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From the YouTube Movie Archives IV: The Seventh Seal (1957 Trailer)

Ebert on Bergman:

Bergman’s spiritual quest is at the center of the films he made in the middle of his career. “The Seventh Seal” opens that period, in which he asked, again and again, why God seemed absent from the world. In “Through a Glass Darkly” (1962), the mentally ill heroine has a vision of God as a spider. In the austere “Winter Light” (1962), Bjornstrand and von Sydow appear again, in the story of a country priest whose faith is threatened by the imminence of nuclear catastrophe. In “Persona” (1966), televised images of war cause an actress to simply stop speaking. In the masterpiece “Cries and Whispers” (1972), a woman dying of cancer finds a faith that her sisters cannot understand or share.

The last three major films in Bergman’s career look inside for the answers to his haunting questions. They are all autobiographical, including “Fanny and Alexander’ (1984), the last film he directed, and two more he wrote the screenplays for, “The Best Intentions” (1992) and the remarkable “Sunday’s Children” (1994). That last film, based on a memory of a summer vacation in the country with a young man and his father, a dying minister, was directed by Bergman’s own son, Daniel–perhaps as a way of allowing Daniel to deal with the same kinds of questions Ingmar has had.

Bergman’s work has an arc. The dissatisfied young man considers social and political issues. In middle age, he asks enormous questions about God and existence. In old age, he turns to his memories for what answers there are. And in many of these films, there is the same kind of scene of reconciliation. In “The Seventh Seal,” facing the end of his own life and the general destruction of the plague, the knight spends some time with Joseph and Mary and their child, and says, “I will remember this hour of peace. The dusk, the bowl of wild strawberries, the bowl of milk, Joseph with his lute.” Saving this family from Death becomes his last gesture of affirmation. In “Cries and Whispers,” a journal left by the dead sister recalls a day when she was feeling a little better, and the sisters and a maid walked in the sunlight and sat in a swing on the lawn: “I feel a great gratitude to my life,” she wrote, “which gives me so much.”

And “Scenes From a Marriage” (1973) tells the story of a couple whose marriage disintegrates, but whose love and hope do not quite disappear; after many years apart, they visit a country house where they were once happy. The woman awakens with a nightmare, the man holds and comforts her, and in the middle of the night in a dark house, surrounded by hurt and fear, this comforting between two people is held up as man’s best weapon against despair.

Comments

  1. Quin Finnegan says

    Does anyone else think of an actual seal, Halichoerus grypus, whenever he or she sees this title?

    For my money, an even better medieval story is The Virgin Spring, newly released on Criterion Collection. Somehow I missed in when I was watching all those Bergman movies in college.

    And Ebert should have referred to Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light with the third movie in that trilogy, The Silence, which is about as quintissential a Bergman title as you’ll ever find.

    And since you didn’t ask, another favorite of mine is The Magic Lantern, which is a little less austere than the others.

    And an even weirder tangent will be my relation of the fact that I watched Through a Glass Darkly and read Jonathan Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God within the space of a couple of months. After Edwards, Bergman looks a lot more like Friar Tuck than a minister’s son who took a few too many liberties with the ladies and came to regret it when he realized God really does exist.

    Here’s an excerpt from the Edwards sermon:

    The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.

    And then there’s the poem by Robert Lowell, which I read in conjunction with the Edwards sermon, or versa vice:

    Mr. Edwards and the Spider

    I saw the spiders marching through the air,
    Swimming from tree to tree that mildewed day
    In latter August when the hay
    Came creaking to the barn. But where
    The wind is westerly,
    Where gnarled November makes the spiders fly
    Into the apparitions of the sky,
    They purpose nothing but their ease and die
    Urgently beating east to sunrise and the sea;

    What are we in the hands of the great God?
    It was in vain you set up thorn and briar
    In battle array against the fire
    And treason crackling in your blood;
    For the wild thorns grow tame
    And will do nothing to oppose the flame;
    Your lacerations tell the losing game
    You play against a sickness past your cure.
    How will the hands be strong? How will the heart endure?

    A very little thing, a little worm,
    Or hourglass-blazoned spider, it is said,
    Can kill a tiger. Will the dead
    Hold up his mirror and affirm
    To the four winds the smell
    And flash of his authority? It’s well
    If God who holds you to the pit of hell,
    Much as one holds a spider, will destroy
    Baffle and dissipate your soul. As a small boy

    On Windsor March, I saw the spider die
    When thrown into the bowels of fierce fire:
    There’s no long struggle, no desire
    To get up on its feet and fly–
    It stretches out its feet
    And dies. This is the sinner’s last retreat;
    Yes, and no strength exerted on the heat
    Then sinews the abolished will, when sick
    And full of burning, it will whistle on a brick.

    But who can plumb the sinking of that soul?
    Josiah Hawley, picture yourself cast
    Into a brick-kiln where the blast
    Fans your quick vitals to a coal–
    If measured by a glass,
    How long would it seem burning! Let there pass
    A minute, ten, ten trillion; but the blaze
    Is infinite, eternal: this is death,
    To die and know it. This is the Black Widow, death.

    And I’ll add one more cultural item to this much, much too long comment: those Spiderman movies are the best comic book movies ever made.

    That is all.

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