Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Seventh Seal

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

The style of this 1957 film from director Ingmar Bergman can feel pretentious and dated now, and there have been parodies of it. There was a Saturday Night Live sketch many years ago, where two people stare at each other somberly at a table and speak Swedish. A ghostly white-faced, black-hooded figure (similar to the one of Death in the movie), appears. One of the people gives car keys to Death and says take the Volvo to get some pizza. Then a narrator says they fooled Death, because there is no pizza in Sweden. Yes, the film is bleak and depressing, but there are some humorous moments and lines in it that provide a darkly comic element to its generally bleak philosophical tone.
 The movie starts on a serious note, with a desolate setting along a rocky shore (no soft sand here to cushion the proceedings) covered by dark clouds. There is no soothing sound track. All we hear is the disharmonious sound of waves crashing, perhaps echoing the discordant world we are about to enter. We see a knight wearing the uniform of one who fought in the Crusades, who we later learn is named Antonius Block (Max Von Sydow). He has a chess board and pieces sitting on a boulder in front of him. Is he playing against himself, the warring factions of religious belief and disbelief battling inside of him for his soul? His squire, Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand), is stretched out on the stone bed of the beach, which tells us that even sleep can be a torment in this life. Death (Bengt Ekerot) pays a visit to Block, saying that he has been near the knight for quite a while now, which makes sense since Block spent ten years fighting holy wars. Block makes a deal with Death to postpone his demise. They will play a game of chess, and he will have a reprieve from the Grim Reaper as long as they play, and will be allowed to live if he wins the game. Death, proud of his gaming skills, agrees.

Jöns wakes up and talks about how there are ominous stories that portend dire events. He says there have been rumors of one horse devouring another, and graves opening to release the dead. He sings a song about God being at an unattainable distance in the sky, but that Satan is close, here on earth. Basically, he is saying evil is readily observable, but benevolence, not so much. This theme continues as they travel, as the squire goes to ask a hooded person for directions. It turns out that under the cloak are the mummified remains of a person. Jöns is the one who provides most of the black humor in the film. When the unknowing Block asks what the “person” said, the squire answers that the dead man was “eloquent” in what he had to say. No words were necessary to convey what a deadly path they are on: the scary image says it all.
We then encounter a traveling troupe of actors. One of them, Jof (Nils Poppe), is a light-hearted soul, compared with most of those in the story. He is a juggler (perhaps suggesting he knows how to balance the light and dark aspects of life?). He is also prone to having visions, indicating that he can see beyond the immediate problems that may bog a person down in a depressing state of mind. After waking up he has a glimpse of the Virgin Mary, wearing a crown, teaching the baby Jesus how to walk. His loving wife, Mia (Bibi Andersson), kids him about his visions, and calls him a dreamer, as she takes care of their son. Jof believes in miracles, hoping to one day make one of his juggling balls stay suspended in the air. He says if he doesn’t achieve this feat, maybe his boy will be able to. He sings a song about Jesus, (which contrasts with the pessimistic one sung by the squire), and the covered wagon in which they ride is adorned with religious pictures. It’s possible that this family represents a version of the Christian holy family, with Jof being Joseph, Mia as Mary, and their son a young Jesus.

But, Bergman has set his tale during the Middle Ages, also known as the Dark Ages. The Black Plague is ravaging Europe. People are afraid, so they believe unbelievable stories (like one that says a woman gave birth to a calf’s head) that suggest that the end is near. Thus, the title of the film, which comes from the last book of the bible, The Revelation of St. John the Divine, which tells of the apocalypse to come. The film begins with a quote from chapter eight of the book, which tells that the seven seals will be opened, and the destruction of the earth shall begin. The third member of the troupe, Jonas (Erik Strandmark), plays Death, and wears a death mask, at church events (which ironically comments on the fact that we also are seeing an actor play the real Death in the film). When the squire, Jöns, visits a church and talks with a painter doing murals, he asks why does the man depict Death dancing. The response is, “A skull is more interesting than a naked woman.” (This is the first mention of death dancing, and later, townspeople sing about death dancing along the shore – we saw him first at the beach – which points to the final image of the film). This statement deals with the propensity of humans to be attracted, in a perverse way (like not turning away nowadays from a car accident), to catastrophe. It plays to the fear of death, and thus the preoccupation with the end of one’s life, or, here, even the end of the world.
Bergman seems to be offering that one possibility for the existence of religion is that people turn to it when they are scared. The knight says we “make an idol of our fear, and call it God.” The church artist says people need a reason to explain the devastation of the plague, so the justify it by calling it a punishment from God for the evil ways of humans. Indeed, later in the movie, we have a procession of people whipping each other, subduing the flesh as it were, as penance for sinful ways. A priest among these penitents frightens the townspeople by saying that they will all die of the Black Plague. Instead of rejoicing at life, he talks of a pregnant woman being full of a lust for life as being foolish, since life is short. From this viewpoint, life is not meant to be enjoyed, and one should worry about the immortal soul that can be tortured in hell if it leaves this world in a sinful state. When the procession members march out of the town, we see them disappear, suggesting they lived their lives as if already dead. 

