Sunday, November 3, 2013

#168: The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)

I don't really know what its status is in our current cultural climate where "art" is a dirty word in both mainstream culture and the various subcultures buried just beneath it and where even a mainstream crowd-pleaser like the first Rocky would be marketed as an art film if it were released today simply because it's not about CGI figures crashing into each other, but for a good thirty-plus years, The Seventh Seal was the symbolic figurehead of European art film, referenced and parodied endlessly in popular culture, perhaps most memorably for people of my vintage in Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey. I saw dozens upon dozens of references to the film's famous chess match with Death years before I ever saw the film. It's hard to imagine another subtitled foreign art film becoming a mainstream reference point today, but culture is a lot more fragmented than it was in the '50s. If you're in your thirties or older, you probably know this movie even if you don't know this movie. If you're younger, you probably don't, unless you're the curious type who seeks out the older and/or the currently unfashionable.
If you are familiar with this movie, you might be questioning its place on a horror movie list. I questioned it when I first noticed it occupying a spot on Rue Morgue's list. "That's not a horror movie," I remember thinking. Then, when images from it came back to me, and I thought about the arc of the story and the elements and images making it up, I changed my tune. Like all Bergman's films, The Seventh Seal was marketed as a European art film for a highbrow audience (well, a few were initially marketed as sex films for horndogs who liked a little culture with their nudity ("Come for the tits! Stay for the cultural advancement!"), but that was a brief advertising fad in the late '50s and early '60s), but The Seventh Seal is also a dark fantasy with some pretty horrific imagery, a Halloween-appropriate piece of Scandinavian Gothic.
Expanding this line of thinking to Bergman's career as a whole, I'm tempted to call him one of the major non-horror directors who's had the most influence on the lighting, framing, and atmosphere of the horror genre. Almost all of Bergman's films contain scenes with disturbing, nightmarish imagery. Even one of his most straightforward pieces of drama, Autumn Sonata, has a scene of pure horror in it. The Virgin Spring was the inspiration for Wes Craven's Last House on the Left. Fanny and Alexander has supernatural elements. The Magician is a non-horror film that looks and feels exactly like a horror film. Through a Glass Darkly, The Silence, Sawdust and Tinsel, Cries and Whispers, The Passion of Anna, and Persona have moments of psychological terror. Two Bergman films I have yet to see, Shame and Hour of the Wolf, have even been described as his takes on the horror film. This is my long-winded way of saying The Seventh Seal is not much of a stretch for an adventurous horror list like Rue Morgue's.
For those of you unfamiliar with the story, The Seventh Seal takes place during the Black Plague. A knight, Antonius Block (Max Von Sydow), and his squire, Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand), pitch up exhausted on a beach. They have just spent the past 10 years fighting in the Crusades and both men are disillusioned, though in very different ways. Antonius' faith in religion has been shaken by the violence of the Crusades, but he still believes devoutly in God. Like many Bergman characters, he doesn't understand why God remains silent and desperately wants God to make his presence known. Jons is a cynical realist and atheist who sees no evidence of a higher power and has no faith in gods or his fellow men. They make an interesting pair, these two, so different from, but so loyal to, each other. Also present on the beach is Death (Bengt Ekerot). He's ready to drop both men with the plague, but Antonius offers to play chess with him in exchange for a little more time. Antonius wants to do something, or experience something, meaningful before he dies. The two men travel the countryside, with Death showing up at periodic intervals to continue the game. Meanwhile, a married couple, Mia and Jof (Bibi Andersson and Nils Poppe), members of a small acting troupe, join the knight and squire as they attempt to escape both the plague and the general end-of-times panic gripping the residents of the nearby villages.
Bergman adapted his most famous film from his own play, but the story feels like an old fable, and, as my wife pointed out, the structure has the feel of a Shakespeare play. The filmmaking, on the other hand, has a '30s horror feel and a more conventional score than is usual for Bergman that accentuates the dread and suspense. I was also surprised at the amount of humor in the film. Though Bergman made a small handful of comedies, the majority of his filmography is pretty devoid of humor. I don't remember a single light moment in the early '60s-early '80s stretch of his work until 1982's Fanny and Alexander, a very serious film in its own right but one that makes room for some comic relief in its early scenes. The Seventh Seal, however, is full of humor, both dry and silly, both physical and verbal. In that sense, it's a pretty unusual Bergman film, maybe the only one where you see his lightest and darkest sensibilities sharing space.
The Seventh Seal may not appeal to a more traditional horror fan or somebody who wants a blood-soaked slasher film, but I think there's a lot here for the adventurous horror enthusiast. Apocalyptic visions, Death, eyeless corpses, birds of prey, dark thunderstorms, a Satanic woman burned at the stake, half-mad villagers, omens, the plague, the absence of God. It's all here. A critic's darling in his prolific years who was championed by the French New Wave filmmakers and the New York critical establishment, Bergman has taken a few recent hits in some quarters as an overrated, repetitive writer whose compositions owe more to the theater than the cinema, but I'm not on board with many of these criticisms. He may not be as formally innovative as contemporaries like Bresson, Dreyer, Antonioni, Godard, Hitchcock, Nicholas Ray, and Renoir, but his films still retain their emotional power and his mastery at photographing faces is far more cinematic than theatrical. He's on the shortlist of directors who know exactly when, where, and how to use closeups. Bergman's not untouchable, but his best films will long outlast his detractors.

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