Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Greatest Film Ever: The Seventh Seal

knight (Max Von Sydow) playing chess with death

foundChivalry Now

The Seventh Seal

The knight playing chess with Death.
This movie, from 1957, is Ingar Bergman's greatest film, and considered by many to be one of the greatest films of all time.
The story is about a knight returning home from the crusades. He finds the land ravaged by plague and religious fanatics. On his journey, he is visited by Death, who agrees to let the knight live if he can beat him at a game of chess.
The following is taken from the script where the knight mistakenly thinks he is confessing to a priest, but it is Death who is listening. It expresses the existential struggle of this knight searching for truth.

Both the dialogue and the synopsis below are from the link I link to below "Chivalry Now"


A knight tries to pray along the seaside, but is unable to. He is troubled by the requirements of faith. Although he has gone to the Holy Land to fight in the Crusade for God, all he saw there was death and injustice, and men of twisted faith. He asks himself, "where is God? What is the meaning of existence without Him? Where can I find any sense to life?" He is an idealist who is troubled. He is no longer set in the ideals given to him, but questions everything to find a greater truth. What troubled him most is that there seems to be no idealized truth to grasp onto, and this leaves him searching in despair.
The squire is more down to earth, the disenchanted intellectual who demands that everyone else see the world from his disenchantment. He has not only lost his ideals (if he ever had them), but lost the desire to find something greater than what he sees. He is the existentialist. Basically he resents his station, that of serving the more idealistic knight.

Death accepts the challenge of playing the game of chess, giving the knight a chance to continue search for God, and dedicate his life to doing one good act. One wonders if we are not all playing chess with Death, postponing the inevitable, which might be waiting for us around the next corner.

The married couple, the actors, represent a healthy relationship, despite their obvious hardships. They love each other, and their son. The father tells his wife that their son will be a great acrobat, that he will accomplish the incredible (keeping the ball suspended in mid-air). He then explains that the trick would be impossible for him or his wife, but not necessarily for Mikael. In this statement, he expresses hope for the future, and disavows limitations on the next generation. There is a simple idealism expressed in this. We live and then we die, allowing evolution to produce something better. We should facilitate this process. That the actor sees visions suggests that he is in tune with his own mystical experiences, which transcends the rituals of religion.

The squire has great disrespect for priests, whom he sees as taking advantage of common people, using fear as a tool. He degrades those religious idealists who created the idea of a Holy Crusade. The thought of religious fanatics beating themselves out of repentance frightens him.

The man who steals from the dead was previously a student of theology who proselytized going to the Crusade. He is now a thief, and attempts to rape the woman who discovers his treachery. The squire believes that this is the natural progression of religious leaders. The man belittles and threatens the actor, hating him for his simple authenticity. He later dies of the plague.

The burning of the witch demonstrates how our belief in God and angels and the devil are ultimately based on nothing we can see or touch. There is life, and there is death. The witch who believes in the devil is obviously insane. Are the priests who condemn her, and the soldiers who kill her much different? The knight experiences anguish at her death, as the squire points out that only emptiness awaits her.
The actor who has the affair with the blacksmith's wife feigns his own death. Before stabbing himself with the fake knife, he states that he will leave the unreality of his life, and take on the reality of a corpse. This is a powerful statement of existential thought. The living person is not static; he is always creating himself, with every choice and direction that he takes. This is likened to "unreality." The dead corpse is, in comparison, a fixed object, without conscious potential. It's reality does not change. It is dead, not alive.

The knight distracts Death long enough for the married couple to escape. This is his good deed, and the answer to what he was looking for. Our purpose is to preserve life for the future. Other than that, we cannot be sure of anything. Even Death seems pleased by the knight's pleasure. The knight asks Death for what he knows about the mysteries of life. Death can tell him nothing. It appears that Death is more of a reality than God.

