Thursday, 1 August 2019

Alternate Best Actor 1963: Gunnar Björnstrand in Winter Light

Gunnar Björnstrand did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Pastor Tomas Ericsson in Winter Light

Winter Light is an excellent film following a pastor over a single day as he deals with his dwindling congregation, his own doubts and those of a suicidal parishioner. The film filling in the other "original" material featured in First Reformed, that was not featured in Diary of a Country Priest. 

The central role of the contemplative pastor here is notably different from the similarly burdened theologians featured in the aforementioned films from the lack of the constant internal monologue of journal entries. This leaves a more distant figure to be portraying by Gunnar Björnstrand. Björnstrand, taking a far less extroverted role than that of the heroic squire featured in The Seventh Seal, opens the film as he proceeds with mass. An important moment as the setting piece where it appears we see the dispassionate man going through the motions. He speaks the words with a professional expectation but little more than that. Björnstrand emphasizing a man performing the ceremony without passion or seemingly purpose to the close of the mass. Björnstrand presents with similar dispassion as he sees to its end and even in his interactions with the local schoolteacher Märta (Ingrid Thulin). This as she plays around with the idea of this deep infatuation between sarcasm and something genuine. This against Björnstrand's work which is as this wall of seemingly indifference. He grants just the slightest glint of familiarity in these moments, however always shielded and hidden, as Björnstrand consistently pulls from her physically and verbally he grants mostly a detachment within his lack of affirmation towards her remarks. 

Björnstrand serves the need of the character as a largely frustrating one. In that the heart is purposefully left to the far more open Märta, where Thulin is devastating and rather heartbreaking in portraying the woman's perhaps hopeless cause to find love in the pastor. She presses him essentially to act by declaring her love to him, but also questioning his peculiar faith. This is perhaps the most important aspect of Björnstrand's performance which emphasizes the moments of speaking of God seemingly with this fixation rather than any sense of inspiration. This portraying the pastor's connection essentially as a painful hold on him. This is further seen as the troubled parishioner Jonas (Max von Sydow) comes to seek his counsel. Björnstrand puts on barely a false facade of the man truly attempting to shepherd his flock. This as both as he speaks first to the man and his wife, and then just the man, Björnstrand begins both seems with a perfunctory concern. Björnstrand isn't quite blithe but still instills this interactions with nearly that same indifference, only more than that through some shy attachment to duty. Björnstrand delivers this even as the man pours out his despair regarding his existence and the state of the world.

The answer to the man's question calls upon the pastor's own past of having witnessed atrocities during the Spanish civil war. Björnstrand speaks with a purposefully tempered and internalized emotion. Again, a distant, though this time emphasizing a purposeful detachment from any sense of horrors he might have witnessed. As he continues to explain his own earlier faith that is explained as a selfish faith that was egocentric. Björnstrand opens up slightly in this regard, and effectively so in revealing a notable self-loathing in these remarks. This speaking with less than discontent in creating a sense of disgust with his past in some way. This bridged with explaining the death of this wife, where there is an anguish within Björnstrand's work but an anger within it. This before stating his own rejection of a God, as essentially an easier way to face the world. Björnstrand stating these words finally with emotion, though again with this certain venom intertwined with this attempt at distance. This being the key really to the character and the essential truth of the man realized by Björnstrand's performance in this moment. Though as he reveals the honest reality of his own view, we still see the man who offers not a hint of comfort to the distraught man, who commits suicide soon afterwards.

The pastor finally leaves the church in the solemn duty of attending to the dead man's corpse, before being tasked to inform his widow. The process though is continued with Märta attending to him along the way. This despite as he continually denies her any return of affection, even in a moment of berating her for attempting to behave as his wife. The more direct emotion being an effective tell that Björnstrand portrays, as negatively as it is, as this dishonesty that hides a real emotion. This that he definitely does feel something for him, something similar to his deceased wife, that causes this to become a rejection of such a notion. This being that key of the man that Björnstrand realizes in a convincing fashion, as a man who has essentially close himself off from feeling lest it burden him. Her persistence forcing him from his shell of indifference through reaction is of anger and hate as though seemingly fueled by the idea of essentially having to feel.  This is only for a moment as we witness tell Jonas's now widow of her husband's fate. Again Björnstrand depicts that same detachment in delivery this news, not to the point of seeming cruel, yet still he makes it a perfunctory act of decency rather than a true one fitting towards his profession. This leaves the seemingly faithless man only to potentially give service, though to a non-existent crowd other than the organist, Märta, and his sexton. This being perhaps the most important scene as the sexton notes Jesus's own struggles with doubt on the cross, though this is purposefully limited within Björnstrand's performance. This in that Bergman's work as the director creates an ambiguity regarding the character's own faith in the end of the film, this as we do not witness the final sermon only the beginning of it. The question being is it now with meaning because of the sexton's words, and the sight of Märta, who begins praying. A brilliant choice mind you, however it does limit Björnstrand performance, which is neutral in the moment, lest that ambiguity be lost. This as even in the end the pastor remains a frustrating character, who we do learn about, and have an understanding of, but we as the audience never completely lose that distance from him. This is not a criticism regarding Björnstrand's performance, which stands on its own as a strong turn, that works well within the confines of the role and purpose, however it is Thulin's performance and Bergman's work that leaves the most lasting impression.


