The Seventh Seal (1957)


Picked this poster because its a) Swedish and b) hilarious. Looks like a crappy sitcom with a peppy slap-bass theme tune and studio laughter (also starring Death).

What surprised me (revealing that I had reverted to the assumptions I held before I’d seen it the first time; which in turn reveals that I should watch this more often [although it is interesting returning to this now after having seen Winter LightThrough A Glass Darkly, etc.]) and perhaps (therefore) impressed me the most was the writing – this must be Bergman’s best script. “Wait a minute” says Block as Death bears down on him on the beach; the latter: “That’s what they all say.” This is much funnier than people give it credit for – I especially like D’s response to A revealing his strategy, which manages to be sinister and ridiculous at the same time: “I’ll remember that.”

Although: SS is distinctly chilling. Each scene slowly unfolds like a flower; no line is wasted. Often tableaux of vitality (the actors doting on their young child Mikael; the little play-within-a-film among the trees ending in Skat’s reflections) are curtailed by D’s appearance, the spool of tape snipped cruelly short. D himself is hauntingly implacable, complicit in God’s Silence. His most terrifying line, capped with a camera zoom toward his staring, blank eyes:

“You’ll reveal your secrets?”
“I have none.”
“So you know nothing?”
“I am unknowing.”

That familiar scene structure of ‘long life –> brief death’ plays out grandly in the central sequence: the pageant interrupted by the stalking crowd of monks, hysterics, self-flagellants. Blood-curdling, and the central soliloquy by the wide-eyed monk is up there with the priest’s terrified spiel in Cries and Whispers and HA on the spider god for most shocking Bergman monologue – we feel implicated as his gaze roams, as indeed we are implicated in SS‘s bleak roll call.

IB manages to craft what feels like a very realistic middle ages world (the squalor, the conversation, the imaginative traditions) and imbue it with his own modern existential angst. Tonally entirely congruent with Winter Light, which discomfortingly belittles the temporal difference (and notions of progress) that separates us from this crusading past. That thick, supplicatory fear that I associate with the religiosity of this period returns in both elemental and ineradicable fear of mortality and a specifically modern questioning bereavement.

Questions of performance and entertainment: Jof’s morning routine in acrobatics; Jons scripting Plog’s melodramatic confrontation in the woods (those woods, btw, are half-Rashomon half-Ulver); the church painting (Rublev) of death at which Jons scoffs – the one of the plague from which he recoils; the actors’ song about Death’s constant presence followed by the marching penitents. Only a true artiste can keep one juggling ball in the air indefinitely – not even AB can pull it off.

Interesting gender stuff here too: Jons’ rescue of the young girl and subsequent boasting of restraint from rape is blunt, and she follows meekly. She seems entirely pointless for most of SS, silent until the penultimate scene: coming slowly forward to kneel before Death with almost Marian and beatific purity, cutting through the inane prating of the others (to which both Jons’ cynicism and AB’s desperation are thereby almost reduced). The wagon rolling off inland, Mia and Jof in arms, is a comforting image, but the young girl is more enduring. (besides, of course, the danse macabre) “It is finished”

Persona is his most engaging, for me, but this deserves its throne for its script, imagery, historical imagination, and variety.



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