Bergman’s Two Journeys (Part I)

I do not remember when I graduated from reading for killing time and started to take literature seriously, but I do remember when I started to view movies as a serious art form.  It was when I watched Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal during my second year at Thrissur Engineering College.

Thrissur was a vibrant centre for art and literature in those days (the status has still not changed, I believe).  There were the Sahitya Academy, the Lalitha Kala Academy and the Sangeetha Nataka Academy; frequent shows in the Regional Theatre; the well-endowed public library and the frequent book exhibitions… there was also the Pooram festival and the attendant cultural extravaganza.  Thrissur was aptly termed the Cultural Capital of Kerala.  I felt myself lucky to be living in that city.

The early Eighties was the golden age of film societies in Kerala.  In those pre-TV days, we could see foreign movies (other than English) only through them.  Thrissur also had its popular film society in “Mass Film Society”, of which my aunt and I were members.  The movies were shown in the Town Hall, in a poorly ventilated room with dysfunctional fans.  We had to sit on very hard benches, and our bottoms were hurting very badly by the time the show ended.  But for me, it was bliss.

Because I learnt from those movies that pictures could talk; that what the film showed within its small 35mm frame actually spread over a much larger canvas in the mind of the viewer; and that ultimately, the movie was Myth in its modern incarnation, and the experience inside the theatre was the sacred covenant between the worshippers (the audience) and shaman/ priest (the director).  The Seventh Seal was my initiation.

The journey is a common trope in literature and myth.  We have Odysseus’s travels in the Odyssey (which James Joyce parodied in Ulysses), Rama’s journey in the Ramayana, and Frodo Baggins’s journey in The Lord of the Rings.   These journeys are metaphorical as well as physical: the hero starts out as an initiate and returns as a wise man.  Joseph Campbell, in his seminal work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, has suggested that the “hero’s journey” is a common motif in almost all of the world’s mythologies – he calls it the “Monomyth”.

However, a discussion of the Monomyth is not the subject of this blog post.  What I am analysing here, from a connoisseur’s point of view, are two of my favourite Berman movies: The Seventh Seal which depicts the outward journey, and Wild Strawberries which depict the inward one.

The Seventh Seal: The Journey Outward

Ingmar Bergman was the son of a Lutheran priest.  One can imagine what kind of family atmosphere he would have grown up in, with the typical sense of sin, punishment, redemption and all the accompanying religious baggage.  The Seventh Seal obviously owes a lot to this darkness.  Bergman has confessed that at a particular stage of his life, he was plagued by the fear of death; the making of this movie provided the catharsis.

The movie in part was inspired some murals in a church the young Ingmar visited with his father.  These pictures had been painted at a time when the plague was sweeping Europe, leaving death and desolation in its wake; naturally, they were frightening and pessimistic.

A common theme was the victory of death.  Death, a skeletal, grinning figure, would be shown in the company of healthy unsuspecting individuals.  Here he would be, sharing a goblet with a handsome young man: there, dancing with an amorous couple: in a third place, cutting down a tree on which a young knave is sitting – themes to remind one that “in the midst of life, we are in death”.

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[image courtesy: Wikipedia]

One picture which seems to have made a lasting impression on Bergman is the one shown above, a knight playing chess with death.  One could say that the whole metaphor of The Seventh Seal is built around this image.

The movie begins with a quotation from the Book of Revelation: “When the seventh seal was opened, there was silence in heaven for half an hour.”  This is the silence of God: an apt prologue, because the whole film is about the search for God – or His absence.

Antonius Block, a knight returning from the crusades, finds himself travelling through plague-ravaged Europe.  He is searching for God: his distressing experiences have shaken his faith, but not destroyed it.  His squire, the cynical atheist Jons, believes otherwise, and couldn’t care less.  They make an odd pair as they plod across the desolate landscape, Jons replying with sarcastic repartees to Block’s profound questions.

Then Death (personified as a figure totally covered in black) enters the scene.  He has come to claim the knight and his companion; however, he gives Block one final chance.  If the knight can defeat him at chess, he will survive.  Block is confident that he can beat Death or at least hold him off until he discovers the answer to his theological enquiries.

