Thursday, February 24, 2005

The Seventh Seal

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.


  1. Check out Scott McCould's Brad's Somber Mood,
    Compare the last panel with the closing scene of The Seventh Seal..

  2. Bergman is the master. My favourites : The Wild strawberries, The Best Intentions, Autumn Sonata, Persona, Scenes from a Marriage.

    sorry, came across your blog recently and am randomly picking topics that pique my interest

  3. Don't apologise, it's very flattering when someone trawls the archives! And glad to know there's something on my humble site that meets with your approval! ;)

    Haven't seen The Best Intentions but the others are superb. Loved the opening scene of Wild Strawberries - the introductory prelude just before the titles appear. Would like to see full-length version of Scenes From a Marriage though - have seen the two-and-a-half-hour version.

  4. umm..don't be too flattered yet. there are many topics where i am tempted to challenge you but then, you have that boring, peaceful, blog theme that goes "i say, you say, we agree to disagree and let's raise a toast, blah blah" :)

    i did type up a paragraph about why i think you are way off in claiming bergman appeals to the cerebra and not to the emotions but then the bloggers' theme song began to haunt me...

    btw, have you seen any rohmer?

  5. Z: did you actually bother to read the opening para of the post? It ends with “...each viewing of The Seventh Seal reminds me what an injustice that is.” One of my problems (and I’ve written about this before as well) is with commenters who pick on a single line in a post and then beat me over the head with it.

    The blog theme isn’t a “boring, peaceful” one, it’s just an acknowledgement of the fact that people will have differing viewpoints and you can’t spend your entire life on arguments that might easily degenerate into personal attacks. I mean, what would you have me do? Kowtow and go “Yes, Z, you’re absolutely right, your comments have made me see the light and I now realise that Spielberg is not so good, etc etc...”? Think about it. the best that can be hoped for is that you present your point of view backed by your reasoning, and then I do the same.

    BTW, if you want to take these conversations further (and I do find them interesting myself, as long as we can both be civil), can we do it on email? I’m not comfortable with this Comment-slanging beyond a point.

    My ID is


    P.S. Yes I’ve seen three or four Rohmers, not as many as I would’ve liked to though. He’s so prolific it’s hard to catch up. Loved My Night at Maud’s and found Claire’s Knee interesting in a torporific sort of way. Recommendations are welcome.

  6. sheesh. i need to work on my DUH and DOH. (overstated). :(

    i did read your first line but it came across as your assessment of this one movie and in general, your view of bergman is "not enough emotional appeal". and i just wanted to challenge that. hey, in the end, it is all subjective.

    sorry, my intent is not to pick on you or indulge in personal attack. my "anon" id may seem so. that was just a light-hearted remark.

    *shd stick to reading blogs*

  7. Just dropped on your blog.

    Good Review, but still want you to rethink about the opening lines of your review.

    I think you must have seen 'Through a Glass Darkly' and 'Winter Light'. They are both as much emotional as intellectual. Although, Bergman rations emotions so you cannot find free flowing feelings of pre-8 1/2 Fellini films.

    Also, if you remember, the closing scenes of 'Hour of the Wolf' or 'Wild Strawberries', they put the whole movie in altogether human perspective.