As I said at the beginning of this month, the great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman is the man of this month.
I am going to start to write about “The Seventh Seal” and “Wilde Strawberries”, both films were filmed in 1957 and in my opinion, both films are two great masterpieces of international cinema.
I am going to start with “The Seventh Seal” (Det sjunde inseglet).
“The Seventh Seal” is the first film of Ingmar Bergman that I saw and I got very impressed with it. It is my favorite film of Ingmar Bergman.
It stars Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, Bengt Ekerot and Bibi Andersson and Nils Poppe.
Ingmar Bergman developed the film from his own play Wood Painting.
The title refers to a passage from the Book of Revelation, used both at the very start of the film, and again towards the end, beginning with the words “And when the Lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour”.[Rev. 8:1] Here the motif of silence refers to the “silence of God” which is a major theme of the film.
The film starts with the return of a disillusioned knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) and his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) after fighting in the the crusades and find Sweden being ravaged by the plague.
On the beach immediately after their arrival, Block encounters Death (Bengt Ekerot), personified as a pale, black-cowled figure resembling a monk.
Block, in the middle of a chess game he has been playing alone, challenges Death to a chess match, believing that he can forestall his demise as long as the game continues. Death agrees, and they start a new game.
The other characters in the story do not see Death, and when the chess board comes out at various times in the story, they believe Block is continuing his habit of playing alone.
Block and Jöns head for Block’s castle. Along the way, they pass some actors, Jof (Nils Poppe) and his wife Mia (Bibi Andersson), with their baby son, Mikael, and their actor-manager, Skat. Jof has visions, but Mia is skeptical.
The knight and the squire enter a church where a fresco of the Dance of Death is being painted. Jöns draws a small figure representing himself. Block goes to the confessional where he is joined by Death in the robe of a priest, to whom he admits that his life has been futile and without meaning, but that he wants to perform “one meaningful deed.”
Upon revealing the chess strategy that will save his life, Block discovers that the priest is Death, who promises to remember the tactics. Leaving the church, Block speaks to a young woman who has been condemned to be burnt alive for supposedly consorting with the devil.
Shortly thereafter, Jöns searches an abandoned village for water. He saves a servant girl (Gunnel Lindblom) from being raped by a man robbing a corpse. He recognises the man as Raval, a theologian, who ten years prior had convinced Antonius to leave his wife and join a crusade to the Holy Land. Jöns promises to brand Raval on the face if they meet again.
The girl joins Jöns. The trio ride into town, where the little acting troupe is performing. Skat introduces Jof and Mia to the crowd, then is enticed by Lisa, the blacksmith’s wife, away for a tryst. They run off together. Jof and Mia’s performance is interrupted by the arrival of a procession of flagellants.
At a public house, Jof comes across Raval. Raval forces Jof to dance on the tables like a bear. Jöns appears and, true to his word, slices Raval’s face.
Block enjoys a country picnic of milk and wild strawberries gathered by Mia. Block says: “I’ll carry this memory between my hands as if it were bowl filled to the brim with fresh milk…And it will be an adequate sign – it will be enough for me.”
He invites the actors to his castle, where they will be safer from the plague.
Along the way, they come across Skat and Lisa in the forest. Lisa, dissatisfied with Skat, returns to her husband. After the others leave, Skat climbs a tree for the night. Death cuts down the tree, informing the actor that his time is up.
They pass the condemned young woman again. Block asks the woman again to summon Satan, so he can ask him about God. The girl claims already to have done so, but Block cannot see him, only her terror. He gives her herbs to take away her pain.
Raval reappears. Dying of the plague, he pleads for water. The servant girl attempts to bring him some, but is stopped by Jöns. Jof tells Mia that he can see the knight playing chess with Death, and decides to flee with his family while Death is preoccupied.
After hearing Death state “No one escapes me” Block knocks the chess pieces over, distracting Death while the family slips away. Death places the pieces back on the board, slightly differently than they were before, then wins the game on the next move. He announces that when they meet again, Block’s time—and that of all those travelling with him—will be up. Before departing, Death asks if Block has accomplished his one “meaningful deed” yet; Block replies that he has.
The knight is reunited with his wife, the sole occupant of his castle, all the servants having fled. The party shares one “last supper” before Death comes for them. Block prays to God, “Have mercy on us, because we are small and frightened and ignorant.”
Meanwhile, the little family sits out a storm, which Jof interprets to be “the Angel of Death and he’s very big.” The next morning, Jof, with his second sight, sees the knight and his followers being led away over the hills in a solemn dance of death.
Gunnar Björnstrand and Gunnel Lindblom.
Nils Poppe and Bibi Andersson
Max von Sydow
Max von Sydow and Gunnar Björnstrand.
Some interesting trivia about this great film, “The Seventh Seal”:
The title refers to a passage about the end of the world from the Book of Revelation, used both at the very start of the film, and again towards the end, beginning with the words “And when the Lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour” (Revelation 8:1). Thus, in the confessional scene the knight states: “Is it so cruelly inconceivable to grasp God with the senses? Why should He hide himself in a mist of half-spoken promises and unseen miracles?…What is going to happen to those of us who want to believe but aren’t able to?” Death, impersonating the confessional priest, refuses to reply. Similarly, later, as he eats the strawberries with the family of actors, Antonius Block says: “Faith is a torment – did you know that? It is like loving someone who is out there in the darkness but never appears, no matter how loudly you call.”
