The Seventh Seal
For a reviewer, there is often nothing so difficult as returning to a long-time personal favorite and trying to do it justice, objectively and without indulging in the sort of rapturous fanboy antics that make reading internet commentary such a chore. With that in mind, I have decided to skip the "objectivity" part and go straight to the rapture and the fanboyism. Read on at your own peril.
The Seventh Seal is the greatest achievement in the history of cinema. There. I said it. No ifs, ands, buts, hems, haws or prevarications. Period. Final. That's fuckin' all, folks. (Which, I suppose means I'll have to get around to moving Rashomon from 1B. to 2 on my all-time list, but a little change never hurt anyone.)
Interestingly, there was a time when one could make that very statement without precipitating fits of eyebrow raising, condescending looks or, most often, the sort of blank incomprehension you might expect after name-dropping Derrida at a Bush family dinner. There are, I suppose, historical reasons for this. For starters, there was a time when people didn't feel free to proffer their views about film on the operating theory that owning Fight Club made them a real movie expert.
Beyond that, The Seventh Seal is a film of ideas. Stark ideas. Dark ideas. Ideas about life and death, meaning and emptiness, heroism, cowardice and the silence of God. We unfortunately live in a diminished age. Many of us grew up with a sheltered complacency and groped about a world where abortion and gay marriage seemed vexing enough. As a result, the profundity of the existential questions is lost. They seem naive at best, arrogant at worst.
But for an earlier generation, the big questions were not so easily dismissed. How could they be? They gazed every day over the precipice into the nuclear abyss. Most people alive in 1957 had lived through the cataclysmic nightmare that had pulled stone from stone in a matter of less than a decade an edifice of belief 200 years in the making. Many were still living, literally, in the rubble left behind. The feral, gnawing doubt at the heart of The Seventh Seal spoke loudly and clearly to that generation. And maybe, in the brave new world that has emerged in the wake of 9/11, it can speak to a new generation. I fervently hope it does, because The Seventh Seal is one of those great works of art that demands experiencing.
The Seventh Seal is high-impact cinema in the most significant sense possible, and every frame staggers under the apocalyptic weight of the search for meaning. The story is simple – a 14th Century knight (the incomparable Max von Sydow) and his nihilistically cynical squire (Gunnar Björnstrand) return to plague ravaged Sweden and make their way back home after a decade of fighting the Crusades – and the film’s structure is equally straightforward in its linearity, but extraordinary in the terrible certainty to which it inevitably moves. Director Ingmar Bergman’s mastery was at its peak The Seventh Seal, and his own stern upbringing and existential insecurities made him uniquely suited for reconstructing and reinterpreting the doomed march of medieval morality plays for a world that saw itself on the brink of a new Armageddon.
The Seventh Seal is a triumph of cinematic formalism, and the heart of its power lies in its startling (even after decades of parodies) imagery and the dark poetry of its visuals. The film’s master metaphor is introduced at the outset. Sydow’s Antonius Block wakes upon a beach where he and his squire Jöns have washed ashore. There, he finds the black-clad figure of Death (Bengt Ekerot) waiting for them. He challenges Death to a game of chess, with his life on the line. What follows is one of the most famous frames in film history. Block and Death face each other across the board, silhouetted against a dark, raging sea and sky. Sydow’s face is almost completely in the shadows, his sharp features made indistinct by the gloom. Only Death seems fully real (despite his fantastic appearance), his face is well lit and draws the eye with the same inevitability with which he reaps his victims. This game is continued intermittently throughout The Seventh Seal, though we know from the beginning how it must end.
The rest of film is taken up by two journeys. Block and his squire must traverse a land wracked by plague and torn by fear. Along the way, they encounter signposts of a world in crisis and decay: flagellants marching through the streets, whipping themselves in atonement for sin, a fearful young girl tortured and burned as a witch, and the priest whose honeyed words convinced Block to take up the Cross, an opportunist who Jöns prevents from raping a seemingly mute woman (Gunnel Lindblom). They also add to their party, as they are joined by the mute and a pair of traveling players (Nils Poppe and Bibi Andersson) and their infant son.
However, it is the second, spiritual journey that forms the true center of the film. The Seventh Seal is, at its heart, about the search for meaning in a world where only Death is real. Jöns and Block represent two opposing approaches to problem of meaning. Block desperately wants the comfort of belief, but cannot bring himself to it in the face of the evidence of his senses. His squire, on the other hand, neither has belief nor seeks it. Jöns is rather a Sartrean figure, reveling in the very absurdity and meaninglessness that Block recoils from. The interplay between the two (both directly and in the omniscient eye of the camera) and between Block and the cloaked figure of Death form the primary subtext of The Seventh Seal. Will Block (and through him, the viewing audience) achieve some sort of satisfactory understanding before the inevitable triumph of Death?
The answer is as enigmatic as the the film itself. Block does indeed seize fragments of meaning and purpose. In particular, he finds something both worth living for and worth dying for in sharing the simple joys of wild strawberries (a favorite Bergman image) and a spring afternoon with Jof (Poppe), his wife Mia (Andersson) and young son. Indeed, it is through this beautiful young family that Block finally fulfills his duty and destiny as a warrior, dragging out his chess match with Death just long enough to allow them to escape the Reaper’s scythe under cover of storm and darkness.
And yet, when his own end comes, Block remains defiant, insistent that it should not have come with so many questions still left unanswered. His plaintive prayers seem all the more pathetic next to the dark acceptance of Jöns. From a distant hill, Jof, ever prone to apocalyptic visions, witnesses the final march of the doomed. He watches as Block and his companions gyrate wildly in an ecstatic procession behind Death, describing the scene to his wife. “And the strict master Death bids them dance.” He then smiles ruefully, turns and leads his family into the rising sun, toward life in the living, but ever cognizant of the fate that lies both behind and ahead.