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They continue their journey towards Block’s castle, picking up a motley crew in the process.  The most prominent are Jof and Mia (and their infant son Mikael), actors in a strolling theatre group managed by the lecherous Skat.  Jof considers himself a visionary, and he genuinely sees religious visions, but he is something of a buffoon and the others in the group make fun of him, including his wife.  Another is a servant girl whom Jons saves from Raval, a theologian turned brigand and grave-robber (ironically, he had persuaded Block to desert his wife and go on a crusade).  Their team also comprises the town blacksmith who is cuckolded by Skat and his wife, Lisa. Death follows them, appearing at intervals to continue his game with Block.

As they move across the plague-ravaged landscape, there are many encounters in true “road-movie” fashion: a young woman condemned to die as a witch; a group of flagellants marching by, flogging themselves; and Raval, now himself ironically a victim of the plague, dying miserably in front of them.  Throughout the journey, Jons is interested in helping his fellow humans any way he can, while Block is aloof, his head full of theological angst about the nonexistence of God (in a significant scene, he asks the young woman about to be burnt as a witch about her encounter with the Devil, while Jons tries to alleviate her misery and pain).

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Block knows that his life has been meaningless and futile: his aim is to hold Death off till he accomplishes “the one significant thing” even though he himself does not know what it is.  Towards the end, when there is only one move between him and defeat, Block realises what it is – to save Jof, Mia and Mikael.  He upsets the board to distract Death just long enough for the family of actors to escape (Jof, with his visionary capacity, is the only one who can see Death apart from him): so in the end, when death comes for all of them in his castle, Block dies with his questions unanswered but with the gratification of knowing he has accomplished something worthwhile.

There have been a lot of allegories, using the metaphor of the journey and Biblical imagery to depict the soul’s journey, both in the temporal and celestial regions.  John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and Dante’s Divine Comedy come readily to mind. The Seventh Seal creates its impact by placing this allegory on its head.  Here, the theme is not God, but the silence (death?) of God and the ultimate failure of the hero’s quest.  However, in depicting this failed quest, Bergman has managed to pack such a large mythological canvas into ninety minutes of screen time that the effect is indeed magical.

Even though the style here is unabashedly expressionistic, the story is clear and straightforward.  Unlike Wild Strawberries, this movie can be enjoyed as a Medieval Gothic tale, without looking at the subtext.  Bergman speaks with clear, black and white images which need no interpretation.  The subtext is very much there, however, in the images and more so in the crisp dialogues, delivered by the nihilist Jons.

Consider, for example, the following scene at the very beginning of the movie.  Block requests Jons to ask a man, seated by the wayside, the way to the inn.  On finding the man unresponsive, the squire shakes him, only to find himself looking at a rotting corpse.

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The scene is pretty bizarre, but it is the dialogue which follows which takes the cake.

Block: Did he indicate the way?

Jons: Not exactly.

Block: What did he say?

Jons: Nothing.

Block: Was he dumb?

Jons: No, one can’t say that… I have to say he was extremely well-spoken… well-spoken, yes; but the speech he made was dour, I have to say.

One can’t say whether this is horror, comedy or black comedy.

There is another scene where Block confesses to Death at a church, inadvertently thinking that it is a priest he is talking to.

Block: I want to confess as honestly as I can, but my heart is empty; and emptiness is a mirror turned to my own face.  I see myself and am seized by disgust and fear.  Through my indifference for people, I have been placed outside of their society… Now I live in a ghost world, enclosed in my dreams and imaginings.

Priest (Death): Despite that, you don’t want to die.

Block: Yes!  I want to.

Priest (Death): What are you waiting for?

Block: I want knowledge.

Priest (Death): You want guarantees.

Block: Call it what you like.  Is it so terribly inconceivable to comprehend God with one’s senses?  Why does He hide in a cloud of half-promises and unseen miracles?  How can we believe in the faithful when we lack faith?  What will happen to we who want to believe, but cannot?  What about those who neither want to nor can believe?  Why can’t I kill God in me?  Why does He live on in me in a humiliating way despite me wanting to evict Him from my heart?  Why is he, after all, a mocking reality I can’t be rid of? – Do you hear?

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Priest (Death): I hear you.

Block: I want knowledge!  Not faith, not assumptions, but knowledge.  I want God to stretch out His hand, uncover His face, and speak to me.

Priest (Death): But He remains silent.

Block: I call out to Him in darkness.  But it’s as if no one was there…

Priest (Death): Perhaps there isn’t anyone.

Block: Then life is a preposterous horror.  No man can live faced with death, knowing that everything’s nothingness.

Priest (Death): Most people think neither of death nor nothingness.

Block: But one day you stand at the edge of life and face darkness.

