Dedicated reader though I am, I do occasionally watch a DVD when I find myself at home for the evening with nothing to do. And so it came about that last night I watched, again, after ten years, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.
It was shot in black and white on a real shoestring budget (Bergman predictably could not find backers for his marvellous script), yet it managed to win the Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 1957 and has been acclaimed as a cinematic masterpiece ever since.
A knight, played to perfection by Max von Sydow, returns from the Crusades to find Death stalking the land. The opening scene of the film, dawn on a bare northern beach, reveals the knight and his squire sleeping on the pebbles while their horses wait patiently at the water’s edge. They do not appear to have been shipwrecked. Presumably they were put ashore there during the night. The knight wakes, washes his face in the sea, kneels and prays.
Then turns to see Death standing behind him. “Who are you?” “I am Death … I have walked long at your side.” “That I know.” The knight proposes a game of chess. Death accepts and the game proceeds, giving the knight a respite during which he can save at least some of the small group of helpless people who collect around him.
Bergman tells us that he was inspired by the Carmina Burana, the songs of the wanderers, the homeless and the seekers during the 13th and 14th centuries, the time of wars and famines and plague, of the Great Mortality and the Dance of Death. He was also inspired by the passage in the Book of Revelations from which he took his title, Revelations chapter 8. The first verses are read, voice-over, during the opening scene. Read it for yourself. Then the knight’s wife does so, aloud and at length, during supper when the knight arrives home towards the end of the film. She has been awaiting him all these years and now they are finally reunited in death.
It is a cross between a medieval Morality Play, made up as it is, partly, of allegorical figures and events, and a modern Historical Novel, with tragedy and humour intermingled, scenes memorable for their realism, their happiness and love (the dreamy and lovable wandering player Jof and his beautiful wife (Bibi Andersson) and perfect baby, symbol of a future which looks to be in grave doubt), for their horror (the procession of self-flagellating penitents stumbling through the villages, the girl burnt as a witch before our eyes), and for their sheer timelessness (Death with his string of captives in silhouette dancing off across the horizon at the end of the film).
Bergman said of it that it was one of the films closest to his heart. It is now one of the films closest to mine.