Bragg notes that the concept of the “Silence of God” in the face of evil, or the pleas of believers or would-be-believers, may be influenced by the punishments of silence meted out by Bergman’s father, a chaplain in the State Lutheran Church.
Interestingly, in Bergman’s original radio play sometimes translated as A Painting on Wood, the figure of Death in a Dance of Death is represented not by an actor, but by silence, “mere nothingness, mere absence…terrifying…the void.”
Strong influences on the film were Bibi Andersson (with whom Bergman was in a relationship 1955–59) who played the juggler’s wife Mia, Picasso’s picture of the two acrobats, Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, Strindberg’s Folk Sagas and To Damascus, the frescoes at Haskeborga church and a painting by Albertus Pictor in Täby kyrka.
Just prior to shooting Bergman directed for radio the Play of Everyman by Hugo von Hofmannstahl.
By this time he had also directed plays by Shakespeare, Strindberg, Camus, Chesterton, Anouilh, Tennessee Williams, Pirandello, Lehár, Molière and Ostrovsky.
Bergman grew up in a home infused with an intense Christianity, his father being a charismatic rector (this may have explained Bergman’s childhood infatuation with Hitler which later deeply tormented him).
As a six-year old child, Bergman used to help the gardener carry corpses from the Royal Hospital Sophiahemmet (where his father was chaplain) to the mortuary.
When, as a boy, he saw the film Black Beauty, the fire scene excited him so much he stayed in bed for three days with a temperature.
Despite living a Bohemian lifestyle in partial rebellion against his upbringing, Bergman often signed his scripts with the initials “S.D.G” (Soli Deo Gloria) – “To God Alone The Glory” – just as JS Bach did at the end of every musical composition.
Gerald Mast writes,
“Like the gravedigger in Hamlet, the Squire […] treats death as a bitter and hopeless joke. Since we all play chess with death, and since we all must suffer through that hopeless joke, the only question about the game is how long it will last and how well we will play it. To play it well, to live, is to love and not to hate the body and the mortal as the Church urges in Bergman’s metaphor.”
Melvyn Bragg writes,
“[I]t is constructed like an argument. It is a story told as a sermon might be delivered: an allegory…each scene is at once so simple and so charged and layered that it catches us again and again…Somehow all of Bergman’s own past, that of his father, that of his reading and doing and seeing, that of his Swedish culture, of his political burning and religious melancholy, poured into a series of pictures which carry that swell of contributions and contradictions so effortlessly that you could tell the story to a child, publish it as a storybook of photographs and yet know that the deepest questions of religion and the most mysterious revelation of simply being alive are both addressed.”
The Jesuit publication America identifies it as having begun “a series of seven films that explored the possibility of faith in a post-Holocaust, nuclear age”.
Likewise, film historians Thomas W. Bohn and Richard L. Stromgren identify this film as beginning “his cycle of films dealing with the conundrum of religious faith”.
The film has been regarded since its release as a masterpiece of cinematography.
It was Ranked #8 in Empire magazines “The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema” in 2010.
In a poll held by the same magazine, it was voted 335th ‘Greatest Movie of All Time’ from a list of 500.
In addition, on the 100th anniversary of cinema in 1995, the Vatican included The Seventh Seal in its list of its 45 “great films” for its thematic values.
The Seventh Seal significantly helped Bergman in gaining his position as a world-class director. When the film won the Special Jury Prize at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival, the attention generated by it (along with the previous year’s Smiles of a Summer Night) made Bergman and his stars Max von Sydow and Bibi Andersson well-known to the European film community, and the critics and readers of Cahiers du Cinéma, among others, discovered him with this movie.
Within five years of this, he had established himself as the first real auteur of Swedish cinema. With its images and reflections upon death and the meaning of life, The Seventh Seal had a symbolism that was “immediately apprehensible to people trained in literary culture who were just beginning to discover the ‘art’ of film, and it quickly became a staple of high school and college literature courses… Unlike Hollywood ‘movies,’ The Seventh Seal clearly was aware of elite artistic culture and thus was readily appreciated by intellectual audiences.”
Woody Allen’s one-act play entitled Death Knocks, part of his anthology Getting Even, depicts a man playing gin rummy against Death. Allen, an enormous fan of Ingmar Bergman, references Bergman’s work in his serious dramas as well as his comedies; his Love and Death, a broad parody of 19th-century Russian novels, closes with a “Dance of Death” scene imitating Bergman’s.
Much of the film’s imagery is derived from medieval art. For example, Bergman has stated that the image of a man playing chess with a skeletal Death was inspired by a medieval church painting from the 1480s in Täby kyrka, Täby, north of Stockholm, painted by Albertus Pictor.
Ingmar Bergman based the entire iconography of the movie on murals in a church where his clergyman father used to go and preach.
The procession of flagellants chant the Dies Irae, a famous thirteenth century Latin hymn thought to be written by Tommaso da Celano. Before stopping in the village they chant stanzas 1-4 and the Lacrimosa, stanza 18. These are repeated as the procession departs.
Of the 50+ films he has done, this is one of Ingmar Bergman’s own rare favorites.
The inspiration for this film was said to be drawn from the period films of Akira Kurosawa, of which Ingmar Bergman was a big fan.
The last-but-one scene in which Death is dancing away with his followers was shot when some of the actors had gone home for the day, using some technicians and a few tourists as stand-ins.
Celebrating Ingmar Bergman’s movies!