The Seventh Seal aka "Det Sjunde inseglet" (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)
An odd combination of films await those in 130 Kane this Saturday night: Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal and Ken Russell's The Devils.
For those of you whose only experience with Ingmar Bergman is his wildly splintered and heavy film Persona from last quarter's ASUW series, The Seventh Seal will seem to be made by another man. At this time, Bergman wasn't so experimental, so strange. He was, as he is now, alive and vibrant with the charm of film-making and his '50's films (The Magician, Wild Strawberries, Through a Glass Darkly) although dealing with "heavy" subjects of God and Death and self still possessed a lightness in the telling, a lightness that carried over from his beginnings in films and was lost in the dark broodings of his late '50's and '60's films. There was a time for comedy, and time for deep-think in the space of the best Ingmar Bergman films.
There are many characters in The Seventh Seal, but at the film's hub are two. The most important is The Knight, who is played Max von Sydow, the supreme brooding actor. The Knight is home from the religious wars where the quest for God has been fruitless—where the point of the quest, after the year's ox-killing has been lost. But the quest for God continues. It has to. God can't be in the war, but can he be found outside amidst plague, witch-burnings and ignorance?
The answers are hard to come by, and even harder to come by while being pursued by another hold-over from the wars, the second most important character being Death. Death pursues the Knight and they engage in continuing battles of wits and of chess. The two opponents are only the hub of the story. There are others: the Knight's man-servant whose musings are concerned more with life that what is beyond; a troupe of actors; a wood-cutter and his adulterous wife. Bergman combines them all in a film that wheels between light and heavy in tone, but always excellent in quality.
Broadcast on KCMU-FM on January 8th, 1976
Sounds like I ran out of time there at the end--I usually only had two or three minutes per film to talk. So, I didn't even mention the stark black-and-white photography that has become so iconic, along with Bergman's simple personification of Death--an actor dressed entirely in a black cassock, with just his face appearing...in sharp contrast. And the image of The Knight playing chess with Death has been copied, parodied, purloined and done...well, to death. In Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey, they played "Battleship."
It sounds bleak, and it is—it is the Plague-Years, after all. But the film ends with a touch of hope and sacrifice, that even after all the Knight has seen—and not seen, as in the form of God—he can still cling to ideals.
One last thought inspired by the film after a recent viewing (again): Is religion a balm for the weak and superstitious as so many think, or is faith an act of bravery in a world of tangible horror? If God has an answer, he's not telling. Wise.