Song of the Day: ‘Verden Vil Bedras’ by Sigvart Dagsland
It was one of those nights when you’re wondering what you should do. Going out for a night on the town is out of the question, you have an early morning class. It is one of those rare Sundays (in Berkeley, at least) when you are actually done with the weekly required readings for your classes. Someone suggests watching one of the films they just received from Netflix, and seeing that there is nothing better to do, you join the group in a crammed room at International House.
The Seventh Seal says the DVD cover. The implications of that title are lost on you. A black and white film begins, the opening scenes are quite indicative of what the rest of the film will entail. Stark imagery. Heavy dialogue. What language is this? You think, ‘Dutch’. But the Dutch boy in the company disagrees and suggests it might be Nordic. You figure, in the day and age of the all-knowing god, Google, you can probably look it up. A search informs you that it is actually Swedish. Aha! Now you can place it, you assume – we are creatures of habits, and assumptions are abounding, right?
It begins with a knight, accompanied by his squire returning from the Crusades. In the midst of the Black Death, when it is hard to find anything open let alone a church, they go into a church where our knight pours his heart to a half-seen hooded figure behind an iron grill. His words leave an impression. ‘My indifference has shut me out. I live in a world of ghosts, a prisoner of dreams. I want God to put his hand, show his face, speak to me. I cry out to him in the dark but there is no one there.’ It turns out that the hooded figure is Death, who has been following our knight on his journey home. ‘Interesting’, you think to yourself. And as our knight and his squire keep travelling, he is challenged by Death: ‘I have been at your side for a long time.’ He, in turn, offers Death a bargain. They will play chess for the knight’s soul. And this game continues throughout the entire film.
The journey is filled with many interesting and varied characters, with whom our knight shares his story. A troupe of performers, amongst whom is a couple named Joseph and Mary with a little child. Hmm. A man who the squire catches on a seemingly deserted farm, who turns out to be the very theologian (Raval, is his name) who years earlier had convinced our knight to join the Crusades. A group of flagellants doing penance – some carrying heavy crosses whilst others whip themselves. More importantly, a girl imprisoned in a cage on her to be burnt at the stake – her crime, as her captors explain, is that she slept with the devil and thereby brought down the plague. Our knight stops to question her about the devil who should know if God really exists. ‘Look into my eyes,’ she says. ‘The priest could see him there, and the soldiers – they would not touch me.’ She is defiant, almost proud. ‘I see nothing but terror’, our knight responds. And as she is being prepared for burning the squire looks over and says, ‘Look into her eyes. She sees nothing but emptiness.’ But our knight is not convinced. ‘It can’t be’, he replies.
And after all this, what is the answer? The possibility that Death exists as a supernatural figure, but there is no larger structure in which God plays a part.
The film is powerful and one of Ingmar Bergman‘s (who has quite the repertoire) greatest. And even though long considered one of the masterpieces of cinema, it is out of fashion at the moment. Unfortunately, modern cinema with its facile psychology and ‘realism’ is unable to accommodate a film such as The Seventh Seal. It could be said that its stark imagery and uncompromising subject could be more than a hard pill to swallow for some viewers. I mean, the absence of God?
Media, including film, and their concerns have changed over time. We are more concerned with the prattle of men than we are with the silence of God. Bergman who asks existential questions makes most uneasy in an age of irony. But the directness of The Seventh Seal is its greatest strength. It is an uncompromising film regarding good and evil with the same simplicity and faith of its hero.
Our knight asks significant questions about God and existence. Does he find the answers? At the end, facing the end of his life and observing the general destruction of the plague, our knight spends some time with Joseph, Mary and their child. He tells them, ‘I will remember this hour of peace. The dusk, the bowl of strawberries, the bowl of milk, Joseph with his lute.’ To save this family from Death becomes his last gesture of affirmation. He is the old man who now turns to his memories for what answers there are – so in a sense, there is some kind of reconciliation.
The film ends. We could hardly contain ourselves. Each of us was caught in a whirlwind of thoughts and questions. As an afterthought, one can say: ‘Endlessly imitated and parodied, Ingmar Bergman’s landmark film retains its ability to hold an audience spellbound.’
Till Next Post!
PS: A version of this was originally posted here on 18 January 2012.
PPS: This is one of my favourites.