Ingmar Bergman: The Seventh Seal (1957) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Ingmar Bergman: The Seventh Seal (1957)

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Each Tuesday Andrew will be going through every available film of Ingmar Bergman.

Andrew COMMENTARYI worked at a movie theater for about five years during my late high school and early college years.  My taste in films had not really been fully defined yet, and I was watching whatever I could get my hands on to get a better view of the cinematic world.  That eventually led me to Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal, which was regarded by many non-idiots to be the best film ever made.  So I sat, plopped the VHS (obtained from Blockbuster, no less) into my player and prepared to be wowed.

Disappointment came quickly.  The film did almost nothing for me.  I remember drifting off at random moments and wondering why the plot took so long to get back to the chess game each time.  See, I didn't quite grasp the idea of structuring a film around a metaphor dealing directly with someone trying to come to grips with the idea of dying.  It wasn't strange, but I didn't quite understand why people were so wowed by the film.  So I quietly returned it, admired that the knight regained some semblance of faith in the end, and fondly recalled some of the shots that would not leave my head.

There are a few moments in my history with film that I wish I could go back and erase, my momentary love for Crash and obsession with Garden State to name two, but I don't regret what I thought of The Seventh Seal after that first viewing.  This isn't to say that my opinion of the film hasn't changed.  Years of cynicism and questioning my own spiritual beliefs, as well as my own deeper appreciation of cinematography and metaphorical directorial styles, have granted me acres of appreciation for a film that I was initially lukewarm to.  I still think it's one of the more overpraised Bergman works, but I will not deny it's status as one of the most important films ever made.

Bergman found one of many perfect actors in Max von Sydow to match his unique outlook on life and death.

With Smiles of a Summer Night and Sawdust and Tinsel, the world was introduced to Bergman the international success and Bergman the intense auteur.  The Seventh Seal finds Bergman stretching those two concepts to their limit, and the film strains to keep up at times.  It's a tale of despair and doubt in the heart of the Black Plague, where Crusades are waged pointlessly and many are left dead or questioning where God is.  Our primary guide through this world is Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), a knight returning from the Crusades and searching for someone who can provide real proof that God exists.

Death (Bengt Ekerot) approaches Antonius to take him and quelch his uncertainty, but Antonius buys time by challenging Death to a game of chess.  This supplies The Seventh Seal with the image so widespread I will not do it the disservice by reproducing it here, the knight sitting on the ground playing chess with Death.  The match continues as we are introduced to various other "episodes" of the film.  There's Antonius' squire Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand) who comments sardonically on the nature of faith, the traveling circus newlyweds Mary (Bibi Andersson) and Joseph (Nils Poppe), and the chorus of self flagellating worshipers that are never to far away.

Bergman cuts quickly between each of these stories to provide multiple glimpses and takes on the events and religious fervor surrounding the Black Plague.  He is utilizing these moments to reflect his own doubts and uncertainties about the existence of God, and allowing those feelings to manifest in each of the characters.  Before Bergman, there were very few directors willing to tackle death in such a uniquely direct fashion.  Fewer directors since him have even bothered attempting it because it is a very difficult feat to accomplish without looking a bit silly.

The specter of religion follows the characters throughout the whole film.

But Bergman succeeds in spades.  Despite the occasional glimpses of humor he never lets go of the throttle and barrels ahead into his psychological playground.  The knight questions his faith so directly that it comes as no surprise that Bergman's personal journals containing similar questions of doubt and uncertainty.  Even those moments of humor frequently delve into more macabre territory, and in some moments detour straight into nightmares of hell where the Devil's flames are never far away.

These elements, wonderful as they are, also keep me from fully committing to the film.  Bergman touches on so many variations of faith and hopelessness that the film's episodic structure becomes a sort of hindrance.  Taken individually, they serve as exemplary examples of how to tell a story economically and with maximum visual impact.  But as a whole film, it ends up meandering in parts as it delves into one diametrically opposed philosophy to the next, with the dread or humor to match.  Despite this, it's one of his most compulsively watchable films, is incredibly entertaining most of the time, and doesn't dumb down it's subject matter in the slightest.

There are some actors and actresses that appear in The Seventh Seal who, if you aren't familiar with, we are going to be discussing a lot over the coming months.  The first is the man most commonly associated with Ingmar Bergman, Max von Sydow.  Here, his pallid and ghostly expression perfectly suits Bergman's lapse of faith and Sydow will also feature prominently in some of Bergman's more psychological films.  Then there is the lovely Bibi Andersson as the strong and literal wife to Joseph.  A fine role, but she will have meatier parts in films to come.

Hell is pain and humiliation for some.

Finally there's my absolute favorite Bergman regular, Gunnar Bjornstrand.  He is responsible for carrying some of Bergman's more subtle characters to furition, and never missteps once in their many collaborations.  Bjornstrand always brings a certain depth to roles that might teeter into unwatchable madness or smug arrogance.  His squire is asked to walk the tightrope between these two functions, and Bjornstrand's straightforward delivery and unwavering eyes punctuate each of his scenes with unique character.

Any residual disappointment that I feel with The Seventh Seal stems directly from the fact that I've seen almost all of Bergman's other films.  I certainly don't harbor the same apathy I did ten years ago, but compared to his future masterpiece Winter Light it still falls a bit short.  As an introduction to Bergman it's the equal of Smiles of a Summer Night or Persona, and one that I'm happy to revisit for a fifth time in the future.

The Seventh Seal marks another turning point in Bergman's career.  He is no longer the little known Swedish studio director, but now has a wildly out of control international popularity.  So what does he do after this?  Goes off and makes something as equally lauded as Wild Strawberries, which I'll be examining next week.  See you all then!

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The Films of Ingmar Bergman

The Seventh Seal (1957)

Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman.
Starring an ensemble cast led by Max von Sydow and Gunnar Bjornstrand.

Posted by Andrew

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