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The Seventh Seal Review

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by Chris McEneany Jun 30, 2009

    The Seventh Seal Review

    “I want knowledge! Not faith, not assumptions, but knowledge. I want God to stretch out His hand, uncover His face and speak to me.”

    “But He remains silent.”

    Part fantasy, part allegory, The Seventh Seal occupies a unique and hallowed stretch of celluloid real estate that, since its debut in 1957, has borne witness to satire, spoof, lampoonery and wholesale pilfering. But Ingmar Bergman's Swedish masterpiece of fear and faith, love and hope and, of course, the crushing need for redemption is, nevertheless, regarded as an unparalleled classic, and is never missing from critics' and film-writers' top ten movie lists. A divining, as well as a deciding moment in motion picture history, The Seventh Seal attempts the impossible - asking those enormous questions about mortality, about God and about the point of existence - and with supremely dark wit and profound emotional resonance entwined as the strangest of bedfellows, refuses to come up with any answers. Because, for Antonius Block, returning from long years fighting in the bloody Crusades a hollowed-out husk of a man in need of spiritual succour and a reason to believe, there simply are no answers ... other than the ones that are staring him in the face.

    He, like the rest of us, just needs to open his eyes a little wider.

    As the awe-searching Block, Max Von Sydow cuts a haunted, gaunt figure moving resignedly and forlornly inland across a medieval Sweden stricken with plague, his sarcastic, grumbling manservant Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand) at his side. A meeting with the hooded figure of Death (Bengt Ekerot) informs us that Block's days are numbered and that although the eventual outcome cannot be averted, the knight can still haggle for a little more time. Famously, the two then commence a game of all-symbolic chess that they will resume at intervals throughout what will become an odyssey of despair, compassion, reunion and acceptance. Both have tricks up their sleeves, and neither can be trusted. All Block wants before he greets his fate is some proof of God's existence, some evidence that the Almighty is, indeed, behind it all. In a land torn apart by religious fervour and rampant pestilence, the sign of God is sorely lacking and Block needs some form of divine reassurance before he allows Death his winning move.

    Over the course of this last journey, the knight and his squire happen upon a troupe of actors - two men, a woman (the wife of one of them) and their infant son. The lead entertainer, Jof (Nils Poppe), sees visions of the angels and of the Virgin Mary moving about the countryside but his recounting of such things is routinely dismissed by his charmed but disbelieving wife, Mia, (Bibi Andersson). Their existence, as unpredictable as it is with living on the road and travelling from province to province, is, nevertheless, a happy one. Their child brings them much joy and their simple love of life and fun is quaint, beguiling and totally ill-at-ease with the death and decay that surrounds them. Skat, their fellow performer, played in-character with more than a slice of ham by Erik Strandmark, fancies himself as something of a ladies' man and is quick to duck out of the back of an awful act that they've put on and elope with the local blacksmith's wife. The paths of all, including the embittered blacksmith, Plog (Ake Fridell), hunting down his promiscuous wife, a traitorous seminarian called Raval (Bertil Anderberg) and his intended rape victim, and a young madwoman condemned to burn for practising witchcraft, will cross and interweave, scarring some and enrapturing others. But none will remain untouched by the experience - especially with a hard-working Death perpetually breathing down their necks. Perhaps their salvation lies with Antonius Block and quest for providence, or perhaps it is his salvation that lies with them.

    Theological angst smothers all in The Seventh Seal, which wears its brooding clouds like the rarest finery, yet Bergman barters much of the expected wallowing melancholy for existential comedy. It is not a trick that he has always been able to pull off with such style and generation-spanning savvy, but with The Seventh Seal, he made the unpalatable smoothly addictive and the portentous surprisingly optimistic. Paving the way for European art-house, the film became the darling of US campus screening rooms, Bergman's treatment of the medium of film, as well as his daring themes, establishing a veritable guide-book for high-brow philosophers and their followers, and for wannabe filmmakers ... and their followers. It catapulted Sydow to international fame and made Bergman a bankable commodity even in that most shallow of movie-Meccas, Hollywood. And yet the director has always thought of his most famous and critically adored offering as nothing more than a little experiment that he and his friends undertook one summer.

    “Our crusade was such madness that only a real idealist could have thought it up.”

    Jons is magnificent. Dour, deadpan, rascally, literate and also someone that you don't want to get on the wrong side of. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to pop-culture guru Paul Morley, Bjornstrand's surly squire struts through Bergman's medieval landscape without fear, unlike the master who leads the way. When Block's back is turned, he hisses at him like a lizard, but their bond is at least as great as Death's obsession with claiming the procrastinating knight. We see the world through Jons' agnostic eyes, and hear about it via his caustic tongue. He is as much our conduit into this strange twilight as the innocent Jof. Neither understand nor comprehend the Almighty, yet both become privy to the machinations of those that surely pretend to. In a way they are flip-sides of the same coin, exemplified when Jons saves Jof's skin during an uncomfortable altercation with some bigoted bumpkins, and it certainly these two that we can identify with most readily. Poppe works wonders with his bemused acrobat, and it is often quoted that this is the performance that elevated him from his prior trademark of comic stooge, although he is still playing something of an idiot here, it must said. Star-in-the-making Bibi Andersson is equally radiant as the light and almost ethereal Mia. Her most poignant scenes find her basking in the meadows, either tending her little son, or entertaining Block, who falls for the giddy sense of liberation and simple frivolity that she and her family evoke, scarcely able to comprehend that such contentment can exist in the world.

