I have seen The Seventh Seal before and actually used it in lessons when teaching Chaucer’s context and my recent Medieval lyrics lecture. I love the feeling of the middle ages that it gives – harsh and sparse and it is also really useful when describing the black death, the dance of death and death poetry (that I did for my dissertation) However, although I love Scandinavian pretty much everything, Ingmar Bergman is director I am not that familiar with, although one of Uncle John’s books was about him, so I will try to rectify that. I already like that his favourite American director was Billy Wilder.
Of course my first knowledge of it was from Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey when I was about seven. The opening sequence on the beach is still great and so iconic and I love that my enjoyment is a mix of high-brow and low-brow. I have also recently been teaching The Exorcist and it is great seeing Max Von Sydow so young and virile, even though it was only sixteen years before. It is also a parallel role, he is still concerned with the reality of God, but this time he is the doubting Agnostic. I love the questioning of religion. Bergman seems to have picked this period as so heightened and intense that everyone must have been questioning it. It’s an endless question and the chiaroscuro seems to heighten the philosophy.
I really like how dry and funny Death is. When my inevitable death does happen, I kind of hope it is like that. It’s great when the knight thinks he is confessing to him and he gets him to reveal all his chess moves and when he starts cutting down the tree while someone is still in it. His impish face and glinting eyes are suitably mischievous.
The black and white cinematography is beautiful. A shiny black and pure white, I think the Swedish white light must be helping it. A Scandinavian summer is so beautiful and the scenes of the circus performers enjoying it are idyllic. Mixed with that the large landscapes with cloudy skies are beautiful.
One of my favourite scenes, and the one I used in my Medieval poetry lecture, is the chanting procession. I love the contrast created by the juxtaposition of performers and the religious flagellation party. That scene could be ancient, it has feelings of Griffith’s Intolerance and the 1928 The Passion of Joan of Arc by Dreyer. Some of the close-ups, especially of women crying and the long high angle shots create a timeless feeling.
- The scene where the actor is bullied in the tavern is horrible and made especially frightening by the oppressive camera framing and heavy shadows.
- This is continued with the dark scenes of the girl who has been accused of bringing the plague.
- The reactions of everyone at the knight’s home when death finally appears is amazing. The way they are so calm with almost angelic close-ups and are then taken off on the dance of death across the skyline is a great moment. No-one can resist it forever.
Black and white
Holy relics and questioning faith
Woody Allen has of course used the character of Death in a number of situations for comic effect. He appears as a character in LOVE AND DEATH and SCOOP, but there is a very funny story in Side Effects, a collection of his prose pieces, where a character has a game of poker to win another day alive.
Of course! I really should find time for more Woody Allen.