The ending is very interesting. Everyone dies, except for the couple and their baby, who have escaped. The knight begs his unseen God for mercy, while the squire complains that he is wasting his breath. They both die, but who is the one who contributed the most to life? It is the discouraged idealist who seeks for truth. His life had more meaning in that he saved the lives of others

Bergmann was an atheist, the son of a minister and Chaplin to the King of Sweden. He produced a huge body of works in the 50's and 60's and set the tone for films in that decade and beyond. In such films as "Hour of the Wolf," "The seventh Seal," "Wild Strawberries," "Virgin Spring," "Crys and whispers," Bergmann wrestled with the oceanic topics of life, aunxt, meaning, the existence of God, the anxiety of being human.

watching those films makes up some of the happiest memories of my youth. For me he will always be the symbol of the greatness of art, the discovery of life, and the search for ultimate meaning.My two favorite films of all time are Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal. The only other director I place on the same level is Kurosawa.

Bergman is one of the finest examples of the style of atheism into which I fitted when I was young. Searching, pondering the great questions, an existentialist who is never satisfied with conventional answers. The thing about Bergman as an atheist is that he's the diametrical opposite of Dawkins. He wasn't arrogant about his unbelief, although he was a rebel of theater and film making, originally known as "one of the angry young men" of early 50s. He knew he was great and was very arrogant in the arts, but in terms of eternity and the transcendent, he deals with religion with great respect. Even when he mocks religion he's not mocking the people for believing it, and he never makes a mockery of the search.He's still searching himself. He's like someone saying "If you find anything I would still like to know, but I don't think you are going to." He doesn't handle religion with kid gloves, its obvious he thought most of it was nonsense, but he never degrades the sense of wonder at the holy or the luminosity or realization of our need to seek the ultimate.

"The Seventh Seal" has all of these features. Nothing is more of a slap in the face to blind obedience and unthinking conformity of the religious history of the West than Bergman's scenes such as, burning the girl at the steak, and the girl who has faith Satan will save her suddenly realizes "there's no body there to save me and I'm going to die now." The superstition of the guy smearing the blood and bile of a black dog on the walls to keep the plague away. These are stinging rebuttals to traditional organized religion. The Circus performers, especially the husband, child-like and innocent, happy, only concerned with the happiness of his family and his art, represent those for whom faith is real. The husband sees the Virgin Mary everywhere and at times we see her tripping by in the background while no one else notices.

The sincere seeker is never berated by Bergman, but human frailty is never masked. The old actor is always seeking other men's wives to court, the young woodman's wife is never faithful, the three are always seeking to do each other harm. Yet at the same time this mockery, it's a fares.

The Knight is a seeker but he's also afraid. He seeks certainty. He's not seeking the infinite or the divine necessarily but certainty as to what's true. He confesses this to one whom he takes for a priest but it's really death in disguise. This is how death learns the combination of knight and bishop he's been uses and then beats him. The confession made to death is about his need for certainty and his fear of not finding it. So death is saying in a sense, "I'm the only certainty, and you only find it after you come with me."

Here's an excerpt of the confession to death, on Chivalry Now.

ANTONIUS: I want to confess, as best I can, but my heart is void. The void is a mirror. I see my face, and feel loathing and horror. My indifference to men has shut me out. I live now in a world of ghosts, a prisoner in my dreams.

DEATH: Yet you do not want to die.


DEATH: What are you waiting for?

ANTONIUS: Knowledge.

DEATH: You want a guarantee?

ANTONIUS: Call it what you will. Is it so hard to conceive of God with one's senses? Why must He hide in a mist of vague promises and invisible miracles? How are we to believe the believers when we don't believe ourselves? What will become of us who want to believe, but cannot? And what of those who neither will nor can believe? Why can I not kill God within me? Why does He go on living in a painful, humiliating way? I want to tear Him out of my heart. But He remains a mocking reality which I cannot get rid of. I want knowledge. Not belief. Not surmise. But knowledge. I want God to put out His hand, show His face, speak to me. But He is silent. I cry to Him in the dark, but there seems to be no one there.

DEATH: Perhaps there is no one there.

ANTONIUS: Then life is a senseless terror. No man can live with Death and know that everything is [for] nothing.

DEATH: Most people think neither of Death nor nothingness.

ANTONIUS: Until they stand on the edge of life, and see the Darkness.

