Monday, April 8, 2013

Death in Sweden

Film: Det Sjunde Inseglet (The Seventh Seal); Viskingar och Rop (Cries and Whispers)
Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on rockin’ flatscreen.

The idea of death as a chess player probably first appeared about twenty minutes after the rules of chess were solidified and codified. The most enduring image of death as a chess player comes from Ingmar Bergman’s Det Sjunde Inseglet (The Seventh Seal). I’d seen bits and pieces of this in the past, but I’m not sure I’d seen the whole thing until today. Of all Bergman’s films, this is the most well known, and the one people seem to know. At the very least, people know the image of Max von Sydow and Bengt Ekerot playing chess near the sea (as in the picture above).

As I say, I’d seen bits of this, and it would appear that the bits I had seen were those of the chess game. I expected Det Sjunde Inseglet to be a sort of My Dinner with Andre where the two play chess and have deep existential discussions about the meanings of life and death. I’m not sure why I thought that, and I’m pleased to have been wrong. I’m not sure that this would have become the classic it is had it just been a literal chess game instead of the much more figurative chess game it is.

Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) has spent 10 years in the Crusades and has finally returned home with his squire Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand), only to find that Sweden is now being ravaged by the plague. It is here that he meets Death (Bengt Ekerot), who has come to take him. Antonius gets Death to agree to a chess game. Since Antonius frequently plays chess by himself, it seems unusual to no one that he appears to be playing alone now.

We are also introduced to a small troupe of actors. The leader of this group is Skat (Erik Strandmark), who appears to have all of the vices and none of the graces of actors. With him are Jof (Nils Poppe), a juggler and actor, Jof’s wife Mia (Bibi Andersson), and their infant son. Jof frequently sees visions of angels and demons, and while no one believes him, there’s some evidence that he’s telling the truth.

Antonius enters a church for confession and admits his reasons for the chess game—he wants to accomplish something of meaning in his life, and the chess game delays his death long enough that he might accomplish something. He also reveals his strategy in the game, not knowing that his confessor is actually Death. Leaving the church, he sees a young girl (Maud Hansson) who is being held to be burned as a witch.Jons finds a man named Raval (Bertil Anderberg) in the process of robbing a corpse and threatening to rape a young unnamed woman (Gunnel Lindblom). He recognizes Raval as the man who convinced Antonius to go on the Crusades 10 years previous, and tells him that the next time he sees him, he will slash his face to mark him as the scoundrel he is.

During a performance of the acting troupe, Skat leaves the stage and runs off with Lisa (Inga Gill), the wife of the local blacksmith Plog (Ake Fridell). The rest of the performance is interrupted by the procession of a group of flagellants who are beating themselves in the hopes of staving off the plague or at least earning a little bit of divine favor. Jons, just as he saved the girl, eventually saves Jof from Raval and an enraged Plog looking to exact revenge on any actors for his cuckolding. Eventually, we have quite a procession heading to Antonius’s castle—him, squire Jons, the girl, Jof, Mia, their son, Plog, and Lisa when we reunite with her. Along the way, Death takes breaks from the intermittent chess game to call in the numbers of those who don’t join in the procession.

Det Sjunde Inselget is existentialism at its finest. Throughout, Antonius wants only to know if God is a reality or simply a cruel fantasy. When he meets up with the condemned girl again, he begs her to tell him how to summon Satan, figuring that if anyone really knows of God’s existence, Satan would be a pretty good choice. Very little time is spent on the chess game itself. Instead, we focus on the struggle of Antonius as he deals with his existential reality and his desire to perform one act that can be thought of as positive or in his favor. Whether or not what he does proves to be meaningful is never seen, which fits in with the existential theme of the film.

Max von Sydow is the default star of the film, but for my money, it’s Jons the squire who is the real heart of the film. While Antonius deals with the spiritual world and the meaning of his existence, it is Jons who appears to really be living his life. Jons is every bit as earthy and real as Antonius is planted in the other world. While Antonius wishes to perform a meaningful act, it is Jons who rescues the unnamed girl from rape at the hands of Raval and saves Jof from pain and humiliation. Antonius is all theory while Jons is action, and thus Jons’s existence is much more complete and meaningful. Of all the characters, Jons, Jof, and Mia are the ones who are truly alive in the world. The reast are too busy looking to the next to have much of an existence at all.

More than anything, I was expecting (and got) a weighty film filled with the sort of stuff that Woody Allen both spoofs and reveres. I got that, but I got that in a surprisingly easy to follow and effective film. There’s a reason that Det Sjunde Inseglet is continually thought of as a film of great importance and of great impact. It deals with intense themes and does so beautifully, and in a way that even a naïve film viewer will be able to understand.

