With the cancellation of my study abroad program and my internship along with it — not to mention the unlikelihood of securing a job during these Trying Times™ — I have been forced to go back to the drawing board and brainstorm some alternative summer plans. Lying motionless in my bed and staring at the ceiling made some great points, but ultimately I’ve decided to return to my first, true love… the Criterion Collection.
For those uninitiated, the Criterion Collection is a home video company that distributes classic, independent, foreign and arthouse film; their ongoing, titular series has released over a thousand “spines” since Janus Films founded it in 1984. To quote their Wikipedia page, “Criterion is noted for helping to standardize a number of ideas, such as performing film restoration, using the letterbox format for widescreen films, and adding bonus features and commentary tracks for home video.” Right on, Wikipedia!
No pretentious film bro — standing awkwardly in the corner of the party with a flannel covering his “Written & Directed by Quentin Tarantino” shirt — is complete without a few Criterion spines, and as their king I have made it my mission to watch as many of these suckers as I can. I present to you: the inaugural episode of the Criterion Essays, where once a week I will watch and write about a new Criterion film.
I actually started this series a few years ago on a previous WordPress of mine, so “Seven Samurai” and “Amarcord” are already taken care of. But for this new iteration, I’ve decided I’ll start with a classic of Swedish cinema, a favorite of Woody Allen (barf) and a timely film for the current coronavirus crisis: Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal.”
“The Seventh Seal” takes place toward the end of the Middle Ages and follows a disillusioned knight named Antonious Block. He is played by the late, great Max von Sydow; “The Seventh Seal” was one of von Sydow’s earliest screen roles and his first in a Bergman picture, although he’d go on to star in ten more including “Wild Strawberries” that very same year. With his bright blonde hair and solemn features, von Sydow pops in what would become the performance of a lifetime, even with “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” “The Exorcist” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” later on in his career.
Block has returned from the Crusades to a country ravaged by pestilence; he and his sardonic squire, Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) first learn of the bubonic plague when they visit a chapel and witness a fresco being painted of it. After a decade of death in the name of religion and a home just as devastated as the Holy Land, Block begins to doubt whether God even exists, and if he does, why he doesn’t seem to care.
Cue: Death himself. As Block washes himself in the ocean and prays in (what seems to be) vain, he is visited by a pale, white man clad in black. He recognizes Death (Bengt Ekerot) for what he is and challenges him to a chess match: so long as the game continues, Block will continue to live. It’s a brilliant metaphor captured beautifully by Gunnar Fischer’s black-and-white cinematography, evocative of the chiaroscuro of the era. The image is so striking, in fact, that it has since been parodied by everything from “Monty Python” to “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.” Throughout the film Death revisits Block for the next round, chiding the knight as he witnesses the horror of the world in which he wanders.
Bergman was born the son of a strict, conservative chaplain, his childhood spent surrounded by religious iconography in dark, musty churches. Yet under the surface of tradition and pageantry there festered in Bergman growing doubt, growing fear. “The Seventh Seal” is read today as Bergman’s reconciliation with that uncertainty, moreover with the silence of God. The first line of the film quotes a passage from the Book of Revelation: “[W]hen the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.” No doubt this is in reference to the silence Bergman experienced when he turned his attention upwards, and is reflected once more in the experiences of Block. Setting the film in the Middle Ages is particularly inspired: few times in history has there been so much bloodshed, and few times in history has God been the only explanation.
For example, twice in the film Block encounters a young woman accused of witchcraft; her captors explain that if it weren’t for her sleeping with the Devil, the Black Death would never have come to Europe. This fascinates Block: surely if she knows of the Devil, she knows something more about God. So he asks, and she tells him to look into her eyes if he wants to meet Satan. But all he sees is fear: his own pale face reflected in her pupils.
The most disturbing scene of all comes later, as Block journeys back to his castle. His company is startled in the forest by a hysterical man — a theologian whom circumstance has turned thief — shrieking in horror as the plague overcomes him. He cries out for food, for water, for touch, but Block and his company wordlessly look on. As we now confront a pandemic of our own (albeit one much less deadly), this scene proves particularly haunting. If man is made in the likeness of God, perhaps it is in his silence that he is most like his creator.
“Jesus,” you may be thinking. “Why on Earth would I want to watch this?” Despite its reputation, “The Seventh Seal” is one of the most approachable films in Bergman’s catalog, and at a breezy ninety minutes, it’s surprisingly humorous. Take, for example, the rag-tag theatre troupe that eventually joins Block’s company: composed of a care-free juggler (Nils Poppe), his kind-hearted wife (Bibi Andersson) and their infant son, the trio serve as a light in the darkness not only for the audience, but for Block. When they invite him to picnic with them, Block smiles softly and says, “I shall bear this memory between my hands as carefully as a bowl of fresh milk.”
Why is Block challenging Death, anyways? If the world is so dark and depressing, wouldn’t he just want to die? He does want to die, he explains, but first he needs to perform “one meaningful deed,” something that will justify what he otherwise believes has been a pointless existence. That deed comes in the form of the theatre troupe: when Death visits Block’s company and explains that, at the end of their chess match, he intends to take them all, Block distracts the Grim Reaper long enough to ensure that the couple and their child escape. Having finally given something good, Block embraces Death, and in the film’s final moments, joins hand-in-hand with the rest of his company and partakes in the Dance of Death.
For all its nihilism, “The Seventh Seal” is ultimately life-affirming. The juggler, Jof, is prone to visions, much to the embarrassment of his wife and the amusement of others. Early in the film, he has one such vision: as he washes his face after a good night’s rest, he sees what he believes to be the Virgin Mary leading the infant Jesus. Wiping away his tears, he awakens his wife to describe every detail: Mary’s glimmering, golden crown; the laughter of Jesus, learning to walk; and the beautiful silence they left behind. In this moment, “The Seventh Seal” presents an alternative response to the silence of God: through his stillness we’re allowed to be free, and in his silence there is beauty to which words can’t compare.
After all, there’s more to that Bible verse than just one sentence. As we learn at the end of the film, in that silence, “[T]he seven angels, which had the seven trumpets, prepared themselves to sound.” 9/10