, and communication.
The relationship between the title and the main characters’ situation is important. In a foreign country, they do not speak nor understand what others say to them. Additionally they are confined to themselves for mutual support: they sink or swim. The sisters often hurt each other by word or deed, as well as misinterpret each other’s intentions. Yet at times they can be tenderly kind. Johan, a shy but observant boy, is caught between them. The title suggests silence can be deadly; striving for communication and comprehension is a critical survival skill. Their plight is amplified because the country is arming for war, which terrifies Johan.
The sexual personalities of the sisters are starkly different. Anna indulges in sex to taunt Ester, saying, “How nice it is that we don’t understand each other,” before wishing that Ester were dead (a harsh substitute for not meddling). In her walk outside, she walks against a stream of men (no women). Anna is reviled by a couple fully engaged in sex. Her carnal lust is that of a rutting animal; she’s stuck in a rut.
Finally there is the love expressed by the dying aunt’s parting gift to her nephew. Translated words - such communication is how we open ourselves to others. With her dying breath she tells him, “Johan! It’s important, you understand! You must read it carefully. (Pause) It’s all I … You’ll understand. Don’t be frightened. Be brave.”
It cannot be the five foreign words that he learns as he’s departing their language community. It must be the act of learning to communicate with others — to break the silence — that’s the essential quality of being human. Sharing is the first step toward love of another.

THE TRILOGY (1962-1963)
Analysis of the angst, faith and love of all three movies
The most interesting thing about seeing all Bergman’s films in retrospect, and arranged thematically rather than chronologically, is seeing how times have changed, What was radical then (renewed religious faith; the existential angst of that period; the sexual revolution) are viewed differently now.
Bergman’s trilogy at the time was considered to wrestle with the conundrum of keeping faith in a silent god. The ultimate theme in the trilogy (and several earlier films) was then considered to be: what is man’s god and is there any responsibility between the two if the god is silent?
At the conclusion of Darkly, love and God are synonymous. The very act of love (caring for another as much as for oneself) is by definition experiencing the divine. However, the many forms the divine may take and the effects of not finding the answer in the manner you were expecting are haunting.
By the time we move from Darkly to Light, even a pastor doubts his faith. The proof of his self-created hell is that no one attends his services (except for the one who tortures herself by unrequitedly loving him).
Throughout the trilogy, we find characters looking for love in all the wrong places. Or, not knowing what they are seeking. It is almost as if these pathetic lost souls immunize themselves from others, in turn infecting themselves. One feels pity for these characters, and by extension for ourselves, when we trap ourselves in our own delusions.
In The Silence, not only is God not communicating with mankind, but we also conclude that hell is not communicating. We have moved from that to focus on human cruelty: the opposite of true love, the saving grace. Moreover, by something so isolating as silence, we create our private cell of hell.
By the end of the trilogy, the aunt’s parting gift of love to her nephew is valuable, not for the words themselves —hand, face, spirit, fear, joy— as much as for teaching another (the son she never had) how and why to learn to communicate and share with others.
Winter Light becomes the hinge, where faith is abandoned even by the minister. In his presentation, Professor Testa noted the near coincidence of the centennial of Bergman’s birthday as well as last year’s 500th anniversary of the Reformation when Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door. This act not only trashed indulgences and other practices of the Catholic Church, but in particular it fundamentally changed the nature of the church. More importantly, it vested authority in the Bible, not the Church nor its doctors and interpreted doctrines. And it gave each person a direct relationship with God. In Lutheran and other Protestant denominations, according to Professor Testa, the individual stands before an impersonal God, without any assurance of grace. Above all, he felt this trilogy is in particular a product of Bergman’s and Scandinavian religious traditions.
This trilogy works out how to focus upon and expose our own demons. Though Bergman specializes in chamber dramas, Winter Light ended his fascination with the silence of god and with the existence of god. Now he would pursue more fruitfully how human love can fulfill or thwart us, how family and community are important, as are love or charity as the means of unlocking a wellspring of life. What does not change is that he remains didactic and autobiographical. I marvel that while he is often regarded as dark, brooding and foreboding, almost every third film throughout his long career was more comedic than tragic. And I am grateful through this year to appreciate his creativity but especially his mastery as an author.

By Ted Olsson