Clouds clothe the dawn, a terrified chorus trembles unseen, an eagle hangs so black and still as to seem stenciled out of the sky, a disembodied voice reads from the Revelation of John, horses wade ankle-deep in the sea. Death (Bengt Ekerot) appears on these rocky shores before the knight Antonius Block (Max Von Sydow), newly returned from the Crusades to a plague-ravaged Scandinavia. When the reaper raises his cloak he might as well be ripping open a black hole, but the gaunt, blue-eyed, deceptively young Antonius does not succumb so easily. He challenges Death to a round of chess. He’s seen paintings and heard ballads and knows he’s met a willing adversary. He doesn’t expect to win but merely buy time, hoping to use his reprieve to perform one meaningful act. If in the meantime he could also glean some evidence of God’s existence he wouldn’t complain.
Did such a chillingly seductive embodiment of death appear before Ingmar Bergman before he departed from this world on his beloved island of Fårö nearly two years ago at the age of 89? Did he bargain, propose a game to play, or merely smile knowing that he’d staged all this before? It’s worth evoking the establishing moments of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) as a reminder that there is here a thoughtful, personal, richly detailed and diversely populated movie, and not just still images so oppressively iconic as to discourage actual engagement. Its impact on international film culture was paradigm shifting, but it’s also an entertainment, an apocalyptic road movie as witty, bawdy and playful as it is gloomy. (“A skull is more interesting than a naked woman,” a painter quips. Bergman was shrewd enough that over the course of his career he often gave us both.) It’s a parable of doubt and regeneration, set in a slyly modern Middle Ages; a nimbly acted, gorgeously staged and photographed tale of disillusioned yet resilient figures—the knight and his squire, a company of traveling players, a cuckolded smith and his juicy wife—traversing a world wracked with violence wrought by the twin terrors of metastasizing civilization and religious piety. (Need we say more about its relevance to our world today?)
I first saw The Seventh Seal half a lifetime ago, thanks, however improbably, to the programmers at faith-based Vision TV, who aired it a few times when I was in my teens. I’m pretty sure it changed my life. Truthfully, I’ve never felt compelled to herald it my favourite Bergman—in just a few years the director’s succeeding, more mysterious, erotic, neurotic and naturalistically photographed films would render certain farcical aspects of Seal pretty corny—but those images, moments, atmospheres, and lingering questions remain singular to me. I’ve never doubted the depth of the film’s impression on my psyche. Or its conduciveness to replay. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen it on screens big and small, but it’s every time been an immersive, even haunting pleasure.
Criterion’s new special edition, available both in Standard and Blue-ray, complete with well chosen special features and a new, digitally enhanced transfer so sumptuous that even on my piece-of-shit 30-year-old TV I marvel at the difference, offers another excellent excuse to revisit the film. It ages very well. When I see it now I appreciate different details: the fleeting flirtation between Von Sydow and the arrestingly lovely Bibi Andersson at the start of that scene where Antonius and the squire share fresh strawberries and milk with the players; the series of individual portraits Bergman creates as his characters watch the moaning flagellants parade into a square, preaching fire and brimstone to an already fearful village; or the serenity in the face of Gunnel Lindblom when she finally meets Death after a last breakfast and speaks her one line in the entire film: “It is finished.”
The highlight of Criterion’s new package, also available as a separate disc, is Bergman Island (06), Marie Nyreröd’s documentary portrait of Bergman made just a few years before his death. Shot primarily on Fårö, where, following his wife Ingrid’s death, Bergman had lived alone for years, sometimes speaking to no one for days at a time, Nyrerod’s interviews yield unprecedented candour from the filmmaker on topics such as his predilection for love affairs with actresses and his neglectful fathering. Bergman also speaks eloquently about topics as familiar as his parents, his thanatophobia, and his sense that his best work was done in the theatre. The film overall is very moving, its subject in good spirits. There’s startling 16mm footage from the shoots for Seventh Seal and Persona, and a pretty funny little story about getting invited to a pool party by Barbara Streisand. (He declined, and promptly picked up and moved back home after a brief time in Los Angeles.) But what sticks with me most after seeing it is the image of Bergman’s aged hands, narrow, a little shaky, but still so alive as he speaks, and reconsiders.