The World Is Ending, and I’m Terrible at My Job: “Winter Light” and “First Reformed”

In the 11th grade, I wrote a short story for a class. It was about a pastor who was doubting his faith. For a while, I had liked the idea of doing the job that a pastor, priest, rabbi, or imam does in serving a community – teaching, consoling, nurturing, advising, being present for other people – except for the minor fact that I did not believe in any of the religions.  That, of course, has not stopped a lot of people from being faith leaders, but I knew I couldn’t live with it.

I’ve long cited Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light as one of my favorite movies, albeit in the way that an arty film you watch when you’re nineteen or twenty makes a big impression on you. It too is the story of a man of faith confronting its deficit.  In the 1962 film, Tomas, a Swedish pastor, struggles with bitterness and grief, as well as his shortcomings in counseling others who face the existential terror of life and hunger for help, explanation, reassurance.  It was part of Bergman’s trilogy of films about the crisis of faith and the silence of God, which included Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and The Silence (1963), both of which are arguably more celebrated than Winter Light.

So imagine my surprise when I started watching Paul Schrader’s acclaimed 2017 film First Reformed.  Critics had raved about it, and all I knew was that it was about something fucked-up involving a pastor or priest (hence, probably sexual abuse).  As the story of Ethan Hawke’s angsty pastor Ernst Toller unfolded, something kept pinging in my mind.  And then it hit me: this film is a remake of Winter Light, in a very literal sense.

The story is so similar that Bergman probably should have gotten a screenwriter credit. Both films begin with a scene of the minister preaching in a church with mostly empty pews, signaling the futility of their efforts as well as others’ loss of faith. Both films culminate in an anticlimactic church service.

In both, a sad minister who has suffered personal tragedy and subsequently repressed his trauma meets a young couple; a woman seeks help for her male partner, who is seriously disturbed by the events of the world and facing the edge of the ledge. The pastor has a female “friend,” a mousy teacher who fawns after him and whose efforts to care for the clearly self-destructive fellow he rebuffs in the cruelest possible way. The young man kills himself, after getting really great advice from the pastor.

The differences are mostly updates.  Primarily, in the original film, Jonas (Max von Sydow) is a fisherman filled with dread at the thought of nuclear annihilation and the concomitant pointlessness of life.  (This was 1962, after all.)  In the new film, Michael (Philip Ettinger) is a radical environmentalist who despairs at the effects of climate change.  In both cases, they have a female partner who is pregnant, and the whole bringing-a-child-into-this-world question looms.  Also, First Reformed takes a much longer time getting to its point.

For what it’s worth, First Reformed is the film that will feel more natural and fully realized to the contemporary viewer.  The pacing of Winter Light is so brisk that it unfolds in a mercenary 81 minutes.  The Bergman film at times looks like a caricature of the kind of dark, moody, oh-so-serious European art movie often parodied in American pop culture, but it is also nonetheless admirably sincere and straightforward. The film has a bracing directness that is refreshing, especially when Tomas’s unrequited paramour, Märta (Ingrid Thulin), speaks straight into the camera during the striking, extended scene in which she “reads” her letter to the viewer.

In both films, though, we see similar themes about gender, politics, and faith.  Women are portrayed as sources of warm, sensible, humane practicality, while the male protagonists are austere, self-destructive, tortured by abstractions.  You really want to smack these guys around and say buck the fuck up.  Life is happening while you’re brooding over the end of the world.  The perennial cliché of the redemptive power of a woman’s love is present in both, though Bergman is having a lot less of it.

Winter Light and First Reformed are quite consciously fashioned as films keyed into the deepest anxieties of the moment, whether nuclear war (indeed, the title evokes “nuclear winter”) or catastrophic climate change.  Both are about how people grapple with the ethical and existential question of dealing with huge processes that are largely, perhaps nearly completely out of their control.  Of course, humans have had to contend with social, political, economic, and ecological forces that were beyond their control for as long as we have been a species – hence, the value of using religion as a theme in both films.  The soothingly universal meets the unnervingly and inescapably particular.  And these are men who are tasked with explaining how to live a moral life in spite of it.

We’re like a pair of parentheses

Winter Light’s literalness might come across as clunky to some viewers. (The characters actually say exactly what they think!)  And First Reformed might have married its universal ethical to a too-specific plot about contemporary politics, which feels thuddingly heavy-handed at times.  But both films still present truly poignant portraits of humans who deal (badly) with their personal suffering while simultaneously having to grasp for ways to confront an alarmingly Big Picture.  They share (quite consiously, I assume) a tight, claustrophobic, boxed-in aesthetic of cinematography that conveys the feeling of being hemmed-in and powerless.

My favorite character, Märta, has perhaps the best line in either film.  Noting her lack of faith, she still muses over something that never quite made sense to her about believers: “your peculiar indifference to Jesus Christ.”  I’m not quite sure what she meant, but it seems to have something to do with basing a religion of redemption on torture porn and human sacrifice.

Another character later in the film disagrees; he says that Jesus’s physical suffering on the cross was not substantively greater than what ordinary people deal with over the course of a lifetime of bodily misery.  It was Christ’s deeper pain – of realizing that his apostles had not really understood his teaching at all, that it was all for nothing, that he was alone and abandoned in the end – that we should really grieve for. 

That feels a lot like being the last human on the last life raft as the waters rise.  What did we do?  What was the point?