Priest (Death): That day…

Block: I understand what you mean.  We must make an idol of our fear and that idol we shall call God.

Priest (Death): You are worried.

Block: Death came to see me this morning. We played chess together.  The respite allows me to attend to some business.

Priest (Death): What business?

Block: All my life I’ve been searching, wondering, talking without meaning or context.  It has been nothing!  Yes, I say so without bitterness or self-reproach, as I know that almost all people’s lives are made this way.  But I want to use my respite for one meaningful act.

Priest (Death): That’s why you are playing chess with death.

Block: He’s a difficult and skillful tactician, but so far I have not surrendered a piece.

Priest (Death): How can you outwit death in your game?

Block: I’m playing a combination of bishop and knight that he hasn’t noticed yet.  I’ll expose his flank in the next move.

Priest (Death): (revealing himself to Block) I’ll remember that.

Pardon me for quoting that dialogue at length, but I consider it the most important exchange in the whole movie.  It marks out Antonius Block for a traditional tragic hero on his doomed quest.  It does not matter that this hero does not do anything particularly “heroic” in the film: rather, it is strangely apposite.  For Block’s flaw is not his lack of faith, but a faith which he cannot tear out from his heart even after experiences which prove that it is useless.  He is the photographic negative of a hero who fails by trying to challenge the gods – one who fails by not challenging what should be challenged.

Jons is the perfect foil to Block.  He is a man without any faith, who carries on because there is nothing else to do.  If Block is tragic, Jons is beyond tragedy and comedy.  He inhabits a charred and desolate mental landscape which is eerily like the plague-infested land that he is crawling through; an acceptance of a black fate that is even beyond despair (however, it is to his credit that this does not prevent him from acting in the world: it is he who saves the servant girl and in another encounter, Jof, from Raval).  In the end, when they all stand before death, Jons tells the praying Block: “In that darkness where you claim to reside, where we probably all reside, you will find no one that listens to your complaint or is moved by your suffering”.

Is there only darkness?  It is interesting that both the seeker Block and the atheist Jons fall prey to Death.  The only people who escape are Jof, Mia and Mikael.  The character of Jof is like a ray of sunshine in a story which is mostly built out of darkness.  Jof is a common man, something of a simpleton, who does not have the depths of either Block or Jons: he believes in a simple religion, loves his wife and son, and wants to live his life, that’s all.  In fact, the pastoral life of the trio are sketched in such loving detail that we feel that we are in the presence of the Holy Family here.

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When Block spends his first evening with them, he is treated to wild strawberries and goat milk (the metaphor of wild strawberries as innocence makes it first entry here; he will use it as the title of another of his famous movies, his second journey which I shall be discussing later).  Block says: “I’ll carry this memory between my hands as if it were bowl filled to the brim with fresh milk…And it will be an adequate sign – it will be enough for me.”  These strangely evocative lines, taken in conjunction with his confessions earlier, point us towards the “one significant thing” – even though it is almost impossible to know without hindsight.

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By saving Jof (the idiot visionary, a sort of “God’s Fool”) and his family from Death, Block is accomplishing the continuance of innocence in a world totally bereft of it.  In the last scene (arguably the most famous in world cinema), Jof has a vision which he describes to Mia.

Jof: Mia! I can see them, Mia! I can see them! Over there under the storm-laden skies. They are all there. The smith and Lisa and the knight and Raval and Jons and Skat. And Death, the severe master, invites them to dance. He wants them to hold hands and dance in a long line.  And the grim master leads with scythe and hourglass, but Skat brings up the rear with his lyre. They move away, away from the dawn in a solemn dance, away to the dark country. Whilst the rain washes over their faces, cleans their cheeks of tears and salt.

Mia: (Smiling) You and your dreams and visions…

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This brief exchange rounds of brilliantly what has been a dark ride, in the same fashion Block’s confession sets off the premise at the beginning.  The movie ends with Jof, Mia and Mikael moving away towards the light.

Bergman speaks with images as well as words.  In fact, this movie is a textbook on how to meld the two.  Being adapted from a play, and because of its content, the film is necessarily wordy – sometimes even pompously so.  However, Bergman uses his camera angles brilliantly to emphasise his words (aided by the great cinematographer, Gunnar Fischer).  In fact, most of the images from this movie (like the “Dance of Death” above) have become iconic in the world of serious cinema.

Joseph Campbell said that all myth was metaphor.  Directors like Bergman have proved that art is the medium for myth in today’s world.  This is a timeless classic.

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