Friday, January 28, 2005

#11: The Seventh Seal

The Seventh Seal, 1957, written and directed by Ingmar Bergman. So, as the day fades into a long, suicide-filled Scandinavian night, Ingmar Bergman sits down to write another screenplay. This movie has its moments, but for the most part did very little for me. It's the story of a thirteenth-century Crusader who challenges Death to a game of chess. He does this for two reasons: first of all, he is questioning his faith and wants to try to find some definitive answers about God's existence before walking off into the dying of the light. Second, he hopes to be able to achieve one last significant action before dying. He succeeds in the second goal by saving the lives of a husband and wife team of actors and their baby son. The first, however, is hopeless.

The plot of the movie barely hangs together; the movie exists more as a philosophical exploration than any real narrative. The problem with this is that I don't think film is a very good medium for philosophical inquiry, except in very indirect ways. Peter Cowie, in his commentary track, talks a lot about what it meant for him to see this movie when it came out, after spending his childhood watching Tarzan movies. So I think again that this is a movie that you kind of had to see when it came out to get the full effect. There's something to be said for being the first person to just plunge right in to big philosophical questions, I guess, but a lot of the dialogue seemed very stilted, unnatural, and even trite. That's a little harsh; there are a few sections that transcend the rest of it (and here I'm speaking simply of the dialogue, not the images, which are great, and of which more later). One example would be shortly after the knight mistakenly reveals part of his strategy to Death; it's a low point for him, but as Death leaves him, he says:

This is my hand. I can move it. Feel the blood pulsing through it. The sun is still high in the sky and I, Antonius Block, am playing chess with Death.

Which is better when read by Max von Sydow, but even on the page, not a bad statement of our situation. A lot of the other writing is pretty turgid, though:

I want to confess as best I can, but my heart is void. 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.
That's the most vague quote I could find online but believe me, there are much worse in the movie itself. The movie also switches between very earnest philosophical exploarations and earthy humor. The knight has a squire who's a dreadful cynic, and most of his scenes are comic. I didn't find them all that funny; Death was really the only character who consistently made me laugh. His jokes are very dry and very malicious. Right up my alley.

The cinematography, lighting, and costume design in this movie are great, not because they're particularly technically amazing, but because taken together, they create a number of images that get burned into your skull. Death, as played by Bengt Ekerot, is the best of the lot; he's not on screen much (maybe fifteen minutes out of the movie) but he's what everyone remembers. Unfortunately, he's also what everyone rips off, so I'd seen twenty watered-down versions of this role before seeing the original. (Best derivative version: right here). Monty Python also rip this movie off a lot, both in Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Meaning of Life. In fact, part of the fun of seeing this is watching for scenes and characters that have shown up elsewhere; it's pretty clear this movie had a huge impact on a lot of creative people.

One other thing about this movie. I think Ingmar Bergman would have been the greatest horror director ever if he'd gone in that direction. The last reveal shot of Death is a good example; it's a very long shot of six people sitting at a table. As the camera tracks back, slowly each one of them notices something out of camera range and looks toward it. After an agonizingly long time, he cuts to Death standing in the doorway. It's not really played that way, but it's the classic horror movie reaction shot.

My thoughts about this were confirmed when I watched the Illustrated Filmography that's included on the Criterion edition; it includes excerpts from Wild Strawberries and The Magician. There's a dream sequence in Wild Strawberries that is scarier than anything I've seen in a very long time; it has all the right creepy, memorable touches. Clocks without hands, a horse-drawn hearse, a man with his face swollen into something grotesque (the only similar thing I can think of is the torturer's masks in Brazil). Best of all, he nails the awful sense of wrongness you get in the worst nightmares. It's rare that a movie taps into that kind of dread (The Ring did that, for me). The five minutes or so of Wild Strawberries I saw did that better and more economically than any other movie I've seen. That small part of a DVD extra made the whole experience worthwhile for me.