And yet, I know that I have only scratched the surface of it. There’s much more here to dig up. Fortunately, it’s a film that warrants such repeated viewings and excavation.

While Det Sjunde Inseglet explores the existential reasons for living in the face of death, Bergman’s Viskingar och Rop (Cries and Whispers) looks instead at death in its most existential form. Some time in the 19th century, a woman named Agnes (Harriet Andersson) is dying of cancer. We do not know her age, only that she is in tremendous physical pain. In one of the opening shots, we see her waking up to this pain, and it is impossible to determine her age. At times she looks youthful, perhaps in her late 20s, and at other times, she ages a good 20 years before our eyes. Her world, or at least the world of her sick room, is white and red. This appears to be true of as much of the house as we see. We also see three women (all clad in white at this point) who are taking care of her.

Two of these women are Agnes’s sisters. Maria (Liv Ullmann, who also plays the girls’ mother in flashback) and Karin (Ingrid Thulin) have come to look after their dying sister, but prove themselves to be far too petty, vindictive, and jealous to do it very well. The third woman is Anna (Kari Sylwan), who is truly empathetic to Agnes’s torment and is the only person really capable of caring for the dying woman.

The film trades on a series of flashbacks leading up to the eventual death of Agnes. In her own flashback, we learn that she loved her mother fiercely, and was also insanely jealous of her mother’s attentions to the other sisters. Much of this jealousy and obsession with her mother seems to stem from the mother’s inability to show much emotion in return. We also learn of Maria’s failed marriage, including a tryst with the doctor (Erland Josephson) who is now caring for Agnes in the first half of the film. It’s not clear (although I think it’s the case) if her husband Joakim (Henning Mortizen) kills himself or merely attempts to kill himself, or suffered a strange accident. But I think the suicide is evident, and her infidelity and inability to really assist anyone in a meaningful way is a large part of it.

Karin’s flashback shows us a more disturbing version of Maria’s inability to give of herself to anyone else. In modern parlance, Karin is a cutter. Her marriage fails as well, but specifically because she mutilates herself in a sexual fashion to specifically drive her husband away. This is a particularly disturbing scene. In fact, this, and earlier scenes in which Agnes scream in pain would cause some to label this a horror film. It’s not, but it certainly has horror elements.

Agnes dies about midway through the film, and her body is blessed by a priest (Anders Ek), but she comes back for a brief period (essentially in the dream of Anna) to reconnect with her sisters and with Anna, asking them to please mourn for the dead. Again, it is only Anna who can truly console Agnes while Maria and Karin are too distant and self-absorbed.

Viskingar och Rop is a film entirely obsessed with the idea not of redemption, or even with death, although death runs through this film on every level. Instead, it is a film about pain—physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. It is a film about cruelty, both in what we do to others and primarily in what we do to ourselves. These sisters, specifically Maria and Karin, have had something happen to them that has made them as they are. Only Agnes seems to have found a way through into something approaching an emotional life. It is for this reason that we are almost never spared the constant palette of red and white. We are constantly surrounded by this figurative blood and by real pain. It’s also why we never fade to black between scenes, but instead fade to red.

I’m not sure I am capable of interpreting the film any further. This is a film and a story that seems perpetually just outside of my grasp. It’s tantalizing, like it wants to be captured and understood, but slips through my fingers the minute I think I have it understood.

Perhaps the true focus is not on the three sisters, but on Anna, who suffers not an inhuman fate, but a callous one at the hands of Karin and Maria. But it is she who demonstrates a simple and basic faith that carries her forward while Karin and Maria will forever be trapped in their own inability to feel anything beyond their own experience.

Regardless of my ability to only somewhat interpret this film and thus only somewhat understand it, Viskingar och Rop is the most powerful and affecting piece of film I have seen from Bergman, and that’s saying something. This is one I will watch again, if only to dig deeper into the mystery it presents.

Why to watch Det Sjunde Inseglet: One of the most enduring images in film history.
Why not to watch: Is it possible to take something seriously that’s been so frequently parodied?

Why to watch Viskingar och Rop: For as great as his many films are, it may well be his best.
Why not to watch: It may not be possible to understand it fully, which makes it frustrating for all of its greatness.


  1. It's been ages since I watched either of those movies and now you make me want to go back. We're playing with the idea at home to start a Bergman marathon project watching all of his movies from the start at forward.

  2. I like your interpretations. How Cries and Whispers is about pain towards others, and towards ourselves. I just find that film difficult to sit through, as it affects me, watching cruel behavior, and people in agony.