Luke Higham said...

Damn, I really hoped he'd be a five for you.

Louis: Ratings and Thoughts on the rest of the cast and any more to add on Thulin who I assume got a five.


Björnstrand with 4.5 Mifune! I knew Lancaster would win!

But I'm hoping Patrick McGoohan wins the year 1963.

Anonymous said...

Any updated thoughts on Bergman as a director and your thoughts on his work here.

Anonymous said...

Louis: Your thoughts on the direction and screenplays of The Public Enemy and Little Caesar.

Bryan L. said...

Louis: Present film roles for Robert Ryan?

Louis Morgan said...


Thulin - 5(She is indeed a five, and would earn that from her letter recitation scene alone. This as it is one of the most powerful depictions of an absolute emotional vulnerability that I've seen. She just produces such honesty in the scene that is especially incredible to witness in that moment. This being the genuine truth of the person just placed in front of you that is stunning. This underlying the rest of her performance which is a combination of repressions. This towards conveying her love of the pastor which she depicts as a festering wound that she attempts to assuage. Initially with the degrading sarcasm that develops to these moments of directed need, placed against such harrowing anguish that comes along with her opening up.)

Edwall - 3.5(Rather effective in his major scene in portraying his character's certain understanding of doubt with an actual inspirational quality within his performance. This as he plays it with such a meek quality of real appreciation for the idea that creates a comfort within his character that is not evident in anyone else within the film.)

Thunberg - 3(An effective bit of sardonic manner that manages to make a small impact despite rather limited screentime. This doing well in portraying really a man who has no real beliefs and is not burdened by just kind of not caring about anything.)


Bergman's work here is probably what Schrader most wished to replicate direction wise with First Reformed, in creating this certain emotional austerity. This in granting this lack of frills in allowing scenes to play out with this exceptional bluntness, with the staging of a scene typically being purposefully straight forward. This being incredibly effective here, particularly in Thulin's aforementioned scene where there is so much genius quite frankly in just having nothing really other than Thulin's face speaking right to you that truth.

The more I see of Bergman, the more there are two things that become true to me, in that he's probably has one of the greatest ranges of director all working with in more or less the same tone. This is not to say there aren't variations of tone that can be found in his work, such as the comic death bits in Seventh Seal, however typically he deals with that emotional intensity. Something that he deals with with extraordinary variety in how he can approach even similar ideas. This something very much Woody Allen wished to follow, not as successfully I'd say, but it is a fascinating thing to watch a filmmaker explore. This as every great Bergman film is distinct even within covering similar elements and ideas. It also needs to be stated again that he is the greatest director of actors, as unless you're name is Elliott Gould, you won't find a bad performance in a Bergman film.

Louis Morgan said...


The Public Enemy's screenplay is an effective hard boiled affair, though once again one must always consider what makes a great gangster film against a forgettable one. Usually an essential part of this is in development of the lead, who as typically to Cagney's gangster character does have some sympathetic element that he usually so effectively explored. The necessary seed is within that in giving Tom the base of his home life, however what actually is perhaps most notable about "Enemy" is really following within the details of debauchery. This in the killings but also the multiple girlfriends with the details of Tom's use of the grapefruit. It is effective in just creating the rise of it, but goes further in making it a particularly personal one.

Wellman's direction is what takes the film further, as he does not direct with the two people in a bland set approach than so many directors of early sound. Wellman captures a needed emotionalism in the scenes, whether that just offering a bit more dynamics in shot choices in one of Tom's points of rage, or more importantly the rain sequence which is just an amazing bit of direction by Wellman. This is as it is an extremely early example of using a true sense of atmosphere in sound of the rain, and actually in sound in living the killing just to sounds in the place we do not enter. It then offers a far more powerful look at Tom's whole experience through a few ways. One being showing that lust for violence as Tom watches his intended targets, slowly following him, and bringing us essentially into his mindset, but then just the same not holding back in the depiction of his wound. This in allowing Cagney to portray a real physical pain, not just a quite, "I'm down", but the real results of that violent lust.

Let me cover Caesar on the next post.


Robert Ryan:

Rick Carver