The Seventh Seal Review
Ingmar Bergman, one of the relatively few genuinely great filmmakers of the 20th Century, came to prominence in the 1950s with Smiles of a Summer Night which was successful enough to allow him to make a pet project of his called The Seventh Seal. This low budget film, made in 35 days, cemented his reputation with cineastes the world over, and remains a film which anyone who loves cinema should be familiar with. Whether or not it’s his best film is open to question - I think he’s done even better - but it is one of his most accessible works, balancing deeply pessimistic philosophical speculations about God and Death with broad comedy and a suspenseful narrative.
The film opens with a series of iconic images. The heavens cloud thickly over a beach where Antonius Block (Von Sydow), a knight returned from the Crusades, is lying with his squire Jons (Bjornstand). Block rises, washes and tries to pray but cannot. Coming to his feet, he is confronted by the figure of Death (Ekerot), come to claim his life. Block suggests to Death that they play a game of chess, the prize being his life. Death, unused to such amusing suggestions from his victims, agrees and they begin playing. This opening segment is one of the most compelling pieces of cinema, setting up character and situation with admirable simplicity. The game of chess allows Block time to perform “one meaningful act” which will redeem his life, which has been hopelessly muddled by doubt and confusion. Trying to understand the meaning and purpose of his life, he visits a town in plague-ridden Sweden and attracts a small group of followers; travelling players Jof and Mia with their baby son; a deaf and dumb servant girl rescued from her master’s violent reprisals by Jons; another actor, the permanently lecherous Skat; and the woman who seduces him and her feckless husband. It becomes clear to Block that this group represents his chance of redemption and he determines to save them from Death - but Death is just as cunning as the Knight and he begins to take the lives of the group. Meanwhile, all around are signs of religious hysteria - flagellants, burnings, torture - and complete, hopeless despair at a world which seems to have been abandoned by God.
The central issue of the film is one which Bergman has returned to time and again. What is the point of living in a world where God remains silent and where a pointless, empty death is the only thing to look forward to ? Block says, “Why does He hide in a cloud of half-promises and unseen miracles ?”, calls God a “mocking reality” and begs for certainty; “Life is a preposterous horror. No man can live faced with death, knowing everything is nothingness.” As Bergman’s vivid depiction of a Europe stricken with the Black Death demonstrates, corruption is everywhere and the memento mori is clear for all to see. The responses to this are the metaphysical centre of the film. The Knight struggles with his soul, searching for answers to the basic questions of life. The Squire Jons, an earthy and likeable cynic who simultaneously celebrates life and death in his bawdy songs which are designed to offend believer and aetheist alike. The deaf and dumb girl is forebearing, knowing that the suffering will end in time. The Church and State, allied in the enthusiasm that can only be born of ignorance, begin torturing innocent peasants who are supposedly possessed, bringing the plague as a punishment on an irretrievably fallen mankind, and burn a helpless girl who only knows she is allied with the devil because it’s what she’s been forced to believe. Only the travelling players seem to find any peace, and it is with them in their simple enjoyment of hearth and home (or at least, open fire and caravan) that the Knight glimpses an epiphany which comes close to saving him. Jof, Mia and baby Mikael look to each other to give meaning to their life and find it in simple, redeeming love.
If that sounds sentimental, then that’s because it is. Later in his career, Bergman would ruthlessly hunt down and undercut even a hint of the sentimental reassurance his audiences might like - the logical result of this being the remarkable From The Life of the Marionettes which is one of the grimmest and most negative films ever made - but here he seems tempted to wallow in it without too much embarrassment. Luckily, the context is so strong, and the central vision of a godless universe vivid, that the audience tends to be grateful for the simple platitudes of the players. They represent us, if we’re lucky, and they certainly represent what most of us would like to be. Similar characters appear in Wild Strawberries before being pushed out by the terribly sad world view which begins to dominate from Through a Glass Darkly onwards - although such optimism would reappear in Bergman’s celebratory Fanny And Alexander, by which point he seems to have made peace with his demons. Yet even the easy sympathy offered by Jof and Mia can’t sugar the pill too much. Even in the midst of their domestic happiness they perform comic songs about death, the ‘Black One’ that remains on the beach
What one most remembers from this film are the iconic images that pile up in struggling heaps until they become almost too much for the screen to cope with, and the most gloriously iconic belong to Death. First seen standing, quietly and patiently, on the rocky beach, dressed in black with a white face and a fearsome scythe, Death is clearly the dominant character in this film. Bengt Ekerot is extraordinary, bringing a sardonic humour and plaintive honesty to the character and almost making him oddly sympathetic - after all, he’s only doing his job. The immediate comparison is with Mephistopheles in “Doctor Faustus” or even, perhaps, Satan in “Paradise Lost”, the constant, slightly sorrowful but undeterred reminder of our fallen state. His oh-so-slightly grinning face as he reveals himself in the guise of a Priest or as he cheerfully cuts down the tree holding Skat in the forest is genuinely chilling but also strangely comic. Our reaction to Death changes throughout the film and that’s clearly intentional. In comparison, Max Von Sydow’s blonde, Aryan knight is a little bland, with two exceptions; the scene where he breaks down in the confessional as he itemises the heresies of his troubled soul; and the beautifully poignant moment where he realises, with the players outside the caravan, just how simple life could be if only he could stop questioning everything. But his constant search for answers surely represents us as we are, rather than as we would like to be, and in this respect his role in the film is pivotal, contrasting the dreadful certainty of Death with pained confusion about what else might be out there.