Bergman is an odd mixture, he was cutting edge sixties rebel in the arts, worldly, sophisticated, atheist, intellectual. Yet he was sensitive to the search for God and the desire to find truth. His films are paradoxical as well. The film is a combination of Mel Brooks camp humor, with high school play where the drama teacher has made the production very stagy and it's all shot on home movie. There are times when the production seems so rough you can swear it is a home movie. Then you go to the coffee shop after and talk about the existence of God for three hours because you realize you have seen a great film and it has transported you into the search. His films are also paradoxical as he was, they convey this greatness. To appear so cheap and amateur to leave one with the sense of having seen a truly great work of art it has to be truly great.

The major Characters dance over the hill with death, they all die of the plague but all we see is they meat death, then they all dance away with him. They are spied by the only survives of the traveling companions, the hippie-like performers and their young son, who watch them dance over the horizon into eternity.


Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

No CGI, explosions, or aliens? How could it be a great movie then? ;-)

I really do need to watch it.

Metacrock said...

yea it really sux. no car chases.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Mike, no car chases either. But you'll be really surprised at the end when the helicopter crashes...

Kristen said...

It's only a good movie if it has a happy ending. . .

Metacrock said...

it's only an artie movie if it has a sad or confusing ending.

Kristen said...

Heh. Yes, I took a course in college called Art & Politics, and one of the main topics was the difference between what the public likes and what is considered artistic.

Metacrock said...


Kristen said...

. . . and the fact that the public likes happy endings does not automatically make them unartistic-- but you can't tell the elitists that. Sigh.

tinythinker said...

I don't always like happy endings, and I certainly don't take what the "general public" likes or doesn't as a sign of taste or quality. I mean, what is typically considered to be the general public is usually just the lowest common denominator of many different groups, tastes, and styles. Sometimes ambiguous or sad endings are the most powerful, spurring debate and even a moral reaction to the themes presented in the film, book, etc.

For example, imagine a time traveler who accidentally arrives on a planet prior to a major catastrophe that will change history. Because of the heroism and sacrifice of a dozen souls, the whole human race will be united in its desire to reach further toward the stars and begin a new era of exploration and development.

The time traveler cannot interfere, but after the danger emerges, he is forced to confess at least some of what he knows -- that the people he has met will die soon but set the stage for the future of humanity, never forgotten. The crew tries to valiantly defy their fate as long as possible, but soon realize that what threatens them will threaten the Earth, and that they must sacrifice themselves to save their home world. The time traveler walks away toward his own transport, listening to the last communications of the doomed crew with stirring yet haunting music playing in the background.

Now, honestly, tell me that finding some way to go back and save those people would make the story better. :P

tinythinker said...

But yes, happy ending can be artistic if they are appropriate. They are often however forced onto stories because that's what producers think the general public wants. In that context, I suppose that it isn't surprising that artistic/indy film makers may see sad or ambivalent endings as more authentic or at least as being in defiance of major studio cookie-cutter formulas.

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

"Now, honestly, tell me that finding some way to go back and save those people would make the story better. :P"

Only in the Disney musical version. ;-)

Kristen said...

Tiny, in a sense, the ending you have described in your hypothetical time-travel movie is a happy ending-- because it's an ending where people who know what's going to happen, choose to embrace the choice they must make for the good of others. It enobles and dignifies human beings and their condition. The sad ending, for me, would be where, finding out what's going to happen, they say, "to heck with the Earth; save ourselves!" and in their scramble to get away, they die anyway, as the rest of the Earth dies.

But a "happy" ending where they get rescued at the last second would ruin the poetic truth the film is trying to tell.

It all depends on what kind of story you're trying to tell-- and as you said, a movie where the end should be happy in the traditional sense of "they lived happily ever after" is best if that ending is allowed to take place. It is not rendered more artistic by forcing a sad ending onto it-- any more than a movie which should contain a death or deaths at the end, is rendered more artistic if the characters escape. But the film critics have a reputation of ignoring the movies where "they lived happily ever after" is the appropriate ending, as if this kind of movie cannot fundamentally be artistic.

What I really dislike are movies where the point of the movie is, "let's show you how ignoble and undignified humanity is and how senseless and meaningless our lives are." That was what was considered "artistic" in movies in the late 1960s in the US. But art is supposed to be about meaning, not about meaninglessness. The general public was not wrong in staying away from the box office in those cases.