10/11/2012

The Seventh Seal (1957)


"And when the Lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven".
-Revelation 8:1

Returning home from the Crusades to find the Danish coast riddled with the Black Death, a knight and his squire rest on a pebble beach, weary from their arduous journey. The men have been away at war in the Holy Land for a decade and have been left spiritually drained and disillusioned by their experiences. While the earthy Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) dozes faces down on the shore, melancholy warrior Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) looks up from his chess set and out across a dark and turbulent sea to find the Grim Reaper (Bengt Ekerot) staring back. Block engages the spectre in a game with his own soul at stake and wins a temporary reprieve, which he then pledges to use to perform one last meaningful gesture to make amends for the life he believes he has squandered. Pushing on, Block and Jöns encounter a painter of morbid church murals, a troupe of travelling actors, a mute, a cuckolded blacksmith, a corrupt theologian and a mob of religious fanatics hysterical in their persecution of "witches".


Like many film fans of my generation, I first encountered Ingmar Bergman through the utterly excellent parody of The Seventh Seal in Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey (1991), in which the titular dudes challenge Death to a selection of modern board games including Battleships, electronic football and Twister. The Swede's crisis of faith allegory - originally conceived in 1954 as Wood Painting, a play for his drama students at Malmö City Theatre to perform - undoubtedly remains the director's best-known and most iconic work, although it is often lazily and unfairly characterised as bleak and humourless.

On the contrary, The Seventh Seal is filled with warm moments. Block's picnic of wild strawberries and milk with the jesters Mia (Bibi Andersson) and Jof (Nils Poppe) makes for an idyllic interlude, the bawdy love triangle concerning Plog (Åke Fridell) is essentially a midsummer night's sex comedy (to borrow a phrase from Bergman acolyte Woody Allen) while the smirking, gallows humour of Jöns provides a neat counterpoint to his master's depressive agonising over the meaning of life in an ailing universe in which the "silence of God" is all too deafening. Block's morose concerns were nevertheless shared by his director, who used the film as a vehicle for the discussion of his own anxieties about the possibility of maintaining a sincere faith in the existence of a benevolent, omniscient creator in a post-Holocaust age of nuclear warfare.

3 comments:

  1. Thank you Joe. "The Seventh Seal" was the first film which really got me interested in cinema - my Mum took me to see it at a University Film Theatre when I was 13 in 1980. Over the years I've watched it many times, with my thoughts on the film changing and evolving. I completely agree that its not the sombre, bleak and depressing work many people might first think of. It is, as you mention, a film of the early-nuclear, mutually-assured-destruction age - I've sometimes enjoyed watching it alongside Tarkovsky's "The Sacrifice". Yet I think it's more than just a film of its time as it wrestles and confronts themes for all people and all time, and does so beautifully.

    Thank you for another very fine review, and for your terrific blog which I really have enjoyed following.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you very much for the compliments and encouragement Sidney - I'm so glad you enjoy the blog. I haven't seen The Sacrifice but will look it up - The Seventh Seal remains an impressive piece and amazingly resilient despite being so regularly spoofed and referenced elsewhere.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Significance and meaning apart, it's also ravishingly beautiful leaving vividly original images imprinted on the viewer's mind. Without them, Bill & Ted would surely never have noticed the film.

    ReplyDelete