    How beautifully forlorn is it when he seeks to cherish a single moment of harmony in their company?

    Sydow is undoubtedly the star of the show, his spiritual torment leading the narrative as surely as his wayward compassion strings together the disparate and unusual characters that he encounters. In a perverse way, he is the shepherd gathering his flock, becoming a human messiah for whom the path is shown, albeit unwittingly, and he is compelled to follow with his assembly of disciples in-tow. Prematurely aged, and highly successfully too (unbelievably, he was only twenty-eight when he made this), Sydow's bleached-blonde hair and soulful, yearning eyes paint the most extraordinary sight as he navigates a homeland that is no longer the land he once loved. We can only imagine his exploits in the Holy Land for here, on once-loved ground he needs only time ...and faith. The only war he fights now is with his own conscience. Sydow's immaculate sensitivity is both heart-warming and heartbreaking. Even the second that we meet him, languishing in thought on the rocky beach of his return, it is too late. He knows that every step he takes just brings him nearer to the grave and making the acquaintance of Death, who we are informed has been shadowing him already, is hardly a revelation for the knight. Block is in a transitionary phase, his final odyssey little more than a dream. But even from this fragile state of slow, thoughtful death he can make changes to the world around him and it is this theme, more than any other, that Bergman seems eager to bestow upon us. The challenge, or moral, if you like is to still matter even when all hope seems lost, and to pass charity on to another, even a relative stranger, before such an opportunity is taken away from you. Dickens took another road to reach a similar conclusion with Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, and Block's voyage of self-discovery and self-worth is just as moving and sincere.

    But in spite of all the emotional hand-wringing taking place, there is still a great impression of our two leads having survived countless skirmishes and battles with lusty vigour. Block may be delving into the emptiness of his own soul right now, but there was certainly a time when he was heroic and chivalrous. A wonderful touch is when Jons remarks in Block's ear about how easily they could cut through the soldiers surrounding the sentenced witch and free her, instilling the marvellous notion of this duo being a sure-fire Dark Age Dynamic Duo. Indeed, there is so much potential with this pair that several movies - using today's “milk 'em for all their worth” attitude - could have sprung up around their exploits pre-chess playing and mortal-coil lengthening. Bergman may have missed something there, eh?

    It is easy to claim some sort of intellectual understanding about what it all means, but this is really missing the point of the tale that Bergman is trying to tell. We each pick up something different from the film, a subtlety played out visually in the blink of an eye can have a certain gravity for someone that others will miss, and this is the strength of sometimes meandering, sometimes blunt storytelling. To dissect it, as so many have attempted to do, only results in stating the obvious conclusions. But to attempt to unravel what Block's game of chess stands really for and why Death is so surprisingly up for allowing him a lengthy stay of execution; to work out why the blacksmith is all bluff 'n' bluster and why Jons rescues a girl from rape and murder only to virtually ignore her afterwards; to worry over whether Block's reunion with his wife is just Death's way of catching more in his net - is all moot in the grand scheme of things. Obviously, we are all pawns being manoeuvred by fate, winning a little ground here, losing a little there, but is our place on that board really controlled by something higher or is destiny ours to manipulate? As many questions as Block has, he is only scratching the surface of his existence. And as much time as Death grants him, he would never come any closer to the truths he so longs to know. The chessboard is a prison of infinite captivity - if Block spent forever and a day thwarting Death's strategies, he would still be chained to it in endless panic. Death would be postponed, yes, but would Block be any better off?

    “This is my hand. I can turn it. The blood is still running in it. The sun is still in the sky and the wind is blowing. And I... I, Antonius Block, play chess with Death.”

    Block's downfall is the knowledge that, ultimately, he knows nothing. He has fought a war in the name of God, but what thanks has he received? Everywhere he looks, he sees death, decay and anarchy. Where is the God he sided with? Why can't there be some form of proof that he exists? If even Death cannot be certain of what lies on the other side, how can he be certain that the afterlife isn't just some sick joke of the Devil's? There certainly seems to be more evidence of his defiling hand at work across the land. Because Block is questioning his faith, we are compelled to question ours. And just the presence of Death lingering at the threshold is not enough to convince us, let alone Block, that Heaven is waiting for us. The greatest sleight that Bergman pulls is that Death knows nothing - there may even be a flicker, just a flicker, of confusion or even fear in Death's eyes during one of Block's interrogations and this is, perhaps, the scariest concept of all. Does Block make Death question his own belief?

    “We must make an idol of our fear, and call it God.”

