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Wednesday 19 May 2010

The Seventh Seal (1957)

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Stars: Gunnar Björnstrand, Bengt Ekerot, Nils Poppe and Max von Sydow
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

I knew beforehand that this would happen, of course, but from the very moment I started delving into the world of classic cinema, the name of Ingmar Bergman came up and remained highly prominent. His name permeates any serious discussion about world cinema or cinema as art, even in places you may not expect. Writing in exploitation master Roger Corman's book, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, for instance, Martin Scorsese described his days at New York University's Film School before making his first film for Corman. He said, 'There's no such thing as studying film at NYU. At NYU they make you study Wild Strawberries. I studied Wild Angels in movie theatres. Every morning at NYU you had to light a candle to Ingmar Bergman. They had little shrines to Bergman all over the place. I love Bergman pictures but it was Corman's movies we studied in those strange dives all over New York'.

This makes sense to me now as I learn just how differently film is seen across the globe. In the US, people who make films are filmmakers and success is measured at the box office. In many other parts of the world, people who make films are artists and success is measured by the quality of the work and the size of the legacy. Yes, that's an atrocious generalisation. Yes, there's crossover, especially today with the rise of indie cinema and consistently lower production and distribution costs, but there wasn't much in 1957 when Ingmar Bergman made The Seventh Seal which was based on his own play and wouldn't seem to be a commercially viable idea in the slightest. Set in mediæval Sweden with a title taken from the Revelation of St John the Divine and structured as a set of meditations on unquantifiable abstracts like life, death and man's relationship to God, this is hardly something you could imagine Hollywood turning out in 1957.

Background like that may draw the intelligentsia but it limits the audience massively as most people, consciously or subconsciously, avoid such work because it's surely going to be a long slog to depression. I'd often seen clips of this film but had little context to place those clips into, so before I saw it, I had expectations of an hour and a half chess game on a beach between a mediæval knight and Death himself, with deep philosophical discussions to parallel the moves. Happily, this is not the case. The chess game punctuates the film but is never the focus and the philosophy is an accompaniment to the story rather than a substitute for it. What I discovered here, with my first Bergman, is that though he undeniably fashions high art, he can still be accessible to more than just the snobby cultural elite. The Seventh Seal turns out to be a very human story indeed, telling us all about life through its proximity to Death.

We're in the 14th century and down on the beach are Antonius Block and his squire Jöns, who have returned to their native Sweden from a decade away fighting in the Crusades to discover that the country they left is being ravaged by plague. Death is a frequent visitor to this land and he's soon there on the beach in the memorable form of a black cloaked Bengt Ekerot to take Block too. However the knight isn't ready, because after ten years fighting in the name of the Lord, his faith has deserted him and he's tormented by its absence. Now he seeks knowledge, for proof of the existence of God and, while the soldier in him is not afraid of death, his soul fears that it's all that there is. So he challenges Death to a game of chess, ostensibly with his life as the prize but really to just play for time so that he might find the answers he seeks before he has to face the reality of them. In this he mirrors the rest of the population, who ask en masse.
As Block sets out for his castle, perhaps instinctively remembering the safety it offers or perhaps just wishing to die at home with his wife, he and Jöns come upon a wide range of people and with them a wide range of reactions to the very same situation he finds himself in. Everyone has to face Death, whether knight or peasant, and in a plague ravaged country it's on everyone's mind. And if that all sounds impeccably depressing, you should discover that it's a bawdy romp with memorable dialogue and superlative performances. Yes, here you'll meet Death, but here you'll also see a bar fight, a witch burning and a textbook seduction. You'll see a merry band of troubadours acting out their plays and singing their songs and you'll see a dark procession of penitents, whipping themselves and each other into purity. Does that sound like an arthouse discourse on existential angst or a lurid horror movie? Amazingly this is something of both.

Block is played by Max von Sydow, amazingly young to those of us who know him best as Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon or even as Father Merrin in The Exorcist. He looks the part with his shock of white hair, like Rutger Hauer with a stretched head, and he wears the garb of a knight like he was born in it. To a film full of peasantry, he brings a touch of class. We don't believe he's holy, but we believe that he truly aspires to that role, not just a nobleman but a noble man too. Mostly he's composed, speaking with quiet authority on everything except his own questions, but his face contorts magnificently when he looks into the eyes of a supposed witch as she dies, not just for her pain but because of the emptiness he sees there. 'Is it so terribly inconceivable to comprehend God with one's senses?' he asks a confessor. 'Why does he hide in a cloud of half-promises and unseen miracles? I want knowledge! Not faith, not assumptions, but knowledge.'

Another Bergman regular, Gunnar Björnstrand, instils plenty of character into Jöns, his squire. Block restricts his emotions except when he comes alive matching his wits with Death, so his squire provides a great balance, just another way to serve his master. He sings, jokes, makes rude faces behind his master's back. 'Between a strumpet's legs to lie, that's the place for such as I,' he sings, as they set forth into plague country. Outside of Death himself, who dominates proceedings partly through Bengt Ekerot's iconic performance but partly just because he's frickin' Death, Jöns is the star of the show. He seems to be all things to all people, loyal servant and timely saviour, hired muscle and provider of insults, drinking companion and purveyor of philosophical advice. He carries them all off wonderfully, though he calls himself simply, 'a pleasant, talkative young man who thinks only kind thoughts and performs only noble deeds.'

