I was able to watch last night, after the longest time, The Seventh Seal, no doubt one of the seminal classics of Swedish or Scandinavian cinema in general. Filmed in 1957 by Ingmar Bergman, the film tells the story of Antonius Block, a knight from Medieval Sweden, who had just returned to his native country after a stint in the Crusades. Upon his return, he finds the land ravaged by plague; worse, he is accosted by Death himself, who has come to claim him personally. Block proposes a game of chess with Death; as long as Block is able to hold his own, he will be allowed to wander freely. And if Block wins, Death would have to leave him alone, completely. The game begins, and Block sets out on a mission to Elsinore to attend the local saint's feast.
Much has been said about the anachronistic, existential angst-slash-agnosticism of the movie. Block is clearly a melancholy, tormented person from the start, and Max Von Sydow does an excellent job portraying the inner desolation raging inside his heart. One of the first things Block does upon his return to Sweden is to seek out a church for confession. That scene, in my estimation, is probably the profoundest, most sublime, most excruciatingly poetic scenes I have ever seen, and sums up the film quite well. In it, a tortured Block confesses his horror at the seeming silence of God in the face of so much suffering and soul-crushing despair scattered about the earth. From the killing fields of Jerusalem to the plague-haunted towns of Sweden, Block's movement is from that of death to death; whatever warm embrace he might have expected from the blessed shores of his homeland is quickly transformed into a futile exercise of avoiding death one last time, only to see it so hideously, powerfully, present in his own backyard. Block confesses that he desires to know, for sure, whether there is a God, and if so,why He remains silent, indifferent, aloof to the woes and cares of His people. The priest, who in reality is Death, answers that there is probably no God--no devils, no angels, no saints-- in the end, only the sepulchral stillness and silence of Death at the end of everything. "Then life would be an inconceivable horror", says Block.
Along the way, Block sees a girl chained outside the church, apparently a witch, to be burned the next day for 'having carnal knowledge of the Evil One' . Eventually, he comes to a village and there meets a local acting troupe, led by a man named Jof, an actor and family man who claims to have seen visions of the Blessed Virgin, among others. Jof's troupe is in town for the local feast; but their performance is suddenly interrupted by the ominous appearance of a penitential procession, apparently done to appease the vengeance of God and withdraw His terrible chastisement upon the land. The procession is a grotesque, macabre, assemblage of sinners from all walks of life; they carry with them skulls and dress in rags and whip each other raw and bloody, a terrible sight to behold, one to make the sinner quake in his boots. The procession seems to bring up two important questions. First, why has God allowed such terrible sufferings to ravage the lands? And second, why does God remain deaf and blind to the supplications of His people? Why does He tarry on, passive and uninterested, at the sight of His beloved children inflicting pain and misery upon each other? Is God glutted, aroused, by such miserable sights?
I will not spoil the rest of the film; Bergman's work really has to be seen and felt firsthand, to take in all the melancholy gravitas and nuances of his direction. Some observations: Bergman's film is almost catatonically silent, the kind of silence one associates with a brooding menace, or a specter of overbearing despair waiting to crawl out of some suffocating shadow to rest upon the souls of men. There is an uneasiness that comes with watching it that I have not felt in many movies. It must also be said that the film is beautifully shot: the cinematography is perhaps as close to perfect as I can think of, and the beauty and poetry of it contrast sublimely with the coldness and melancholia which otherwise infect the narrative of the film. It is well-known that Bergman was the son of a very strict Lutheran pastor, who would often lock him up in the closet for such minor offenses like wetting his bed. The young Bergman further confesses that he lost his faith at the age of eight, no doubt influenced by the trauma he suffered under his father. And indeed, much of his work wrestles with the idea of faith and its role in the human experience. What is probably most striking here is how The Seventh Seal construes God: He is not the benevolent, personal, and loving Creator of the Gospels, but almost blind and idiot, an impersonal, nigh-Lovecraftian terror Whose aloofness and distance from the created world presents itself as a living menace, and Whose monstrous appetite for power continuously roars and lusts for blind and total submission. I realize this may sound caricature-ish, and as the son of a pastor who frequently discussed matters of God and theology on the dinner table, I imagine Bergman might see his vision in a more nuanced light than I; certainly, it is quite a complex film and much of its genius really lies in its ambiguity.
