Posted on 9/09/12 07:37 PM
If ever a movie made a strong case for the artistic importance of foreign film it was The Seventh Seal, a movie that rivaled anything Hollywood was making at the time in terms of technical skill in making, emotional depth and acting and could never have been made in America. And what better man to make that case than the Swedish director extraordinaire Ingmar Bergman, today widely considered one of the greatest aueters in cinema history. Bergman created this Medieval meditation on death as a play for the acting students at Malmo City Theatre under the title "Wood Carving" betraying the type of story it would be telling. Over the course of roughly five years it would be performed numerous times as a play and radio show that Bergman directed, before becoming his seventeenth film as The Seventh Seal which he shot in thirty five days with a little over 150,000 dollars. Almost all of the film was shot in a studio with the exception of the opening and closing shot and was made under frenzied working conditions that may contribute to some of the films unevenness. Still the movie along with Rashomon seven years earlier made a strong case for international world cinema to be taken seriously especially in the arthouse realm. How does it hold up today on its merits as a film? Let's take a chess playing look.
As our movie opens Knight of the Crusades Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) returns from the horrors of war with his squire Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand). As they reach a scenic beach the two become exhausted and can go no further and Antonius encounters the specter of Death (Bengt Ekerot) who has come to claim them. He forestalls Death by convincing him to play a game of chess with him though he is in the habit of playing chess by himself and that is how the rest of the world sees him. He and Jons continue on their journey back to Block's castle across a Swedish countryside ravaged by the Black Plague, and Block seeks to use his reprieve to commit one last honorably act before death claims him feeling remorseful and disillusioned for his role in the Crusades. Along the way they gain an entourage including a Blacksmith named Plog (Ake Fridell), his wife Lisa (Inga Gill), married acting duo Jof (Nils Poppe) and Mia (Bibi Andersson) and a mute girl Jons saves from rape (Gunnel Lindblom). As they ravel through the small town near Block's castle, death is ever present and evil follows.
There are a lot of things about this movie that work so well it's a bona fide modern classic and very few things that sadly don't work very well at all. The direction is suffice to say in the works well category with to this today staggeringly beautiful cinematography that makes the very best use of contrasting black and white in a black and white film, the opening scenes in particularly featuring stunning back drops and the rest featuring incredible sets. The plot however is where we run into more trouble, there's nothing wrong with the story itself necesarrily but it's actually a rather effective meditation on faith and the collapse of it, as well as on mankind's fear and various reactions to death. But it's rather weak when it comes to effectively creating a Medieval world, not terribly weak but not especially strong either. The costumes seem right but there aren't very many details that make it feel like a medieval village and not just a studio set which is especially odd given the opening and closing scenes, in fact not much thought is given to period details and trappings at all which would be a much bigger deal were it a story about life after the Crusades and not a highly metaphorical one. It's also due to the highly metaphorical nature of the story we can forgive its uneven pacing and inability to balance out its comedy and never ending depths of despair. Still especially bearing in mind its considerable place in movie history, none of these things feel that important even some hokie performances from supporting actors when you have such appealing emotional moments as when Block watches a woman be burned alive for consorting with the devil and the charged ending, which hauntingly display doubts about death we all have in a bare raw way previously unseen in the world of film. The main actors also all do the material which is clearly derived from a play (not a bad thing) credit particularly the incomparable Max von Sydow who brings a humanity and gravitas as well as at times life affirming joy to his world weary knight.
Seventh Seal is a classic, a world classic that changed the movie world when it came to foreign releases and put movie master Ingmar Bergman on the map. It's easy to see why this movie would have intrigued given Hollywood at the time and the unique creation of the work coupled with the stunning visuals and the now mild pop culture icon interpretation of Death as a black gloved monk as ominously and oddly comically portrayed by Bengt Ekerot. The movie is an existential wreck that asks the big questions before giving us the answer of religion and stunning view of the road to the afterlife straight out of a wood carving, but also is at times wonderfully comic which make it eminently watchable again and a again to the discerning open minded viewer. The Seventh Seal is a classic, one of my favorites and a movie that demands to be seen over and over again.