[21 June 2009]
What does it say about a critically acclaimed film when its characters, distinctive imagery and narrative construct fall into the simplest of pop culture clichés? Is it a compliment? A testament to that particular film’s importance and cultural relevance? Or, rather, is it an insult? An easy refutation of the movie’s proclaimed significance?
The answer, if any, most surely lies somewhere on the thorny path between lazy disrespect and intense admiration.
Almost immediately upon its release in 1957 Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal was heralded as a masterpiece of modern cinema. It won the Special Jury Prize at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival and quickly established Bergman as a visionary leader in European film.
The movie’s arrival in North America was greeted with equal enthusiasm and critical acclaim. It was lauded for its tough and uncompromising cerebral vision, its stark visual style, and the knowing defiance of its inherent seriousness.
The success The Seventh Seal found in Europe and America was integral in the evolution of movies to film. Cinema—no longer viewed solely as indulgent and diversionary (middlebrow) entertainment – was now acknowledged to be firmly in the cultural vanguard, and was read for meaning with all the attendant scholarship afforded to serious art. The Seventh Seal, though not the first foreign-language film to achieve enthusiastic international praise and viewership, boldly declared the influential arrival of art-house cinema.
Set during the Middle Ages The Seventh Seal is, at its core, a simple story of one man’s journey home. Its narrative centers on the return of a wearied and disillusioned knight, Antonius Block (Max Von Sydow), and his cynical but loyal squire, Jons (Gunnar Björnstrand) as they make their way across Sweden after many years fighting abroad in the Crusades.
Their homecoming is no less perilous than war itself as the specter of death is present throughout. A devastating plague has ravaged the countryside and left behind not just death and disease, but also the unrelenting fear of an impending apocalypse. Antonius, too, is preoccupied with thoughts of mortality.
Yet unlike the others, Antonius meets Death (Bengt Ekerot) on a beach and challenges him—for his life—to a game of chess. Antonius wants not just a reprieve from his own mortality, but resolute answers to his questions of life’s meaning, the nature of good and evil and the existence of either a god or the devil. Death indulges the young knight’s request and the two play their game throughout the course of the film.
Death is not the only companion to join Antonius and Jons on their return voyage. In the course of their travels they encounter and befriend an earnest troupe of traveling actors and players, whose principal performers, Joseph and Mary, are a young married couple with an infant child. Determined to find counterexamples to man’s villainy, Antonius looks upon the couple’s innocence as proof of life’s essential goodness and humanity.
Antonius, like his chosen chess opponent, cannot be fooled so easily and his position of hope is short-lived. As their journey continues, the group must confront many ugly and contradictory truths about the nature of man. Most shocking for Antonius is his encounter with a lapsed Christian theologian who has devolved into an indignant and abusive robber. This man is later revealed to be the very person whose religious oratory inspired Antonius and Jons to join the Crusades.
Games of strategy and posture waged against one’s own mortality are infinite in their representation. The absurd narrative construct of a young and noble knight playing chess with a black-robed, white-faced Death is both audaciously hilarious and subversively brilliant. The metaphor’s meaning is obvious and has been the source of both great scholarship and sophomoric humor.
What endures after all the parodies (ranging from Monty Python toBill and Ted) and all the academic theories is the uncompromising brilliance of The Seventh Seal. By the force of his raw emotion, singular vision and rigorous intellect, Bergman crafted a film that stands at the apex of cinematic greatness. Just as Antonius’ agonizing quest for answers is often met with silence the audience, too, grows to understand that the source of life’s pain and beauty can never be known.
As ever, the Criterion Collection has performed an invaluable service to cinema lovers by updating and re-issuing The Seventh Seal on DVD. With a top-rate digital restoration the beautiful cinematography by Gunnar Fischer and iconic images from The Seventh Seal shine on screen in crisp, stark detail. The audio and language tracks have also been digitally updated and the English subtitle translation is greatly improved.
The two-disc DVD set is replete with a host of extras and include such highlights as: an essay by film critic Garry Giddens, an introduction to the film by Bergman recorded in 2003, audio commentary featuring Bergman scholar Peter Cowie, an archival interview with Max Von Sydow, a 1989 tribute by Woody Allen, a selected filmography narrated by Cowie and the 2006 documentary Bergman Island by Marie Nyreröd, which is a fascinating and revealing portrait of the celebrated director.
As it is with so many classics, what is most overlooked about The Seventh Seal is the very film itself. It is, therefore, such a treat to re-visit the film on DVD with this recently re-issued update from the Criterion Collection. More than a half-century after its release The Seventh Seal remains an engrossing, thought-provoking and utterly potent piece of cinema.