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.