Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Seventh Seal Turns 60

Like a lot of great classics, The Seventh Seal is basically a road movie, with all the requisite digressions and diversions along its circuitous path. Set in the 14th Century, a knight named Antonius Block (a young, strapping Max Von Sydow) has returned to Sweden after 10 years of fighting in the Crusades accompanied by his faithful squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand). But instead of a hero’s welcome, Block finds a cold and barren land; its populace ravaged by the horrors of the plague. The only figure to greet him is the black-cloaked angel of death, who has come to add Block to his ever mounting toll. However, Block proposes a desperate gambit to forestall his demise. He and Death will play a game of chess, and as long as Block avoids checkmate, he will be allowed to live.

The Seventh Seal is a sort of Don Quixote in reverse. While Cervantes’ scruffy knight is filled with absurd illusions of grandeur, Antonius Block is a withered husk of disillusion. No longer believing in the lofty ideals that led him to the Holy Land, Block seeks not to destroy Christendom’s enemies, but to peacefully enjoy his few remaining days. He and Jöns befriend a ramshackle traveling theatrical troupe, and a lazy afternoon picnic of wild strawberries and fresh milk bring Block the only joy he has known for a decade. As the knight and his new friends continue their surreal trek, a tempest of biblical metaphors and a delayed date with destiny await them. While never far away, the grinning, hooded shadow of the Grim Reaper stands ready, his freshly sharpened scythe gleaming in
the moonlight.

For most of my youth, I was a simple country boy. I liked nothing better than trading baseball cards, stealing apples from the neighbor’s orchard, or fishin’ down at the creek with a bent pin. All that changed on a rainy afternoon in 1971, when a visionary high school English teacher - whose name has been lost to the fog of ancient memory - rolled the school’s clunky Bell and Howell projector into our classroom. He then laced up a tattered 16mm print of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, ostensibly as an illustration of the concept of symbolism. As the film ended and the classroom’s buzzing fluorescent lights harshly bloomed, I found that my life had been changed forever.

I’d never seen a movie like that before, with good and moral people openly questioning the existence of God - or at least wondering just what the hell He was up to - and grimly confronting their own mortality, without the hope of a rescuing cavalry charge from just beyond the hill. It profoundly changed me, and over the next few months I would completely lose interest in high school football - or any type of physical exertion, to be honest - prom dates and sporty cars. I would develop a passion for great art, great music and the exotic cultures of other lands. I would become one of those strange, introverted kids whose previously innocent mind now pondered the vast questions of existence for which there will never be satisfactory answers. I have Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal to thank for that. On second thought, don’t watch this film. It will ruin your life.


Retro Hound said...

I found this to be a rich film. Amazing that a film could have that kind of impact, especially The Seventh Seal on a high school kid!

Paul van Yperen said...

Excellent review. Lately I saw The Seventh Seal for the first time. I watched it on TV at night while everybody was asleep and the light were out. The black and white images stormed through our room and moved me tremendously. I had not had such an intense TV experience since I was a teenager and saw Dreyer's Jeanne d'Arc fir the first time on my parents' television.

Roma (2018) ✭✭✭✭✭

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