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  • Black and White Equals Gray
  • Lebbeus Woods (bio)

Ingmar Bergman's Nattvardsgästerna/Winter Light (SE, 1963) was his favorite among the movies he made. It would be easy to dismiss such a statement as merely an impulsive remark were it not for two things: First, Bergman was not given to impulsive remarks about serious subjects such as film, and especially his own films. Second, Winter Light is unique among his body of film-works, so the statement makes sense when judged from the qualities of the film itself. It is an archetypal Bergman work, starkly simple in structure and profoundly complex in content. The film draws us into its black and white—in this work we should say black versus white—world to create an alternative reality that is both familiar and new.

The Swedish title of Winter Light translates into English, the lingua franca of international film distribution, as The Communicants. Not a bad title at all, given the film's story. So, where does the title Winter Light come from? Was Bergman consulted? Or was it the choice of the distributor's marketing department? Either way, it was a brilliant choice, because the narrative is about the particular light of Swedish winter—flat and colorless—which is powerfully emblematic of the protagonists' states of mind as they confront themselves and each other. For all their intensity and emotional displays, the color of the local landscape dominates their behavior. That color is gray—sometimes light-washed and transparent, sometimes dark and too deep to fathom. These extremes are both present in a still from the scene about halfway through the movie where Tomas, the troubled and doubting pastor, comes into his church's sanctuary after being badly shaken by a conversation with his parishioner, Jonas. [End Page 95]

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Figure 1.

Frame from Nattvardsgästerna/Winter Light (The Communicants), Ingmar Bergman. For all their intensity and emotional displays, the color of the local landscape dominates their behavior.

Standing quietly in the shadows, Tomas's former lover, Marta, watches his anguish with, for the moment, loving but skeptical detachment. Through a large window next to the altar, a low-hanging winter sun throws a flood of light into the space as though it were a portent amid despair, perhaps even the sign from God that Tomas hopes for but Marta simply cannot believe in. Sven Nykvist, Bergman's longtime cameraman, has set up the shot to bring to bear the full power of winter light, with its infinite palette of grays, from almost-white to almost-black, to expose the interwoven existential and metaphysical crises that have overtaken Tomas, Marta, and Jonas, and, by implication, all of us who share their experience. [End Page 96]

Lebbeus Woods

After working for Eero Saarinen and Associates and going into private practice, Lebbeus Woods concentrated on theory and experimental work since 1976. He was the co-founder and scientific director of, an institute devoted to the advancement of experimental architectural thought and practice. His most recent books were Radical Reconstruction (Princeton Architectural Press, 1997), The Storm and the Fall (Princeton Architectural Press, 2003), System Wien (Hatje Cantz/MAK, 2005), and OneFiveFour (Princeton Architectural Press, 2nd Edition, 2011). He was a recipient of the American Institute of Architects Honors Award; the Chrysler Award for Innovation in Design; and the American Institute for Arts and [End Page 97] Letters's Award for Architecture. His works are in public collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art, the Austrian Museum of Applied Art, the Carnegie Museum of Art, and the Getty Research Institute for the Arts and Humanities. Woods died on October 30, 2012. This was one of his last written pieces.



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