Review Of The Seventh Seal
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 6/10/06
One of the things that separates a great artist from a lesser one is his ability to switch forms, themes, and the like, yet still imprint that unmistakable essence that lets a viewer know which artist they are dealing with immediately. Rarely has there been a greater and more vivid example of this reality than in comparing the two films Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman released in 1957: The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries.
The first film, which is the subject of this essay, is stark, cosmic, spare, allegorical, and unremitting in its view of life, whereas Wild Strawberries is rich, personal, realistic (even if it uses symbolism), and open to several viable interpretations. Both films starred many of Bergman’s ‘stock actors from the 1950s: Max Von Sydow as Knight Antonius Block, Bibi Andersson as Mia, the wife of Jof the jester (and utterly gorgeous, as opposed to mere cuteness in Wild Strawberries), and Gunnar Björnstrand as Block’s squire Jöns, a pragmatic Sancho Panza to Block’s spiritual Don Quixote. While Björnstrand is nominally the third lead in the film, behind Sydow and Bengt Ekerot as the personification of Death, in truth he is the dominant lead character, with by far the most, and the best, lines of dialogue. And while this film is an allegory loaded with symbolism, it is also a very simple story of a middle 14th Century knight’s return to Sweden from the Crusades of the Middle Ages.
Block and Jöns have been gone a decade, and while the knight was a zealous believer in the Christian cause, the squire was not. A decade has taken its toll on both, physically, but more so psychically. The knight has started to lose faith in the existence of God, who would send men off to the folly of war, then strike them down with the Black Death. The squire is an atheist, openly mocking his Master’s beliefs, and loathing all the men who represent the church. Early in the film, Death- black hooded and white-faced (all the more heightened by the gorgeous black and white cinematography of Gunnar Fischer)- confronts the knight, who challenges him to a game of chess. Death is an old man, not evil, merely a perfunctory servant of Nature. Block asks ‘Who are you?’ Death says, ‘I am Death.’ Block counters, ‘Have you come for me?’ Death says, ‘I have long walked by your side.’ Block replies, ‘So I have noticed,’ with a grim humor that shows just how great a writer of dialogue Bergman is, and to which his detractors, who complain of his literary heft drowning his cinematic vision, are oblivious to. If Block loses the game, he must go with Death. If he wins, he gets off. But, Block is not so much interested in living as he is in something greater, leaving an impact for posterity- some tangible act that will perdure where he feels his belief in God has failed. Death preys upon Block’s fears, and tricks him into revealing his game strategy after the knight is initially routing Death.
As the knight and squire journey back to his wife and castle, not unlike Odysseus, they meet a handful of other people, including Mia and her acting troupe, run by Jonas Skat (Erik Strandmark), Mia’s husband Jof (Nils Poppe)- who has ecstatic visions no one else can see- and their infant son Michael (the allusions to Christ are manifest as Mia means Mary and Jof Joseph. Along the way, comic relief is provided by the interplay and antics of Jof and Skat with Plog the blacksmith (Åke Fridell) and his wife Lisa (Inga Gill), who cuckolds Plog with Skat, who ends up the first of the group to fall victim to Death. The knight likes the actors, but the squire gets to indulge his savage hared for the church when he rescues a beautiful girl (Gunnel Lindblom) from the possible sexual ravages of a seminarist named Raval (Bertil Anderberg) who seems intent on looting the home of her family, now all dead from the plague. First, the squire threatens Raval, then he disfigures him, then he allows the seminarist to die from the Plague, as the girl, wanting to help Raval, looks on.
Jöns’ cruelty, or indifference, and whole demeanor (such as his blasphemous mockery of the church with a church painter named Albertus Pictor (Gunnar Olsson)) contrasts sharply with Block’s pious but creeping doubts. Early on, the duo comes across a young village girl (Maud Hansson) soon to be burned at the stake for being a witch. The squire thinks it’s ignorant cruelty, but Block, while doubting her evil nature, tries to ask her queries of evil, life, the Devil, only to be taunted by the deluded girl. In her, he sees only vacancy, and this only fuels his apostasy, especially when he asks her to ask the Devil if God exists. It shows Block as pitiable and absurd, but strangely human and weak. When, finally, she is burned alive, seemingly on the orders of Death, himself, the two men look at her eyes, and see the void that is reality. It is a chilling moment as Sydow’s face twists and we know Antonius Block has reached a point of no return. Later, he plays the final moves of the game with Death, but Jof sees them, and the knight knows Jof does. Quietly, Jof sneaks out of camp with his family, leaving Death to deal with the others. In his arrogance, Death, wanting to take the knight and his companions so badly that he needed to resort to trickery to defeat Block, gets his comeuppance, as Block distracts Death from noticing the escaping family, by knocking over the chess pieces, pretending he was desperate to avoid losing. He claims he cannot recall where the pieces were, but Death does, and he shoots the knight an almost sadistic look, feeling that the knight is now truly fearing him, unrealizing that Block has merely accomplished his great existential act- allowing the ‘Holy Family’ life, even as he is resigned to death for himself and the rest. It’s a very subtle, yet very complex, moment.