    And how in The Seventh Seal, you write that Antonius is all theory while Jons is action, and how timeless this is.
    You could see the film for how people must have struggled with God’s intentions, especially during hardship of the Plaque.
    I think a general documentary about the Black Plaque may not have illuminated the inner, subjective struggle with God, that this fictional film managed.
    I think understanding what people were like in the Middle Ages would help, to dig even deeper into what Bergman was trying to say. (even though themes are timeless to some degree)

    I think I enjoy talking about these two films, more than actually watching them ( :

    1. @Jessica--I have found that I really, really like Bergman, but I don't like him as a steady diet. I don't think I could do a marathon of his work, but I'm going to watch him more. I'd do that marathon, but only at the pace of one or two per week.

      @Chris--I feel like I've just scratched the surface on both of these. There's a lot going on in both that I'm getting subconsciously that I'd love to tease out. You bring up something really interesting about The Seventh Seal--the struggle with God's intention. How do people maintain their faith in a world where a third to a half of the population dies in agony from a terrible disease? Certainly it has existential qualities, but there are intense religious implications as well.

      I know what you mean about talking about them being more fun. That's especially true of Cries and Whispers, because that one is difficult to get through (but completely worth it).

  3. The Seventh Seal. This movie. My life. No words. Best... movie... ever...

    It's so funny that you posted this today because just last week, I watched it (for, like, the sixth time) to write it up. It's everything to me. It's gorgeous to look at and wonderfully deep, all while inexplicably remaining ENTERTAINING at the same time. Jons and Antonius are such an important pairing, an existential Odd Couple, if you will. I interpret Jons and Antonius as two aspects of Bergman's personality: the one, desperately searching for signs of God, yet remaining hopeful despite frustrations; the other, cynical to the last, accepting of God's absence, earthy as you point out, yet still noble and moral. Maybe this is all in my head, but I like to think that some days, Bergman was Jons, and other days, he was Antonius. I know *I* identify with both men on different days.

    No words. I just... this movie. It's everything to me. I am a better person because this film exists.

    Cries and Whispers is good too, but I like The Seventh Seal more.

    1. Yeah, I like it more, too. But I do think that Cries and Whispers is a more mature and somehow more important or meaningful, or at the very least personal film. This isn't a knock on The Seventh Seal, but a general observation.

      I love the comparison of the two characters with Bergman himself, and I'm not so sure you're far off on that.

  4. You and a disagree some here. I much prefer The Seventh Seal to Cries and Whispers, but I think it is because, like you, I can't fully interpret what Bergman was trying to do. The Seventh Seal is spiritually and existentially humorous to me (if that's possible). Cries and Whispers made me think too hard about every single detail. Perhaps I've become a lazy film watcher, but when I have to work exceptionally hard to grasp a film's meaning it turns me off.

  5. I think we agree more than you think we do. I do think Cries and Whispers is Bergman's greatest film, or most important, or objectively best. But it's not the one I like the best. I'd watch The Seventh Seal or Smiles of a Summer Night over it any day of the week just based on preference.

    That said, Cries and Whispers is a much more mature work, and it takes things to a further and a darker place. It's a lot denser, which is what makes it so difficult to parse.

    I agree that there's some humor in The Seventh Seal. For all the weightiness and dealing with the meanings of life and death, there are some real moments of joy.

  6. I saw The Seventh Seal quite a few years ago. It was the first of the famous "great" 50s/60s European films that have the reputation for changing the cinema that I saw. As such it had an impossible level of hype to live up to. My reaction after seeing it was "I liked it, but that's it?" Since then I've found I have had similar reactions to most of the other films in this quasi-category, including my recent first viewing of Breathless.

    What I liked most about The Seventh Seal was the metaphorical chess match against Death. He's a Knight. He goes to a Bishop to try to get aide against Death. Castles were a given for the time period. I was thinking he would attempt to even recruit the help of a Queen or King, but it seemed like at a certain point Bergman got tired of the metaphor and went in another direction.

    Cries and Whispers is a Bergman film I might recommend. Since I've found Bergman doesn't do much for me, that's actually saying something. The woman who was the aide was the most interesting character in this film for me.

    1. I can see disappointment if you had it built up that much. Somehow I avoided that much of the hype for it, and it wasn't spoiled for me. It's always a danger when something gets a lot of hype.

      I did like it, and look forward to watching it again. It's a lot more fun than I had thought it would be, and that's saying something for a Bergman film.

  7. Did you ever go back to watch The Seventh Seal again? I think you are on to something with Jons and Antonius being two aspects of the same search, but I also think that they actually find their meaning in a field of wild strawberries and that the spiritual meaning of life is epitomized by Jof, Mom and their child.

    1. I haven't seen this again and I really need to. Maybe the next time it shows up on Turner Classic.

  8. On Cries and Whispers I think you got further than me. Reading your review it sounds about right that this is about pain on every level and that only Anna has found a solution. That works for me.

    1. This feels like another movie I should really revisit.