Friday, March 05, 2021

The Seventh Seal

"I, Antonius Block, Am Playing Chess with Death."

I'll begin by copping the two opening paragraphs of the great Gary Giddins' essay in the book that accompanies Criterion's Ingmar Bergman's Cinema box set and the first Blu-ray edition from 2009.

"In recent years, The Seventh Seal [Det sjunde inseglet, 1957] has often been honored more for its historical stature than its prevailing vitality. Those who attended its first international rollout and were changed forever by the experience are now second-guessing their attachment to a work so firmly ensconced in the realm of middlebrow clichés. Its Eisenhower look-alike Reaper, emblematic chess game, and Dance of Death have been endlessly emulated and parodied. Worse, The Seventh Seal quickly assumed, and has never quite shaken, the reputation, formerly attributed to castor oil, of something good for you — a true kiss of death. A movie that's good for you is, by definition, not good for you.

"So it's a relief to set aside the solemnity of cultural sanction, along with the still-frame images that have adorned greeting cards, and return to Ingmar Bergman's actual film: a dark, droll, quizzical masterpiece that wears its sixty or so years with the nimble grace of the acrobat Jof (Nils Poppe), who is the film's true prism of consciousness. Not that its historical importance should be forgotten. As the picture that launched the art-house cinema in America (along with leading player Max von Sydow and distributor Janus Films), The Seventh Seal holds a place in movie annals as secure as that of Battleship Potemkin or Citizen Kane or any other earthshaking classic you care to name."

Giddins pulls us handily out of the art-house-muck while acknowledging that framework's role in the film's popular spread and subsequent appeal for generations of students, cosmopolites, A/V enthusiasts, intellectuals, cinephiles, and cinephile-intellectuals. The Seventh Seal was, after all, the first Criterion DVD I ever owned, around 1999, a huge best-seller for the company. (The film was also the first Criterion laserdisc I ever watched, in an A/V cubby at Uris Library in college.) Its appeal involves its narrative concision, perfect pacing, memorable characters, comic beats, and of course the striking and iconic personification of Death (Bengt Ekerot). As such and above all, perhaps, is its primary theme: Not "what is the meaning of life," but rather "what is the meaning of death," or: what is the meaning of life in a world where death exists and comes striking at any moment. Indeed, this can be distilled in turn to a contemplation of the question of whether or not there is a usefulness to be had in the readiness, the preparedness, for dying. To that end, Bergman in The Seventh Seal, perhaps surprisingly given the medieval Christian backdrop, considers dying in the context of a Zen resignation.

Tied up with the question of the existence of an afterlife: eternity and the eternal: time as a function of death, and vice-versa. How much time do we have at any moment during life before we return to the infinity of afterlife or nothingness, in which condition time stands still. Take the opening shots: a lowering cloud-decked sky, followed by a dissolve into a hawk, in flight yet hanging near motionless, artificial prop. From there we move to the primordial: a world without end on a rocky shore, with the knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) and his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) in repose as though washed up from the ocean, the first creatures on earth. (Jöns sports pinned to his back a long hawk feather, though he is resolutely earthbound, trotting the coast with Antonius on their horses.) A voice-over intones the initial lines: "And when the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was a silence in Heaven about the space of half-an-hour." Lost time: the pair have spent ten years away fighting in the Crusades (for nought; as Giddins writes in his essay, just another "trumped-up war" — this was 2009 so no pun would have been intended) and are only just now returned to their native land, which is wracked by the plague. Inbetween, transitory time: Jöns bears the scar of a likely blade-wound running over his scalp and down his forehead; he sleeps with his short-sword unsheathed; he recalls an omen of yesterday afternoon whereby "four suns hung in the sky."

Jöns will later blind Gunnel Lindblom's would-be rapist with his blade, not only on account of a second run-in with the knave, but as a means of venting his rage over the man's having convinced Antonius to travel to the wars in the first place, in order to avenge God in the face of the infidel. Jöns is still ready to annihilate. Be it by plague or man's own doing — we look now no further than Covid-19. (Bergman admits in his 2004 introduction that, as with so many auteurs and artists of the time, the atom bomb was at the forefront of his thoughts and naturally his subconscious as well.)

A procession of flagellants interrupts the minstrel performance by the troupe of Jof (Nils Poppe), Mia (Bibi Andersson), and Skat (Erik Strandmark), who engage in a ribald ditty about the devil taking a dump on the seashore. Jof and Mia are the only ones who will escape Death at the end, in part because Jof, who is all instinct and faith, is spiritually touched — faith in his own imagination or beliefs? faith in his 'true visions'? A meal of wild strawberries (smultrons — see Bergman's following feature) is a sacramental offering not only to a God but to oneself. The Virgin Mary and the Blessed Child stroll in the distance before his very eyes; likewise his sight (the antithesis of the blinded rapist, the foulest character in the ensemble) reveals to him at the end, when the sun has returned, the group of Block, Jöns, et al linked hand-in-hand, engaged in the Dance of Death.

It is, and is not, finished: The Seventh Seal is the work of a skillful tactician. Not for nothing does the confessional's grate evoke a chessboard.



No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.