Eventually, the knight’s party arrives at his castle, and he is confronted by his wife Karin (Inga Landgré), who recognizes him, but sees that he does not immediately recognize her. Like the others, she is alone at the castles, surrounded by memories and death. She feeds them, and quotes from the book book of Revelations, from where the film gets its title, and with which the film opened: ‘When he broke open the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour’ (Revelations 8:1). Then, a knock comes. The squire answers the door, but says no one was there. But, it is Death, and eventually all see and try to make peace with him. The knight, meanwhile, begs for God’s intrusion, only to be, yet again, let down. The film ends the next morning, with Jof and Mia, and their son, waking up. Jof claims that he sees many of the others doing a Danse Macabre in the distance, as they hold hands with each other, and with Death (a scene famously parodied by Woody Allen in his Love And Death), and Mia teases him about his silly visions, as she has the whole film. They then go about their lives.
Some interpret great and deep meaning into the fact that Raval, the evil seminarist who dies of the Plague, is said to be dancing with Death, and not the squire’s girl nor Block’s wife, as cited by Jof, but it could merely be that Bergman had Jof colloquially ticking off only a few of the names, or merely, himself, not being certain. I do not think it really matters, and it may very well have been a continuity error that Bergman never caught while shooting the scenes out of sequence. After all, the way Bergman actually films the scene, against a stormy sky, does not allow the audience a definitive count of the dancers, much less their identities. They are too far away and in silhouette for that, so we must rely on Jof’s take, which the film has shown to be unreliable, if somewhat greater than the average man’s. The film is by no means gloomy and dismal, as many Bergman detractors despair. The squire Jöns is a powerful figure for he is the self-realized man of the later Western World, all the more admirable for his ability to question and challenge his Master, and not merely be servile. His banter with Plog, in a tavern, about marriage and love is both very funny and quite profound, again proving Bergman is not only a master of the visual elements of film, but its underlying written infrastructure. Block is a noble figure, who despite his weaknesses and folly, achieves what he set out to do- a significant act of selfnessness, after much passive selfishness in his inner quest. Jof is also a positive character who, while weak and sniveling, can also see beyond what others miss, and that he and his family survive, makes him the best part of the human spirit, emblemic of Man’s will to go on in the face of great adversity. The very fact that Death, himself, needs to trick the knight in order to win the game of chess, and does so in the very underhanded way of using the knight’s confessional moment to win, speaks volumes for Bergman’s inner optimism, despite what most myopic critics feel. If even Death must resort to base human trickery to succeed in his mission, then the human that can transcend such base impulses, and not fall prey to them in others, must truly be the ideal for which we all strive, for he can even defeat Death, who seems to be far less frightening, for even he admits he knows nothing of higher ideas. He is merely a force of nature, not a sentient thing. Whether or not God exists is simply a query even Death cannot answer, nor does it concern him in the least.
The acting is uniformly excellent. Sydow is utterly transparent as Block. We see every cranny of doubt and belief written on his face. Poppe, as Jof, shows what Roberto Benigni might be like, if he had a dram of depth, Ekerot's Death is frightening only in his pomp and banality, but Björnstrand gives a truly great performance in the most difficult of the roles- treading between comedy and drama, realism and absurdism, as the squire who seems to be the wisest of all the characters. While this film was made at the height of the early Cold War, and many early reviewers took the Plague as an allegory for nuclear war, the film is far more than a simplistic political screed. At 96 minutes it also is not tool long that it batters the viewer with its message, nor too short that it slips quickly by. This film proves why black and white is still a vital tool in filmmaking. Had it been shot in color its dreamy quality would be rent, for shadows and depth are far easier to portray in black and white, and are far more suggestive of moodiness and inner turmoil. One problem is that the DVD version of the film I have, from The Criterion Collection, errs in allowing the black and white English words to be used, rather than colorizing them for clearer and speedier reading, thus detracting from the visual cornucopia onscreen. This is why watching the film, a second time, with or without comments, is recommended, for many visual subtleties are revealed that are lost in a first viewing’s necessity to read the dialogue
All in all, it’s little wonder why speed-addicted, and Lowest Common Denominator afflicted American viewers have never taken to films like this, of such high quality. Yes, the writing is spare, but it is not meant to be realistic, and some of the imagery, and acting is straight out of silent German Expressionism, which only reinforces the revery-like feel of the film. And while Americans are noted for cherishing their dreams as hopes, how few ever recall their dreams as theater?
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? website.]
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