Director Ingmar Bergman on the set with Bengt Ekerot
THE SEVENTH SEAL (Det sjunde inseglet) A-
Sweden (96 mi) 1957 d: Ingmar Bergman
When he broke open the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. —Revelations 8:1
This film is predicated on a manic, almost frantic fear of death which may attempt to capture the medieval mindset of disillusionment when death was so prevalent, and like the religious misgivings during the Holocaust, God was strangely nowhere to be found. There’s something about this film that has never quite sat right with me, despite the awesome yet unflinchingly somber power of some of the imagery combined with reflections on the philosophic meaning, or meaninglessness, of life, as it’s driven by the idea that religious suffering is inevitable, a part of man’s fate, a point which is driven like a stake through our hearts, which is so relentlessly melodramatic and over the top that it makes it easy to parody, thoughts which are in the mind of the viewer even as they’re viewing this for the first time, which diminishes the power or believability of the subject matter. Bergman may have opened Heaven’s gates to arthouse scrutiny, but Tarkovsky sealed the deal a decade later with his epic work ANDREI RUBLEV (1969), which actually transforms cinematic perception along the way. The film features an unusual amount of sadistic punishment and cruel humiliation, and is perhaps the darkest of all the Bergman films, certainly in terms of body count, as it takes place during the 14th century when a devout Knight (Max von Sydow), a man who has searched for meaning all his life returns from a ten year absence fighting in the Crusades with his more atheistic, existential squire (Gunnar Björnstrand) only to discover a Black Plague is ravishing his homeland. His experience has devastated his outlook towards God, feeling God has abandoned him and His silence is deafening. In the opening sequence, before you can even get settled in your seat, the Knight encounters a horrible black-robed monk with a ghostly white face carrying a scythe, claiming he is Death (Bengt Ekerot) coming to claim him. In an almost jocular manner, the Knight challenges Death to a game of chess, hoping he may postpone his destiny and gain some insight into the meaning of life before he dies, a game which continues to be played throughout the film, which like the bullet in Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995) weighs heavily over the head of the Knight, realizing his death is inevitable, that for the duration of the film he will wander under a cloud of certain doom.
One of the interesting features is a play within the play, as a traveling road troupe is working its way to Elsinore, providing entertaining music and dance along the way, even though a dying population seems to have less and less a use for their services. The idealized nature of their family unit is a key component to the film, consisting of an awkward, Roberto Benigni-like musician and juggler, Nils Poppe, and his beautiful wife, Bibi Andersson, along with their infant child, who comprise a sort of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus trinity, as the husband has visions of the Holy Mary with child, who may as well be his own wife, the kind-hearted and supportive Bibi Andersson who has never been more luminous in any film, accentuated even further by the bleakness that pervades the landscape. Their humane, moral presence, as evidenced by their marital stability, is a stark contrast to the bawdy, Chaucer-like depiction of the corrupt, unruly townspeople, as well as one of the other actors who is equally morally depraved, easily succumbing to any and all temptation, which is eventually used for comic purposes. One of their performances is suddenly interrupted, actually drowned out, by the thunderous noise of a march of flagellants, a parade of Church sanctioned religious zealots that are carrying a caged woman they believe to be a witch, who they intend to burn at the stake, fumigating the land with their holy smoke, hoping to convert the countryside into believers, reduced to using the fear tactics of pagan ritual.
The Knight enters a church to pray and make his confession, which he unwittingly makes to his black-robed chess opponent, who delights in the information gained and immediately takes an advantage in their chess game. The Knight gets sidetracked by the pastoral harmony of the traveling family, who in an idyllic moment offer him wild strawberries and milk. This lyrical scene plays out in brief, but utter perfection before the Knight decides to whisk his party through the dark forest at night, hoping to avoid plague-ridden routes, offering protection to his castle. Along the way they run into the mob-like uncontrolled hysteria of the witch burning, where at the moment of her death, the Knight offers the witch a pain-killing remedy before asking her what the devil knows about God. As a storm approaches, with Death trailing the entire group and the game nearly lost, the traveling husband shows a unique ability to see that the Knight is actually playing chess with Death, alerting him to danger. The Knight feigns clumsiness, accidentally knocking over the chess pieces, a diversion that allows the troubadour family to escape and survive the following morning, where the husband has another vision and sees the Knight on the horizon holding hands with the others being led in a Dance of Death, with Death still holding his scythe. In this film, only the players within the play survive, a reminder to those of us in the real world that perhaps art and faith in one another play a part in our survival, that every day we have with one another is one we should cherish.