    Better to be a fool, like the Plog, the smithie. Or a hopeful like Jof - he, alone, is closest to seeing the bigger picture, but is too smitten with the “here and the now” to be fully taken in by it. But, best of all, is to be Jons. Strong-willed, erudite and ever-grumbling, maybe, but there is also a massive well of optimism lurking deep within him. Despite what he has seen and done, he never hesitates, never backs away. The world's mysteries hold no fear for him and when the time comes, he will face it as he faces everything - with a grim comprehension, a wry quip and a solid acceptance of c'est la vie. Oh sure, the plague rattles him, but if the time came, Jons would still take it on the chin and toss a ribald jibe at those yet to fall under its sickening stain.

    “I'm a married man, but with any luck my wife will be dead by now.”

    The locations used are spellbinding. Not only have you got those majestic, sun-kissed cliffs and all those earthy villages, taverns and courtyards, but you've also got that splendidly spooky forest - and the terrific thing about that is that once the light shines down upon it, it transforms into something beautific. And the most miraculous thing about the forest is that it is just a set built on a backlot in the middle of Stockholm, but this heathen place looks just like the inspiration for Sam Raimi's wretched Lovecraftian wood from his Evil Dead films. But this is still nothing compared to the landscape of the characters, themselves. The ridiculousness of the actors - their prancing, teeth-grating performance, their refusal to moan about their plight - is acutely turned on its head when Jof is humiliated and abused in the tavern. Made to dance like a bear - which only serves to make the scene all the more upsetting because we know that this is exactly how they would mistreat an animal as well - poor Jof takes the brunt of all the townsfolks' fear and loathing of the coming plague. A group of peasants describing Judgement Day makes the hairs crawl on the back of your neck, but then they move onto the events of Judgement Night and your blood runs cold with the thought of the dead climbing from their cold graves and angels falling to earth. With such superstitions and primal terrors stalking their hearts and minds, and the real-life horrors of a procession of ravaged plague victims enforcing their dread, it is not surprising that they turn on an outsider like Jof, whose jollity and complete lack of malice are like kindling to their flames. The barbarity of the treatment of the young girl accused of witchcraft and being in-league with the Devil is certainly no easier to take. Maud Hansson, who plays the girl, is eerily tragic as nothing more than a wasted child with too many visions forced upon her - someone who is, once again, being made a scapegoat for the panic of the population at large.

    “Faith is a torment. It is like loving someone who is out there in the darkness but never appears, no matter how loudly you call.”

    With such heavy material as this, you would really think that The Seventh Seal would be a slog of an experience to get through, and yet it is predominantly light and enervating. The lush scenery lends the film an expansive feel and an atmosphere that is unique and fresh. Bergman's delight in the wide, open spaces of Sweden's peaceful countryside is the perfect accompaniment to his powerful metaphors and thematic surrealism. The sweeping plains and the crofted garrets; those lush, grass-carpeted cliff-tops; the authentic cobbled villages and the rock-hewn church and, of course, Block's castle - none of it is grand or opulent or art-designed in the manner that a Hollywood movie would have ensured. The Seventh Seal is the most naturalistic fantasy that you are likely to see, and yet it is also one of the most magical. The screenplay is darkly satiric, meshing together a provocatively grim situation with the daft flippancies of those caught up in it. Even when Block comforts the condemned witch-girl, trying to tease some information out of someone he thinks must surely have, at least, seen the Devil if not emphatic evidence of God, the film makes fun of his eagerness to witness majesty. She intimates that the Devil is behind him, all around, always ... and Block, enthralled, whirls around to see nothing other Jons' withering combination of cold resignation and pity. The witch, just a victim, herself, finds amusement at her new-found powers of persuasion, the scene becoming one of the most touching and melancholy of leg-pulls.

    “The void is a mirror. I see my face and feel loathing and horror. My indifference to men has shut me out. I live now in a world of ghosts, a prisoner in my dreams.”

    The compositions from DOP Gunnar Fischer are immaculate and poignant. Block conversing, unwittingly, with Death in the church, the confessional bars standing like a barrier between them. Ravel looming in on poor Jof in the tavern, and a circle of rancid peasantry surrounding the lowly actor. Jons trying to stifle his own tremors as the painter regales him with the horrors of the Black Death, his face turned towards us, but away from his confidante. But the best of the imagery - or rather Bergman's illustration of it - comes in the forest. The day for night shooting substitutes rays from the sun for shafts of moonlight - Block looking up into one such transcendental beam only to find that he is looking up at Death, and a plague-victim collapsing in his death-throes as a perversely soothing shimmer of light comes to rest over him. I love the splendidly eerie moment when the silence of the blackened wood mesmerises the travellers and they all wait for some sound to break the unsettling reverie - the eyes of Jons, the girl he saved and the others, huddling together, caught like slivers of silver in the shadows as they peer off to the side of the frame.

    But the simplest and most devastating image of all is that of the black-robed, pallid-faced Death. The rascal has a habit of cropping up when you least expect him to ... hasn't he? His guises are legion and his visage is like a signpost in the film that always shows you exactly where you are going to end up, whatever direction you try to turn. He always seems to have the last laugh as well ... although, having met Antonius Block and his party, even he seems slightly unsure of himself.

    The Seventh Seal remains as captivating as ever because it champions the greatest mystery of all instead of dissecting it. And on Blu-ray, it positively shines.