The irrational fear of death leads to superstitious practices that justify the tormenting of others. Block and his squire come across soldiers who have tortured and are ready to burn at the stake a woman they say has consorted with the devil. They blame her for bringing about the plague. When Jof is in a tavern he jokes about the impending doom, and is immediately considered suspicious for his lack of fear. In contrast to those whose belief in religion is based on fear, the knight Block wants his faith built on a basis of true belief. When he looks at a statue of a crucified Jesus, the knight’s tormented soul is mirrored in the agony on the sculptured face of Christ. He sees who he believes is a priest waiting to hear his confession. Block says that he feels that his contrition will not be genuine. He reminds one of King Claudius in Hamlet, who also seeks relief, whose words fly up, but his thoughts remain below. Block says, “Is it so terribly inconceivable to comprehend God with one's senses? Why does he hide in a cloud of half-promises and unseen miracles? How can we believe in the faithful when we lack faith? What will happen to us who want to believe, but cannot?” Block wants to believe, but he requires more than commitment to a belief system solely for the selfish protection from post-mortem punishment. He goes on to say about the idea of God, “Why does He live on in me in a humiliating way - despite my wanting to evict Him from my heart? Why is He, despite all, a mocking reality I can't be rid of?” He also can’t get relief in atheism, because the desire to believe, to have meaning beyond mortal life, haunts him. Without actual knowledge of God, not just faith that he may exist, he is left in a state of “preposterous horror.” He can’t face death “knowing everything’s nothingness.” But, that is exactly what he is doing, because the priest turns out to be a masquerading Death (the irony then is that the church and its priests are implied as fake purveyors of truth). In his confession, Block said he was playing the chess game so he could get a reprieve to have time to do one meaningful act after all his pointless wanderings. In a way, isn’t he speaking for everyone’s wish?

The squire Jöns does not have the anguish of the knight he serves. He says that he went to the Holy Land to fight for the Lord, and for his efforts his rewards were being bitten by insects, getting poisoned, and contracting infections. He says that the crusade was a “stupid quest.” On a scavenger hunt he finds a dead woman in a barn. He hides when a man by the name of Raval (Bertil Anderberg) appears and steals a bracelet off of the female corpse. Another woman comes in, and Raval threatens her. Jöns stops Raval from hurting the girl. He knows Raval, who was a theologian who urged Block and Jöns to go on the crusade. Here we have another swipe at the church, as this man was a phony religious person who sent men away on a holy war while he stayed behind and exploited others. Jöns warns Raval that he will be punished if he ever sees him again. When he does encounter him again, he blinds Raval, perhaps as ironic justice for preventing others from seeing his deceptive nature.
Jöns is not what you would call a feminist. He roughly treats the woman (Gunnel Lindblom) he saved, grabs her, kisses her, and says he needs a housekeeper because if he is lucky, his wife is probably dead. He says she owes him her life, so she must go with him. At the tavern, When Jof was threatened, he was accused by Plog, the buffoonish, drunken blacksmith (Åke Fridell) of running off with his wife. After saving Jof (the squire, despite his sour ways does help people), he tells Plog not to lament the loss of his wife (who ran off with the other troupe member, Jonas). Jöns says,” Love is nothing but lust and cheating and lies.” After basically saying you can’t live with women and you can’t live without them, he says, in his darkly comic way, “it seems like the logical thing to do is kill them while it’s still fun.” He says love is a disease that “eats away at your strength, morale.” And, “if everything is imperfect in this world, love is perfect in its imperfection.” So, not only does Jöns not believe that religion can save one, he also feels neither can love. In terms of degree, Jof is the hopeful one, Block wants to be hopeful, and Jöns relishes in his total lack of hope.

Block has a moment of contentment when he meets up with Jof and his family. His squire and the girl join them. They share a meal, and the knight remembers how good he felt years ago with his now estranged wife, Karin (Inga Landgré). He compares the overflowing milk saucer he drinks from as a metaphor for happy memories. Perhaps being around the positive energy of Jof and his family helps to lighten his mood. However, Bergman gives us contrasting images in one shot. The hopeful Jof is seen singing, but behind him is the death mask of the actor Jonas. Individual moments may be enjoyable, but death is always lurking close by, ready to undermine the joy. Block wishes to perform that one meaningful act by providing these people sanctuary from the plague in his castle. After Plog finds his wife, Lisa (Inga Gill) with Jonas, she then acts repentant, and they join the group. Jonas avoids Plog’s wrath by simulating a suicide scene with a phony dagger. Ironically, he may cheat death by avoiding being killed by another man, but Death itself can never be avoided (a foreboding of the ending of the story). Death deduced Block’s plan, and has followed them. The dark figure shows up and chops down the tree Jonas has climbed, killing him.
Before they travel to Block’s castle, the knight loses the chess game to Death. The group continue on their way to the knight’s castle. There is an ominous storm, and Jof and his family escape in the covered wagon. When the others reach the castle, Block’s wife Karin is there. Even though we can see that these two love each other, the time Block has been away, and the damage his anguish has visited upon him, has created an emotional distance between the married couple. There is a knock at the door. Death has come to claim them. Block, still clinging to the slim possibility of belief in God, prays for mercy. But, the cynical squire says there is no one to hear him. The group approach the camera, as if making a curtain call at the end of a play. Jöns’ girl, who has not said one word, finally speaks, and says, “It is finished.” The short sentence announces the end for these characters and their story.

There is, however, one more scene in the film. Jof and his family survive and come out of their wagon to a bright day after the storm. This optimism is countered with one of Jof’s visions. He sees the others on a hill, following Death, holding hands, as they do the foretold dance of death. Although God is an allusive figure for the character of Block, Bergman personifies Death, because there is no doubt of its existence.

The next film is Zelig.

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