Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Seventh Seal

After some 45 or more years, caught up with Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal again. It proved to be curiously uninvolving, and enigmatic to the point of annoyance. In Bergman's book, The Magic Lantern, which has turned out to be more about Bergman than his movies, (to my disappointment), he barely mentions it, except to say the following:
...an uneven film which lies close to my heart, because it was made under difficult circumstances in a surge of vitality and delight. In the witch's night forest, where she is executed, you can just catch a glimpse between the trees of the high-rise windows of Rasunda, the suburb next to the studio. The procession of flagellants marches across a derelict site on which the new studio laboratory would be erected.
He then goes on to tell us that the last shot of the main group of characters dancing behind the devil was actually shot at the end of a day and most of those visible in it aren't the actors at all but 'assistants, electricians, a make-up man and two summer visitors.'

Uneven is a good word for the film. It loses its way more than once with its emphasis on the 'low' characters, who almost take over the movie - admittedly, the young couple (Nils Poppe and Bibi Andersson) are charming, but they get a lot of movie time and don't progress the story much. Max von Sydow is excellent in a role that requires him to be noble and questioning, and his squire, played by Gunnar Bjornstrand, is something of an enigma. Like some Shakespearian characters of a similar ilk, he gets lines that counter those of the main character, he acts far more roughly than seems his nature (particuarly to the near-mute girl he picks up from the deserted farm), and he revels in bawdy songs. And then there are the blacksmith and his wife, and the cuckolding actor. They seem to have nothing to do with the story whatsoever, and trail along with the others, the actor coming to a nasty end (again for no good reason), and the other two joining in the final dance of death.
But Bergman gives no reason for six of the characters to suddenly die at the end - in fact, we never understand why Death is so keen to kill off the Knight in the first place. The six characters don't appear to be dying of the plague - we get a graphic version of this in another scene from the resident baddie - and there doesn't seem any particular reason for them all to be together in the first place.
The script was based on a play Bergman wrote for a drama school in which he managed to give every student a part. The film seems to follow the same pattern - too many characters with nothing particular to do.
The intellectual arguments, such as they are, are fairly basic, and it's hard to know at the end whether the Knight has learned anything much from his respite from Death. Perhaps when I was in my late teens this seemed like a very serious movie. Regrettably, I found it hard to take it all seriously last night!
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