This was all very topical in 1956, a year which saw not only the terrible mistake of Suez but also the Soviet invasion of Hungary and the impending threat of nuclear holocaust. It’s no less topical today when we look at the tragedy in the Middle East, or in Northern Ireland, and wonder exactly what God, if he exists at all, might be playing at. If he gives us free will then why is the possibility of finding happiness receding further into the distance all the time ? If it’s all pre-determined, they why is such suffering necessary ? Why, to sum it up, has God fallen silent ? This is one of the classic Bergman themes, reaching its most eloquent expression in the Spider God trilogy (although Bergman claims it isn’t a trilogy at all) which comprises Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light and The Silence. Needless to say, his answers don’t provide much comfort, leading as they do to a sort of nihilistic despair. But in The Seventh Seal, a way out is offered. It’s evident that it was made, as Bergman says in his book “Images”, before his own religious faith was broken. There is horror here, but there is also joy and, eventually, even a miracle which suggests that God has not totally turned his back on the world. This might well explain why it’s always been one of his most popular works. It’s also the film on which Bergman’s repertory company of actors begins to assemble, with excellent work from Bjornstand - who relishes the bawdy squire as a contrast to his usual role of pained, spiritually damned failure - and Bibi Anderson.
In recent years, Bergman seems to have lost his position among the generally accepted canon of ‘Great Directors’ and it’s certainly true that many more people have heard about his films than have actually watched any of them. It’s very heartening therefore that the BFI are currently presenting a selection of his films at the National Film Theatre and will shortly be touring the package around the country. One might grumble at the predictability of the list - when are we going to get a chance to see Shame or Hour of the Wolf again? - but it’s great to see his films back in the cinema. I became a fan of Bergman’s comparatively recently, after watching The Seventh Seal on television some years ago, and have since lapped up every bit of his work that I’ve been able to find. I think this is as good a starting point as any for people who want to get into his work, especially since it’s long had the reputation of being the Citizen Kane of European cinema. It isn’t as revolutionary in technique as Kane but it’s impact on world cinema was enormous, both in its thematic concerns - and its unrepentant seriousness - and the stark, brutal but also strangely beautiful imagery. The themes encountered in The Seventh Seal are pivotal to most of the work that Bergman subsequently produced and it’s still a stunningly effective work of pure cinema.
It’s hard to review this disc without admitting that the Criterion edition, now 4 years old, blows it out of the water in some respects. But it’s still a worthy effort from Tartan, hitherto a company to be avoided by right minded fans of cinema, and the cornerstone of their ‘Bergman Collection’, which is still growing, with Persona due in April.
The transfer is excellent. The film is presented in the original Academy 4:3 ratio and in beautiful monochrome. It’s not beyond criticism, sadly, since there is some evident print damage in places which manifests itself in white speckles. However, this is not a constant problem and is confined to three or four places in the film. The shadow detail is excellent and the level of contrast is just right. There is plenty of detail to the image throughout and a sharpness which complements the visual scheme of the cinematographer, who deliberately made the lighting respond to the state of ‘acceptance’ of the characters. No artifacting is evident and the picture is clear of grain.
The only soundtrack provided is Swedish Dolby Digital Mono and it is slightly disappointing. Although the dialogue and music come across well, there is a constant hiss present and some distracting crackling in places.
The extra features are largely text based apart from a trailer for the Bergman Collection, which tempts us with beautiful visions of films which you can’t actually get hold of on DVD yet. We get a 5 still photo gallery which is barely worth bothering with since the choices of stills are bizarrely uninteresting. The liner notes by Ronald Bergan are a good general introduction to the film but not as extensive as the film notes on other releases in the Collection. The best extra is the 14 page extract from Bergman’s essential book “Images: My Life In Film”, which explains the basis of the film in a play called “Wood Painting”, inspired by his childhood memories of woodcuts in his father’s church. Finally, there are filmographies for Bergman, Max Von Sydow, Gunnar Bjornstand and Bibi Anderson.
The disc contains an animated menu, English subtitles and 20 chapter stops. The subtitles can be turned off if required.
If one accepts that The Seventh Seal is an essential part of any collection, then this Region 0 Tartan release can be cautiously recommended. It doesn’t have the excellent commentary from the Criterion release or the extensive biographical essay with film clips, thus making it less attractive for anyone unfamiliar with Bergman. But if you’re already a fan of his work and simply want a good copy of the film for your collection, then this is worth considering.