I’ve often been uncharitable to Ingmar Bergman, holding him up as an example of a director who appeals more to the cerebra than to the emotions, and who therefore gets more critical praise than cinema’s great visual artistes - but each viewing of The Seventh Seal reminds me of what an injustice that is. Watched my DVD of Bergman’s hypnotic 1957 film again last night and was once again sucked into its very particular world. There are other films that reach the same heights as The Seventh Seal but this is a rarity - a one-of-a-kind masterpiece that can’t quite be compared with anything else. (Offhand the only other films I can think of in that vein are Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Tod Browning’s Freaks. Maybe Citizen Kane too, but then that’s a stand-alone in so many other ways.)
How does one begin to speak of the first five minutes of The Seventh Seal? Few images anywhere - film, painting, photographs - convey desolation and spiritual emptiness better than the face of the great Max Von Sydow (playing the knight Antonius Block) in the opening scene. Lying on his back, gazing up at the sky, he sighs to himself, then slowly gets up, washes his face, falls to his knees and prays, the briefest glimmer of hope (faith?) crossing his sallow face. Then he walks back to gather his equipment, waves splashing on the beach in the background, the chess set in the foreground; there’s a brief dissolve, and then the iconic shot of Death standing on the beach, half court jester half Grim Reaper, gazing at Antonius and at us.
In one of the most famous movie scenes ever, Death and the knight begin a game of chess that will span the film’s duration. Of course, other things happen: the knight and his squire (played by the wonderful Gunnar Björnstrand) continue their travels (this is the 13th century and they’re returning from the Crusades); visit a church with depressing murals; meet and pick up people on the way (“my road movie”, Bergman called this film!); witness scenes of flagellation. They see a young “witch” being burnt at the stake - a scene that provides the most searing commentary on the film’s key theme, the impossibility of maintaining faith (and the impossibility of not maintaining faith) in a world where Death is the only certainty (“Look at her eyes!” the squire shouts to his knight, “What does she see? No God or Satan, only emptiness!”)
And placed right in the middle of all this bleakness is one of the most beautiful, simple and graceful scenes I’ve ever watched. During a rare interlude, the knight and his squire sit with Josef and Maria, a young couple who perform in a troupe together, and they all share strawberries and milk. “I will remember this moment of quietude,” says the knight. “The sound of our voices murmuring in the stillness, your faces in the evening light, the gentle sounds of Josef’s lute playing. I will try to remember what we talked about this day.” It’s the strongest defence he has against the horror of approaching emptiness.
One of the reasons for my fascination with The Seventh Seal is that, on paper, this never seemed the sort of film I’d have any sort of fondness for. Too heavy-handed, too self-consciously full of imagery and metaphors. And yet, it doesn’t work that way when you watch it. What you see is a movie that carries such strong conviction that it makes you believe too. And for all the apparent weightiness of its subject matter, it’s so simple and direct in its execution that it takes your breath away.