Anonymous said...

i thought the same thing after just seeing the film: bergman totally missed his true calling as a great horror movie director. this movie probably creeped me out than any other "horror film." or maybe it's just max von sydow.

Matthew Dessem said...

Nah, it's not just Von Sydow—Bergman has a real talent for this. See also the nightmare sequence in Autumn Sonata.

Anonymous said...

Bergman did make one Horror movie. It's called "Hour Of The Wolf" and it is brilliant.

Matthew Dessem said...


Thanks for the tip! I'm adding it to my Netflix queue.

Anonymous said...

I am in complete agreement with you on this one. My response to this was similar to my response to Grand Illusion: intellectual rather than visceral. This is a foundational work, something that has been built upon and parodied by other filmmakers since it first premiered. If you have an interest in film, you should probably be familiar with The Seventh Seal. But precisely because it has been appropriated in countless subsequent works, the thrill of seeing something cutting-edge here has been lost. I watched this all the way through because I thought I should, not because I couldn’t help myself.

There seems to be some confusion about the figure of Death. Bergman, as well as many who write about this film, often refer to Death as the Devil and vice versa. For example, Roger Ebert writes that Death and Antonious are playing chess for Antonious’ soul, but what they are actually playing for is Antonious’ life. The two are not synonymous. Death in the film is careful not to reveal what comes after. And death is frightening primarily because its aftermath is unknowable, not because death itself is inherently evil.

But what got me thinking the most here was your point about what film can and cannot successfully convey. Images succinctly convey the concrete, but they can convey abstractions only obliquely. Words usually deal more successfully with abstractions. If your concern in making a particular film is to explore the metaphysical, you’re probably going to wind up with a pretty wordy film. (I can, however, think of one largely nonverbal film that deals successfully with metaphysical and philosophical questions--2001: A Space Odyssey, but it does so in an indirect and ambiguous manner, leaving much to the interpretation of the audience.)

I’m not convinced that a wordy film is necessarily a lesser film. Cinema is often said to be purest when it relies on the image alone to convey its message. But the more I watch and consider these films and film in general, the more I question this notion. Film is image and sound. I think an argument can be made that a scene is less cinematic, not more, if it relies solely on image because it is not taking advantage of all the qualities of film.

Anonymous said...

there's nothing wrong with this film! film is a wonderful medium to explore all sorts of things, especially philosophical questions like this. the images all suit the theme well, and the dialogue and quotes are particularly remarkable! it may be incredibly deep, but the film is very thought-provoking and i didn't have any of the same problems you experienced.

Anonymous said...

Well, I delayed in responding to this, but I just saw The Seventh Seal on TCM for the fourth time and it still moves me. Look, the Knight does not "question" his faith, he demands it! His Squire is by no means comic. Cynic? Well, if you define secular humanism that way. This movie deals with the Final Mystery. If cinema is an artform, then this is obligatory subject matter, whether you find it too philosophical or not.
(It seems to me that you have grown since beginning this project. Perhaps you have a different reaction to this film now.)

Hoodooguru said...

Wow, you really didn't do justice to this one. Perhaps a re visitation is in order...

Matthew Dessem said...

Yeah, I try not to look at, or think about, the beginnings of this project. I would love to revisit but think that I'd probably do better to keep moving forward.

Willem said...

Just thought I should say that I haven't seen "Hour of the Wolf," but "Persona" is another Bergman film which definitely contains a good amount of horror, or at least some very creepy sequences. I would highly recommend it, and I think that even if you didn't like "The Seventh Seal" that much (I can't help but add that I really love The Seventh Seal and its unflinching approach both to cinema and to the ideas that it wants to express), that "Persona" is a quite different film and you may enjoy that one more
If, of course, you haven't seen it already.

Greg said...

I think you psyched yourself out of enjoying the pleasures of this rather straightforward classic. I don't really think it's really trying to be that deep. Life is wonderful but short, death is coming for us all, we save what we can. Out of this, Bergman spins a beautiful tale.