In contrast to noble, doubt-ridden Block, actor Jof is an optimist, if rather naively so. He lives for his family, for his craft, and wants his son to be an acrobat just like him. Even in the face of terrifying mockery and ridicule (the scene at the inn with Jof is distressingly powerful; Nils Poppe, the actor who plays Jof, I think, did an incredible job), Jof could not but end up in high spirits. He claims to see visions of angels and of the Blessed Virgin, in spite of the unbelief of the people around him. In a way, Jof functions very much as the anti-Block: the former is carefree and naively ignorant of the specter of Death, while the latter is almost consumed by doubt and fear, and the possibility that all human life-- and especially the violence often done by man against his fellow man-- ultimately serves no purpose, no direction, not even to entertain the wicked caprices of God and the Devil. The inconceivable horror that Block mentions in the the confession scene is precisely this: that man is damned to be free, and he is powerless to overcome its terrifying vicissitudes, and, most poignantly, that he cannot help but be violent. There is no rationality, however capricious and self-serving it may be, that governs the universe, only Death.
But perhaps no one understands better these seemingly irrational movements of the Divine than the Divine Itself. When Christ hung upon the Cross and cried out, 'Eloi, Eloi, lama sabacthani', He did so to confess His own absolute terror and abandonment before God. For Bergman though, the sacrifice of Our Lord seems to have little to no effect; we are, as we were, estranged, expelled, and barred from any conceivable sense of meaning or direction in life. On the contrary, it seems to confirm his idea of God as a bloodthirsty tyrant, Who scourges, flays, and nails His Son to a wooden cross 'out of love.'
As I have said, The Seventh Seal is a difficult film to master. Like a medieval tapestry it runs a veritable gamut of different physiognomies, and this is evidenced primarily in the faces of its characters. Von Sydow's Block is impassive, stoic, and tinged with a quiet but deep despair; Poppe's Jof is hopeful, expressive, even foolish-looking at times. Towards the end of the film, as Block and his squire Jons encounter the witch a second time, the latter asks (and I paraphrase), 'Who watches out for that girl? God? The Devil?' As the witch is slowly consumed by the flames, she looks in wide-eyed horror at Block and Jons, two sitting ducks powerless to divine the meaning of the act unfolding before their eyes. But Block's own refusal to give in too easily to Death suggests that he has yet a spark of hope in his heart, although it seems to have been all but extinguished absolutely. "Faith is a burden", says Block in the confession scene, which demands of the believer an almost blind assent-- a conviction, no matter how foolish--even in the midst of an almost oppressive, overpowering silence. Block's time with Jof and Mia, and their son Mikael, shows him at his most tender-- a smiling, laughing knight,a far cry from the guilt-wracked man who returns to Sweden. Still, Block eventually allows Death to win the game, apparently resigned to the infinite silence of God.
Perhaps the point here is that faith, like love, is meant to hurt-- but this hurt is not just an emotional hurt, but one which wounds the soul at a deeper, more fundamental level. To make a stand, to stake oneself for a single conviction, is to face the absoluteness of the terror of not knowing, and often this may just be a matter of plugging one's ears and shouting loudly at the top of one's lungs in an attempt to drown out the withering tide of doubt. In a world without meaning or truth, it seems that the only thing that can save it is madness, that of love. Block ends the confession scene by giving a monologue on his hand-- a hand that 'pulses with blood', which he nevertheless uses to play chess with Death. He laughs, with apparent irony, that such a thing pulsing with life is stuck in such a macabre position. Having danced with Death itself, Block still comes off unsure about God. In all honesty, I feel as if Antonius Block's questions could very well be my own. Block's tenderness with Jof's family leads us to think, albeit momentarily, that he has forgotten much of his wrangling with his questions. But Block ultimately refuses to budge, and the silence he feels all around him gets the better of him.