It’s always a pleasant experience to see a classic worthy of the distinction. So often, those “great movies” turn out to be too dull, too technically primitive, over-acted, and over-written. The Seventh Seal (1957) looks about ten years older than it is, and in Swedish to boot, and yet surprised me at how solid it was on most every score. I enjoyed The Seventh Seal in the same way I like red onions. It’s complicated, appetizing, and ultimately I’m left with a distinct taste in my mouth. I think it’s terror.
The knight, Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), is cast upon the shores of his home country with his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) when Death (Bengt Ekerot) comes for him. To gain a respite, Antonius suggests a chess game against Death, which is accepted. Antonius wishes to use that time for one significant action. During the game, Antonius and Jöns make their way back home, picking up fellow travelers, including a performing troop, Jof (Nils Poppe), Mia (Bibi Andersson), and Skat (Erik Strandmark), as well as a young girl (Gunnel Lindblom). They pass through Denmark as the Plague ravages the region. The people they encounter blame, bargain, and batter themselves in the face of their inevitable, terrible demise.
On the other hand, pretty funny movie. I mean, it’s not a rom-com, but it has its moments. The performers give us Roberto Benigni-style fare—in fact, Poppe is very like Benigni—so that is as charming as broad Euro comedy can be, but all else is Björnstrand. Björnstrand is phenomenal in this movie. There are few films where I can tell that a foreign speaking actor is doing well—Rust and Bone (2012) comes immediately to mind—and Björnstrand is flawless. If you could only see him and his nonchalant performance, you would be impressed. He also is the beneficiary of the best dialogue in the movie, mostly concerning the issue of women and love. Hilarious stuff. Even though I’m reading it, I know that he is nailing virtually every line. But then, with von Sydow, he also delves deeply into the topic of death.
Obviously, this movie is about death and God. If you’re looking for a light dousing in questions of death, look much much further. Go on right past this. Try Heaven Can Wait (1978). This movie slaps you super hard in the face with the Greatest Question Ever Asked (patent pending). One scene in particular, when Antonius and Jöns watch as a young woman (Maud Hansson) is about to die, is so visceral, so realistic that I had chills. If you sometimes contemplate the idea of death, you’ll find this entire experience rather moving. I haven’t see a lot of that in movies before 1970. Ingmar Bergman, the writer and director, is so clearly speaking through his characters at that and most every other moment that it feels like a conversation. A well-directed conversation.
You know that line at the end of Doubt (2008)? “I have such DOUBTS!” Well if they substituted this movie for that line, I think they would have had a masterpiece.
I saw a pretty good print of the film. I wish dearly that it was in widescreen, but that is not an option, sadly. However, the image is clear and crisp (in black and white). It isn’t overly-stylized, though it is not strictly modern. For what it can do, there are crashing waves and wide landscapes that are attractively framed and captured. Any technical prowess beyond this with cinematographer Gunnar Fischer, I cannot truly judge. I noticed a few times that focus was pulled as the scene shifted and that two characters were in focus at different depths—but this is sixteen years after Citizen Kane (1941), so I don’t know what should be impressive or just old hat. That is to say, it is neither crummily old nor beautifully inventive. Bergman and Fischer do not intrude. The music (Erik Nordgren), though quite poor in sound quality, was clearly high caliber work. Hint: Keep very quiet after you press play.
If I have a complaint it is that the dialogue is awfully full. The characters have a great deal to say and I’ve got to read it all. When I’m reading, I’m not looking at faces or images, so I probably miss a good part of the movie. Some of it, like the readings from Revelations—from whence it derives its title—goes in one eye and out the other. Thus, I wasted time trying to read what appears like the narration of a terrible acid trip and missed all the pictures of waves. Perhaps I’ll track down a dubbed version and see how that sounds. Something tells me that von Sydow’s voice is un-substitutable.
I was in the right mood for this movie. That is, one of no expectation. I thought that The Seventh Seal was just about a man playing chess with death under a long conversation about, you know, stuff. I imagined a void background with moody lighting giving shape to von Sydow’s odd hair-do and Ekerot’s half-crown hoodie. How happy I was to find that there was actually an unpretentious movie here instead. I suppose, in retrospect, I should have given critics more credit than to think they would universally hail such a minimalist bore-fest as I’d envisaged. Then again, if you give the critical group-think credit for anything, you’re probably on the wrong track. Except, it turns out, when it comes to The Seventh Seal. Good work, Ingmar.
Unsurprisingly, it costs a fortune—what else would you expect from a movie people know but don’t see—but it might be worth it to invest the money to incentivize your actually seeing it. Otherwise, hit the library, I’m sure they’ll have a copy on DVD (if not Blu-Ray).