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Det sjunde inseglet (1957)
Harrowing Question, Harrowing Answers
50 years have passed since Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal" was released to worldwide critical acclaim. And after 50 years of cinema; how many films have tried to put into debate these same questions that "The Seventh Seal" did before. Some of these films have succeeded , others have fallen on their faces flat. But "The Seventh Seal" has not aged or it's power diminished a single bit after half a century.
So what differs "The Seventh Seal" from other films in the same category and importance, thus making it great? It lies with Ingmar Bergman. Our story is set in the Middle Ages when the Plague was ravaging across Europe. Two men lie in a beach, a knight and his squire (Max Von Sydow and Gunnar Bjornstand), have just returned from the Crusades. They are scarred from the battles and the knight's faith fading. His search for meaning has not come up with an answer as he lies in doubt. Is there really an answer? While the throbbing of the beach waves subside and degrades into silence and Death (Beng Ekerot) is standing in front of the knight. "I've been at your side a long time " remarks Death, as the knight, physically confident yet emotionally and spiritually deprived and frightened, tries to accept his fate. The two shall play a game of chess for the knight's soul. The game continues throughout the film.
Bergman has a particularly great talent of representing the world and its characters. And no surprise, The Seventh Seal is filled with many major/minor characters. First of all, the acting troupe comprised of the pleasure-seeker Skat ; and the husband and wife Josef and Mia with their infant Michael. The latter two characters are keenly important to the world of this film; they provide warmth, sanctuary and grace, contrary to The Seventh Seal's cold story. The minor players include Plog , a blacksmith, his wife Lisa , Raval , a seminarist; who sent the knight and his squire to join the Crusades. Raval, a Bergman stereotype of man of God, who is deplorable to the world around him. Also, a witch is included to this big dramatis personae; she casts doubt and anguish to us and especially the knight. And, in my opinion, the most important minor character is the mute girl . She somehow ends up in every scene in The Seventh Seal after her entrance. She remains a big presence (ironically, a presence like Death). This ensemble gives the film a lot more than the original storyline: humor, gentleness, vulgarity and etc. Leaving The Seventh Seal creating its own dynamic setting which we are engulfed into.
Going back, I suggested that Bergman has a definite answer to the subject of the film: the meaning of life; which has left many critics to many interpretations. But the answer is said plainly in the film; and tragically this response is somewhat fatalistic albeit pessimistic . Almost in a cruel way, Bergman burdens his answer throughout the film until the end. There is no room for sentimentality . Bergman's film and answer is cold, down-to-earth, and truthful . The Seventh Seal is Bergman's fatalistic , to-the-fact revelations hardlined by some of the most stark and beautiful images in the art of cinema. The best example of this is the scene which in the knight goes to church to confess; a hooded figure is standing waiting to receive the knight's anguish. With Gunnar Fischer's black-white, deep-focus cinematography, the knight's faith in God in balance, he pours out his entire soul to the hooded figure, perhaps, waiting for a response from God Himself. In agony, the knight goes as far as telling the figure about the game with Death . The hooded figure in curiosity asks how will he defeat Death. The knight, forthwithingly, tells his strategy. The hooded figure turns to the knight, he is in fact Death himself. No one is there to hear the knight's confession except nothingness, who is Death. From that point onwards, the knight is doomed, and the film has just passed its 25th minute. This is the beauty of the Bergman cinema, his images are as powerful as the story's theme, mostly about the absence of God. These scenes are Bergman masterstrokes, masterstrokes that are one of the most poignant and poetic in the history of cinema, to depict his fatalistic ideals . These scenes of gloom n' doom like the one mentioned lets the audience carry the film's burden even further. But the knight's quest for the meaning of life has not yet been extinguished. Then... he meets a witch about to be burned at the stake, and the knight ironically questions this Devil's servant about the knowledge of God. She tells him to look into her eyes... the knight sees nothing but terror. The witch goes into bragging about her relationship with the Devil, the knight looks down disheartened. As the witch is being burned at the stake, her eyes, the eyes of terror, open up as she fears for her life and with this sight the knight has given up his quest. It turns out the witch was looking at Death. The knight has come to his second dead end, he has tried to talk to God about his search, instead, Death is the one who answers him. Here, the knight tries to talk to Satan but to no avail. Only Death answers yet again this time through the dying witch. It seems Death is the only supernatural force in this world. From the march of the flagellant to the death of one of the minor characters, this scenes of immense poignancy and the meaningless is what makes up the bulk of The Seventh Seal and Bergman's worldy answer. But what about Death, does he know about any saviors? Like a cruel punchline, Death remains ambiguous to us. He remarks, "I am unknowing".