As they travel onward, they interact with the people they meet and learn how they're facing the inevitable. While Block visits a church and gives confession, albeit unwittingly to Death himself, Jöns gabs and drinks gin with a painter of murals, Albertus Pictor, a real life painter whose many murals on churches in which Bergman's clergyman father preached provided the basis for the iconography and imagery used in this film. His fictional counterpart explains to Jöns that 'a skull is more interesting than a naked woman' and that he paints the dance of death to remind the people that they're going to die. Outside they find a woman hanging in the stocks like a statue because she's supposed to be the witch who slept with the Devil and brought about the plague. People spread the blood and entrails of a black dog around her to keep Satan away until she is burned at the stake. Apparently he can't stand the smell, but then neither can anyone else.
Superstitions abound in The Seventh Seal. Many pertain to religion but many hearken back to days before Christianity, as not everyone has the benefit of education. In the town's tavern the opinions are simple: some want to live while they can, others would rather die pure. They aren't too sure of how but the penitents who process through the land spreading doom and gloom seem to know. Their march into town is a startling spectacle, quite literally awesome. Cowled penitents struggle under huge crosses, flagellants whip each other or themselves, all to the accompaniment of ritual chanting and clouds of incense. 'God has sent his punishment down on us,' their leader tells them. The message is simple. They're all going to die of the black plague. They're all doomed. Even those already singing the Dies Irae, carrying skulls or wearing crowns of thorns, pay attention, and then they all move on once more to leave shock in their wake.

One man epitomises the change that the fear of Death can bring. A young woman catches him stealing from a corpse in a stable and he turns on her with intention of rape, only to discover Jöns behind the door, who recognises him as Raval from the seminary in Roskilde, the very man who sent them to the Holy Land ten years before. 'The Lord sought to chasten our smug pride,' spits the squire, 'so he sent you to spew your holy venom and poison my master's mind.' He lets him live but threatens to cut his face up next time he sees him, as would be meted out to a petty thief. He makes good his word too, after Raval picks on a juggler named Jof in the town's tavern. Jof is a visitor, a travelling performer, thus an easy target and nobody stops the thuggish Raval from tormenting him. Perhaps any target is good when Death stalks the land, as long as it isn't them. Only when Jöns makes good on his promise does Raval vanish.

While the story is drenched in philosophy and great dialogue, it doesn't skimp on the visuals and these scenes in the tavern highlight a lost cinematic art: the use of human faces as background. This film is over half a century old but it's the most recent exemplar of this technique that I've found, after earlier gems like Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc and Eisenstein's two films about Ivan the Terrible. The cinematography is by Gunnar Fischer, one of two great visual artists who worked with Bergman over a string of many movies, the other being Sven Nykvist who mostly took over as of The Virgin Spring in 1960. Fischer shot fourteen films for Bergman, including both his masterpieces from 1957, the other being Wild Strawberries, and the 1955 film whose success at Cannes enabled this one to be made, Smiles of a Summer Night. He's a better choice here because he was more expressionistic while Nykvist was more natural with light.

I can wonder what Nykvist would have done with the forest scenes, but I can see what Fischer did, whether looking at the sky or the trees, and so it's easy to understand why people are happy for Block to guide them through the forest to keep them safe from trolls and ghosts and bandits. The company has grown considerably by this time: not just Block and Jöns, Jof and his wife Mia, and the unnamed girl that Jöns saves from Raval, but also a smith named Plog. Plog is distraught over the loss of his buxom wench of a wife who has run off with an actor, Jonas Skat, who was the third in Jof's company. Yet when he rediscovers the pair in the forest, she rejoins him and Jonas stays behind to fake his own death to escape Plog and then find it for real. Death is also with them, as he soon discovers and as Jof soon sees because he's precisely what Block has been searching for, but doesn't realise has been under his nose for a good part of the film.
We learn early on that Jof has some sort of second sight because he experiences a vision of the Virgin Mary only for his wife Mia to discount it. 'The things you imagine,' she says, especially as he'd previously suggested that the Devil had painted the wheels on their caravan red with his tail, though of course he'd painted them himself. It's Jof who sees the dance of death at the end and Jof who sees Block's opponent at chess in the forest, at a rather fortuitous time. Jof and Mia are the only people in the film who are truly full of life, possibly because they have a year old child, and it's very possibly this yearning for the future that ensures their survival when most of their fellow countrymen aren't so lucky. Another take is more personal and suggests that Block, Jöns and Jof are different sides of Bergman, in turn the questioning son of a strict Lutheran minister, the cynical adult who saw World War II and the natural artist, the only one who lives on.

Certainly Block's motives are worn on his sleeve and Jof's carefree attitude while surrounded by death is unmistakable. It's Jöns who evokes most discussion because he's a complex character, as befits the top billing that Gunnar Björnstrand receives, even though he's playing a servant. He gets most of the best lines, whether they be serious or jovial. He gets to fashion both highbrow and lowbrow insults, in Latin to Raval and in vulgarisms when assisting Plog the smith in a battle of wits against Jonas Skat. He's frequently hilarious, which seems a strange thing to say in a film about the meaning of life, but he may be the key to what's really going on. At points he's like a translation tool, like the many devices Woody Allen uses in his movies and especially in Annie Hall where Allen uses subtitles to show us the real meaning of conversation. Bergman uses Jöns.

As perhaps befits the most cynical character, he misses out on a line that could sum up the film, settling instead on many lines that sum up all the different things in it, such as 'Love is the blackest of all plagues. If one could die of it, there would be some pleasure in love, but you don't die of it.' Three lines in particular stand out for mention at the close. Block's is suitably quiet and philosophical. 'To believe is to suffer,' he says summing up his life and what he hopes will end with his death. The longing of the unnamed girl played by Gunnel Lindblom is palpable as she looks into the face of Death. Mute throughout the story, she speaks at the end to say, 'It is finished.' Inevitably the final word must go to Death himself, who is a sure creature here, unlike the incarnations in Death Takes a Holiday or On Borrowed Time. Block questions him continually through the film, asking for his secrets. Eventually he answers. 'I have no secrets,' says Death.

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