24 Sep Halloween And the Seventh Seal

the seventh seal
Last night I watched for the first time Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Forgive me, cinema highbrows, but I’ve long assumed that the film is a heavy-handed European existentialist yawn-fest. I just couldn’t bring myself to sit through it. Even Jill, my cinephile wife, hadn’t watched it and dreaded the prospect. Take a look at the official synopsis:

Exhausted and disillusioned, a medieval knight (Max von Sydow) makes the journey home after years of combat in the Crusades. But when the black-robed figure of death confronts him, the knight challenges him to a game of chess.

the seventh sealAre you kidding? Invite me to a funeral instead. Really, I thought it’d just be the Knight and Death playing chess on a gloomy beach. But, let me tell you, The Seventh Seal deserves a better synopsis because it’s very cool and much more than the chess game. It focuses on the knight’s return home — a reverse pilgrimage — in a land (presumably not Sweden) devastated by the bubonic plague.

The cast of characters seems lifted from a Shakespeare play or a Chaucer tale. There are high characters and low. There’s sex and celebration and cruelty and grotesquery. The lighting is stark and surprising, the shots sometimes bizarre (ugly close-ups, even one hand-held shot) and you can see why this film made such a splash in 1957, winning the Cannes special prize. There was nothing else like it at the time, especially not in the U.S.

the seventh sealMost surprising is the tension created by the knight’s intermittent, ongoing game with Death. No one can see Death as he plays against the knight (with one significant exception at the end). It looks like the knight is simply entertaining himself. Death is devilish and promises to kill the knight and all of the knight’s companions (the knight has picked up a crowd on his pilgrimage). But we don’t know when or how. The knight keeps winning the game.

The earthiness of the story and the Bruegelesque portrayal of the characters keeps things lively. The instances of depravity and desperation are striking and frank — a notable set piece is the arrival of flagellants, wailing and declaiming; another is a witch burning — and, again, like nothing American viewers could have seen in our domestic fare way back then.

As I watched it with growing pleasure and appreciation, I decided that The Seventh Seal would be an ideal pic for Halloween. So do consider it. It’s got everything you’d want from a Halloween tale — a certain gloomy charm, a scary villain, a doomed hero, a few grotesques, some horror, a pinch of humor, and an ending that won’t keep you up nights.