There are people out in the world, no matter how much is shut down. They fight a battle just like the one being fought here. Like Block, some of them just need a reason to carry on.
Written and Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Starring Gunnar Björnstrand, Bengt Ekerot, Nils Poppe, Max von Sydow, Bibi Andersson, Inga Landgré, Åke Fridell, Gunnel Lindblom, Inga Gill
No one dare say it out loud. But this is the end. People are crazed with fear.Bar patron from The Seventh Seal
What better film to catch up on in this time for COVID19 Quarantine than a story about the Black Plague ravaging through Denmark? There are better choices, to be sure. Something like Contagion feels too close for comfort now. Strangely enough, this middle-ages tale of woe and despair feels right on the precipice of truth.
In the passing of Max von Sydow, the opportunity to examine his work leads me to start with the film that first brought him attention. In this story, he is Knight Antonius Block returning from the Crusades with his squire, Jöns (Björnstrand). Block is suffering a crisis of belief, feeling that he wasted 10 years on a foolish journey only to come back to see his homeland rotting from within itself. Jöns, more of the pragmatic sort, just muddles on, expecting things are always going to be bad.
Early on we see that Death meets Block onshore, ready to claim him with his black cloak. Antonius challenges him to a game of chess for his life. While this happens, the story moves on to Jof, his wife Mia (the incredibly beautiful Andersson) and their acting troupe. The contrast in their outlooks brings light back into Brock’s life. He is disillusioned for the absence of his true love. Mia, who sees one day like the next, appreciates life through the monotony because she has Jof.
Jöns has a more weathered view. Like Block, he presumes his wife may be dead. He saves a young mute girl (Lindblom) from being raped, says he could have done the same, but he’s “bored by that kind of love.” Then he presses her into servitude. Such is the times that the girl doesn’t even question this.
There is a stark contrast between Jof and Block. Jof has many visions of angels, devils, Mary and young Jesus. Block has lost his imagination and yearns to know that there is something beyond despair and hearing Jöns’ horrific songs of woe. The incredibly buoyant and soulful Mia helps raise everyone’s spirits, but it is not easy.
Faith is a torment. Did you know that? It’s like loving someone in the darkness who never answers, no matter how loud you call. How unreal that all seems here with you and your husband. How insignificant, all of a sudden.Antonius Block to Mia
Strangely, they share strawberries and a giant bowl of milk during the time of the plague. It is also surprising is the contrast of the absolute goofiness of most of the men in town contrasted with the Knight and his learned squire. Just about every male who is not carrying a traditional weapon acts like they are just off the turnip truck.
The women are free from this duality. They act in the interest of the unit (Mia) or of their own selfish desires (Gill as Lisa, the Blacksmith’s wife). They put up with the far away thoughts and prattle like it’s nothing of significance. The squire has seen it all, and he blames women. He gives a long soliloquy about it and even the fool Blacksmith knows it’s all just prattle.
The last act is brought on to a convoy on the path to burning a woman at the stake. Block tries to strike a conversation with her as access to the devil. He wants to converse with him about God. He is as disappointed by her response as his is with his own attempts to speak to God. There will be no answer in the darkness.
The game of chess continues. Block finds he is playing for more than just his own life. The game becomes a way to put Death off of the trail of Jof, Mia and their child. Following the squire preventing his maiden from uselessly wasting water on a horrible person dying of the plague, his Knight sacrifices himself as an example of Christ’s love, which is what he’s sought all along. In this way, the squire sees the practicality he’s nihilistically believed was always there, and Block gets to see life through giving his own.
Still he wants to know what Death knows about the afterlife. He asks if he has no secrets. Death sternly replies “I have no secrets to share.” He will be gone within the hour. This gives him time to come home to his wife, who notices he has changed from the boy who left. He is tired, and he knows this moment is soon over.
Bergman’s style is reminiscent of Kurosawa. His palette and approach to characters much the same. The imagery is beautiful and sullen at once.There is a stark quality to his style that feels hopeless, but his characters forge forward through the misery. They do not cower. They do not hope. Still, as though from habit, they pray.
Björnstrand feels like a comfortable presence, much like Toshiro Mifune. And like Mifune, he isn’t too comfortable. His counter to von Sydow’s valiant, quiet presence works perfectly to give forth the feeling of the crusade against the real darkness.
Bergman found solace in seeking answers for life after death. Like those of us sequestered in our homes, waiting for word that there will be a light, Jof and his family are holding out hope that the Knight has kept death away from their child. There are people out in the world, no matter how much is shut down. They fight a battle just like the one being fought here. Like Block, some of them just need a reason to carry on.
(**** out of *****)