Review: The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet 1957)
dir Ingmar Bergman, starring Max von Sydow
By Paul Murphy, The Barbican, London
Like many Modernist iconoclasts, Ingmar Berman choose to set an apposite tale in a rather unapposite time and place. Medieval Sweden is hardly a place or time on the tip of everybodyís tongue, in fact, apart from a few experts safely cossetted in academe, very few people know anything about it at all. But that isnít important. In fact the film is hardly factually or historically accurate, although there is an actual icon or painting portraying a man playing chess with Death in the form of a skeleton in Taby kyrka, Sweden, dating from 1480 or thereabouts. What Bergman has created is a startling existentialist metaphor for his own era, traumatised as it was by the horrors of WW2, wedged inbetween that conflict, the Cold War, the conflicts to come, the possibility of nuclear annihilation. The Knight Antonius Block, played by Max von Sydow, plays an intellectual game with death, knowing that he cannot defeat or cheat death, but merely delay the inevitable. Of course, medicine, law, philosophy might also be regarded as other kinds of extended metaphors for such a game. The film seems to originate in a society that is absolutely certain that change will come, and that this change will almost certainly entail unbelievable horrors or chaos.
But the film is more than a single shocking, overwhelming, wonderful or engaging metaphor. The era is portrayed as a nightmarish descent into ignorance, whether it is the trial and torture of a witch, medieval flagellants (which did not exist in Medieval Sweden), the ravages of the Bubonic plague. Violence is used to adumbrate the trauma engendered by ignorance, but the Knight seems a powerfully cold adversary for Death, just as he seeks to protect his Queen. But ultimately we know that a certain worldview is passing away, as Block, his friends and family, are led away by Death, performing an eerie Dance of Death but Jof, his wife Mia and their child are still able to escape.
For some time now Ingmar Bergman has largely been forgotten about or marginalized. His obituary in The Guardian came as a surprise to this reviewer, who thought that he had died sometime in the mid-80s. What had actually happened was that Modernism in literature, theatre and cinema had died: the truth is that Bergmanís work became intensely unfashionable, as had seriousness of any kind. In itís place, anything shallow, flippant, simplistic without form or force had overtaken Bergmanís powerful, modernising consciousness. Thatís a great tragedy or a great farce, however you regard it, but hasnít Berman had the last laugh after all? His film has been re-released at a time similarly charged with momentedness, momentous apocalypse, momentous upheaval, as authority seems ill-equipped or inept in the face of overwhelming political or climactic movements. The years inbetween were clearly filled with hollow, insubstantial, unreal laughter. But Bergman himself is now dead too, his film lives as a portent, a monumental, singular metaphor evoking hideous squalor, pity, the redundancy of culture and history. But we also feel, however unsentimental we happen to be, however encased in ice our feelings, soul, spirit happen to be, that there is hope.
The film was often parodied. Woody Allen, Monty Python, even Bill and Tedís Bogus Adventure (bogus film?) where Bill and Ted beat Death at Battleship, Clue, electric football and Twister made a stab at sending up this portentous arthouse masterpiece.