Det Sjunde Inseglet/The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)

“And when the Lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour” (Revelation 8:1)

Introduction

‘The Seventh Seal’ pushed Swedish cinema into the forefront of filmmaking in the 1950’s – though not his debut, it was nevertheless a springboard for Ingmar Bergman. I have known of this film for many years but have delayed watching it because my initial preference is for Hollywood – but I do try to know my international cinema. Since reading Mark Cousin’s ‘The Story of Film’, I have found that Hollywood often uses techniques and styles straight from World cinema – think John Woo and The Matrix, bringing Kung-Fu into Western Cinema. Think ‘Easy Rider’ and ‘Five easy Pieces’ and the French New Wave. Once successful international, Hollywood remake and repackage it claiming it as its own. So, I find it wholly neccessary to research and give credit where credit it due- so, knowing that before Star Wars there was Kurosawa’s ‘The Hidden Fortress’ and before ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ there was ‘Yojimbo’. Bergman has been incredibly influential also – specifically on Woody Allen – who has always been quite honest about Bergmans influence (E.g. at the end of ‘Love and Death’, there is a dance of death parodying ‘The Seveth Seal’). This was on at the Barbican in London during a ‘Directorspective’, which – I must admit – I shall take advantage of in the future. Indeed the Barbican cinema is really quite a brilliant venue and I thoroughly recommend it. But, without further ado – a review follows the synopsis of – ‘The Seventh Seal’…

Quick Summary

“A Knight and his squire are home from the crusades. Black Death is sweeping their country. As they approach home, Death appears to the knight and tells him it is his time. The knight challenges Death to a chess game for his life. The Knight and Death play as the cultural turmoil envelopes the people around them as they try, in different ways, to deal with the upheaval the plague has caused.” – brought to you today by John Vogel via IMDB.

What I Reckon

There is one scene in this which reminds me of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch – ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’. In an inn, Jof (Poppe) gets involved in a fight with other people in the pub – ugly, intimidating characters. A ‘local pub, for local people’ it appears. The beer is spilling all over the floor and pigs run rampant. Jof is asked to dance as a bear and everyone bullies and cheers him on – Jof is terrified, but does manage to escape. Set in the middle-ages (Bosch’s triptych was completed in 1503-1504) and the disgusting people and pigs specifically give me the idea of some sort of hell. But I would imagine this is the point. Bergman appears to indicate that Religion itself is just fear and comes about simply through the fear of death. So this complete humiliation for Jof is the hell we have built on earth – we know of fear and we know of humiliation, how that feeds into an eternity of damnation is our own making.

I believe the Death character does not indicate there is a God – let alone a Christian God – as he knows no answers, he merely represents the idea of Death itself and the ‘game’ we play to put it off. Though Antonius Block (Von Sydow) seems to have a realistic and sensible outlook on faith – I know no proof of God, but I am keen to search for him. Block has returned from the crusades, the death that has no-doubt surrounded him forces him to question his faith, while his squire Jon (Bjornstrand) takes his stand. In his eyes, death sucks but life is life. Make the most of it. Hence his hypocritical attitude when finding Lisa (Inda Gill) – “I won’t rape you, but you have to make food for me … forever.”. Thene again, this is the middle-ages, I guess you take what you can get.

Visually, it is stunning. I will no doubt say this about Ridley Scott also, but Bergman seems to frame each and every shot, using the black and white contrast to accentuate the characters features. You could freeze every shot and blow it up and frame it. Even the opening shot of the clouds dispersing is beautiful – like an explosion straight into your face, cut to the crashing waves…

The big one was Gunnar Fischer’s cinematography. In black and white, Fischer showed deep shadow and strong light, showing deep contrasts on every shot – Death, with his white face and black cape – seemed to still stand-out when needed, but also blend in when neccessary. With a huge interest in Woody Allen, I have to admit you can see that Bergman’s style has influenced his work – though I think Allen feels that ‘Cries and Whispers’ is a superior film.

Having only watched it this once, this is only my initial impression of the movie. I assume it gets better in time. I knew, going into this that it often appears on Top Ten Movie lists – specifically the BFI and Andrew Collins ‘Top 25 Films You Must See’, so was more than aware of a positive judgement of the film, but it can often be difficult when you are of a generation brought up on Spielberg, N64’s and U2. Opposed to – say with Woody Allen – Bergman, Dostoevsky and 1940’s Jazz. One bar I always try and raise for these films is whether I think the director anything else – and was unsuccessful in getting his vision across. For example, I am a big fan of film scores and epic John Williams themes, and – obviously – that was not the case here, but then again did Bergman want a John Williams score (not that he could – 1957 … he could have got Herrman, if Herrman was interested in low-budget Swedish movies at the peak of his success – “Sorry Hitch, I’m going to bail on ‘Vertigo’ to join Ingmar in Sweden”) – the highly religious-connotations associated with madrigal singers and big brass Nordgren chose, belting out fear, suited Bergman’s film better. So my preference is beaten away by an awareness of what Bergman wanted to achieve. He tackled a huge subject – fate, death, life, God, and placed it within the plague-ridden middle England. Most people would assume that this is a rubbish idea – to exapnsive a topic set in an uninteresting context – but alas, the context enhances the themes, pitting the main topics in a world whereby death is on the doorstep. When put so close to death, maybe thats when we turn to God. Whether that means there is a God is a different question.

Many people seem to assume Bergman is afraid of Atheism – I don’t think so. I think the film firmly states the problem man-made, man-influenced forms of religious control is bad (which, in my opinion it is) and – in fact – whether there is a God is anyone’s guess. The short discussion Antonius has with his wife when he finally arrives home is brief – but could easily be a conversation he has with God when coming to faith. Note how, when Death arrives, he is ‘converted’ – praying for mercy that we do not see come. But then – are we supposed to?

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