The Seventh Seal
directed by Ingmar Bergman
starring Max von Sydow, Bengt Ekerot, Gunnar Björnstrand
Janus Films / Svensk Filmindustri
By now we all know that the Middle Ages were a time of hunger, disease, and death, and that the shining armor and castles and women and wimples were rare, if they existed at all. The central visual conceit of this classic B&W is a disillusioned veteran of the crusades (Max von Sydow) and his squire (Gunnar Björnstrand) returning to a land emptied by the plague. Von Sydow is tall and Aryan and consumed with visions of death, and death personified (Bengt Ekerot) appears to him as a sinister monk intoning “It is your time.” Busy as he is these days, Death agrees to play chess to delay von Sydow’s inevitability. Squire Jöns is more concerned with the world here and now, and he has to fetch water and ask direction from the dead along the path. At a small church they meet a morbid painter, a young woman condemned to burn for witchcraft and a traveling acting troupe (Nils Poppe, Bibi Andersson, and Erik Strandmark). As they all travel toward von Sydow’s castle, they see and contemplate the faces of death and its inevitability and von Sydow mutters: “We must make an idol of our fear and call it God.” Shortly thereafter, the man in black knocks and the film ends. There are no credits; names are for the living and the souls of the dead flee as the film’s leader runs out and slaps against the take up reel.
While some claim this film is as slow as paint drying, it moves forward with a dark humor and a pacing typical of foreign films. As the squire and a blacksmith commiserate about women, the squire advises, “It’s hell with women and hell without. Best to kill them all while the fun lasts,” and a church painter offers, “A skull is more interesting than a naked woman.” But the heart of the film is the existentialist question of “Why are we all here?” It’s a question that consumed the world in the aftermath of the two great wars of the 20th century, and the life’s work of writers like Camus and Sartre. The Seventh Seal contributes as much of an answer as the endless prose of the French with the same conclusion — we don’t really know until we face our own checkmate.
What stays with you isn’t the Big Question or its manifold answers. It’s the look Bergman establishes in their black and white world. Clouds pop out from the sky, the players move inside of carefully crafted frames of rock and trees, and the dead and living assume a madness and dignity no demon can take from them. The squire has a neat scar running though his tightly shorn hair, von Sydow looks sallow and troubled, the actors live in their tights, and the peasants look filthy and vermin infested. But why scratch the flea bite? It will accomplish nothing, and you’ve seen this montage in another theater. It’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail without the coconuts.
This film was screened at the Enzian Theater, Maitland, FL.