The Seventh Seal (Bergman, 1957)

Ingmar Bergman is one of the few film directors who has yet to disappoint me. His approach is distinct, and thrilling as it explores questions relating to faith and existence through a unique visual style. As his legacy has been of particular concern over the last year, many questions have been raised about his place in the cinematic canon. As can be expected, many admirers chimed in, from your everyday blogger to Allen, he’s been ranked among the greatest. Then there was Jonathan Rosenbaum’s largely disparaging piece that suggested that not only was Bergman’s films were better suited for the stage than cinema (among other things). He is not the first to suggest that Bergman’s films lack visual resonance, although the criticism seems more than quaint but completely insubstantial. Few directors use space, close ups or imagery to better effect that Bergman. Although this isn’t my favourite of his, aside from Persona, it might be the best example of his unique visual style and how it works to translate metaphorically his ideas.

What always immediately strikes me about Bergman’s films, is his use of low contrast black and white cinematography. Whereas most Hollywood filmmakers, and many European contemporaries exploit black and white for it’s tonal ranges, this doesn’t seem to concern Bergman nearly as much. Especially in interior scenes, more chiaroscuro effects are used, but still comparatively these are kept to a minimum. As Bergman’s characters are often going through identity issues relating especially to faith, art and relationships the “greyness” of his palette reflects this crisis that often is often reflected as a strong indifference to a world that seemingly has lost all meaning. It’s life without colour, without darkness or light. Good and evil don’t really exist in his universe. In the Seventh Seal, issues of faith and religion are central to the character’s moral dilemma, there is no answer from above or below. In terms of a fantasy element, death is a character, but he is neither good nor evil. He does bargain with the knight, but it’s almost out of a human curiosity… he doesn’t cheat, or judge he just exists to serve an essential purpose. He doesn’t have answers. That isn’t to say however that contrast is never used, especially in the last sequence of the film, light and dark, earth and sky, etc. are emphasised by the contrast between scenes and compositionally, the use of light and dark as a reflection of separation of the body and the soul.

Furthermore, Bergman is a master of the visual metaphor, although perhaps not always as blatant as others would often come to appreciate. Clearly, the image of playing chess with death in itself is one of the most striking images in cinematic, or artistic history (Bergman is hardly the first to suggest it, but his visual realization may be the best I’ve seen). The implications are endless, as the knight fits to rationalize and unknown and downright irrational situation. Beyond tempting fate, Bergman is being self reflective in his own interest and fascination with death. While no doubt he doesn’t see the exercise as useless, there is a sense that it is as pointless as existence itself. Were those extra moments of life worth it for the knight? He was doomed from the onset to lose, but did he gain anything in the process? Regardless, his journey is as essential in some ways as having the stupid teenager explore the basement when he knows there is a murderer down there… although the effect is less a self-esteem boost, then a reflective essay, the extension of the Knight’s life allows the audience to experience the very events and moments that have put him in this position. I personally love how while the Knight (and in many ways death) is our guide for the cinematic journey, we experience the world through the supporting characters. As essentially interesting his journey is, our hearts lie in the fate and the experiences of the squire or the performers. They provide a beautiful backdrop to Antonius’ moral and existential dilemmas.

I don’t feel like writing a book on this film (or any particular other one at the moment), but I didn’t even scratch the surface on the visual implications, let alone the countless other aspects the film could be commended on.

8 responses to “The Seventh Seal (Bergman, 1957)

  1. Pingback: » Cinefantastique Web Surfing 02/06/08

  2. I still laugh, thinking about Rosenbaum’s critique. I haven’t seen every one of Bergman’s films, but the visual aspect was what immediately drew me to it. It shows that he understood one had to treat theatre and film differently.

  3. Yea, I never really understood what he was getting at. He did however garner more Bergman related discussion than anyone else, in terms of appreciating masters you do occasionally need the Devil’s advocate to really provoke meaningful discussion.

  4. I think I saw Rosenbaum’s critique when it came out (in Sight&Sound?)– or some version of it anyway. While I’ll grant him he was being sincere, it’s always treacherous when critics start trying to tackle some supreme artist by poo-pooing some obvious essential feature of their mastery– like William H. Macy calling Hitchcock a sloppy director, to use a particularly vapid example!– they sink themselves to the level of Joseph II and his “too many notes” broadside vis-a-vis Mozart.
    In terms of Bergman’s black&white films, I was struck again watching “The Virgin Spring” how very mobile Bergman could be, using dazzling light (even, I think, the occasional lens flare from the sunshine). It’s there too in “Summer Interlude”, which I’ve only seen on a horrible vhs copy. I think Bergman, among his many great feats, actually first mined that kind of lyrical cinema epitomized for me, in modern times, by Cuaron’s “A Little Princess” or Bertolucci’s “Beseiged.” That may be what drew Godard so strongly to ‘early’ Bergman, that kind of lyrical, musical movement that we don’t usually associate with him but is part of his repertoire, just as “Le Mepris” stands as Godard’s great soaring example of a ‘narrative’ film (in full lyrical mode!).
    Since I haven’t seen a lot of the b&w Bergmans in their Criterion incarnations, do you find this greyness in, say, the Northern Trilogy? I remember “Winter Light” being crisply dark in its outdoor scenes (the darkly glinting river in that long wordless sequence going to collect Von Sydow’s character) but I may deceive myself.
    –But in short, a wise analysis of Seventh Seal’s visual scheme. Not my favorite Bergman, but nice to get wrapped up in.

  5. Nifty, I had completely forgotten I wrote this.

    I actually think it came out in the New York Times, or else some other major American newspaper power.

    I’ve seen a lot more Bergman since I wrote this piece, and his use of b&w is astonishing from film to film, whereas it’s almost flat and monochromatic here, in something like Hour of the Wolf it’s manipulated and exagerrated to really drive up the atmosphere.

    It’s been a while since I’ve seen The Virgin Spring, and I have yet to see Summer Interlude, so I can’t quite comment. I do remember in Spring, in the final scenes the use of light being especially memorable though. Again, with some lens flares, or other similar “mistakes” used to grand effect.

    Winter Light and the Silence, which I’ve seen since writing this, do seem to depart from the “grey” structure. Winter Light as you said, has those very dark darks, not only the river, but the priest’s outfit seems to be just a mass of darkness. The Silence, as I remember it, is mostly very grey but a lot of the key sequences are played up with incredibly evocative shadows and on location lights. The most incredible sequence has to be the sex scene in the theatre, beautiful stuff. I’m actually not even a big fan of that particular Bergman, but it’s certainly nice to look at.

    Thanks, it’s not my favourite either. There are at least a handful I’d rank ahead of it.

  6. I worship the lens flare! If I’ve learned nothing else from Bertolucci, it’s the magic of shooting into the sun!
    (Marxist that he is/was, this may be proof of some instinctive Platonism in Maestro Bernardo after all . . . )

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