Wednesday, April 26, 2017
The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)
Through a Glass Darkly (1961): too much talking, not enough showing. I had, in fact, remembered very little from The Seventh Seal beyond the knight playing chess with death and the final dance of death across the horizon -- both of which have been parodied and copied ever since. And it is, still, much too talky: Epigrams about God and Death pile up on one another tiresomely. But I had forgotten how human a fable it is. I think it succeeds where Through a Glass Darkly fails, partly because of setting: The glum isolation of the island in the later film puts all our concentration on the actors and the torment their characters inflict on one another. If Through a Glass Darkly is intended to raise questions about faith, about human beings' relationship to a god, it misses the mark. The world the characters of the film inhabit is not a world energized by faith, so their preoccupation with it seems pointless. But the setting of The Seventh Seal is an age of faith -- perhaps the last one our civilization will ever know -- which adds an urgency to the characters' wrangling with it. It became obvious to me on this viewing that the key character is not the knight, Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), but his squire, Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand), the sardonic commentator on the events. Jöns is our surrogate, the skeptic with a decidedly modern view of his era's religious extremism, such as the Crusade he and the knight have just been on. What we're witnessing is the merciful escape from a god that for some reason Bergman's modern characters keep hunting: the god of certainty -- the kind of certainty that breeds fanaticism and bigotry. In the end, Bergman's knight sacrifices himself to Death (Bengt Ekerot) so that ordinary people -- the players Jof (Nils Poppe) and Mia (Bibi Andersson) and their child -- may live to continue their secular amusements that had earlier been interrupted by fanatics and flagellants. Commentators have sometimes likened the plague that threatens the world of The Seventh Seal to the threat of nuclear annihilation, but I think that misses the point: For the medieval world, the Plague was a test of faith; for the modern world, the Bomb is a test of humanity. .