"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

January 21, 2013

"The Seventh Seal" & "The Virgin Spring" by Ingmar Bergman (Movie Review)

There is some justification for taking these two films together: both The Seventh Seal (Det Sjunde inseglet) (1957) and The Virgin Spring (Jungfrukällan) (1960) by classical Swedish director Ingmar Bergman are set in the Middle Ages and they are existential struggles with the (non-) existence (silence) of God. The Seventh Seal was the Cannes prize-winning film that made Bergman famous over the whole world, the landmark art film that stood at the beginning of the art house. The Virgin Spring is conceptionally a lesser work, later even discredited by Bergman  (although winner of the "best foreign picture" Academy Award), but it shares the same high level of performances and beautiful images. In both films, Bergman shows he is a disciple of the Japanese director Kurosawa (especially Rashomon) and his countryman Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc).

In The Seventh Seal a medieval knight, Block (Max von Sydow), who has returned from the Crusades together with his squire Jöns, trecks through a landscape ravaged by the Black Death on the way to his castle. By challenging Death (Bengt Ekerot) to a game of chess he is able to keep him at bay. During the trip, he meets a juggler with his young family, but also groups of religious nuts, flagellants, a young women who is going to be burnt on the stake "as she has had intercourse with the devil," and a degenerate priest who steals from those who have died in the plague.

In The Virgin Spring, a beautiful young woman, Karin (Birgitta Pettersson), who is on her way to bring candles to church, is raped and murdered by three goatherd brothers, who later – ironically enough – happen to ask for lodging in the castle of the woman's father (Max von Sydow). One of the men offers the clothes of the dead girl for sale to the mother, an even greater irony because this is how they are found out. The father then prepares himself for battle in a pagan way and in cold blood executes the killers, one of whom is a mere boy.

Although the stories are different, there are several similarities between these films. Both films have an archaic quality and feature archetypal characters living in a remote and vague past and speaking high-minded dialogues. They also share a certain mannerism, although the evocation of the Middle Ages with simple means is very natural (just as the Japanese past was evoked in the films of Mizoguchi and Kurosawa).

Both films question the existence of God, the one by relentless images of war, plague and the falling apart of society, the other by questioning how God could allow the so cruel death of a young, innocent woman. Both films are morality plays, in which Everyman faces Death and Evil.

The Seventh Seal is often reduced to that one iconic image of the chess game on the beach, with the sea as background, and as opponents the medieval knight Block and the black-hooded, white-faced Death. The Virgin Spring is built around another iconic scene, the rape and murder of Karin, which in its brutality shocked 1960 audiences.

Both films end with an epiphany: in The Seventh Seal the final images are of a near-silhouette "Dance of Death," where Block, his wife and his friends are claimed by Death after losing the chess game (Block has however been able to save the entertainers and their young child, and so given meaning to his own existence); in The Virgin Spring, the fresh spring that miraculously bubbles from the ground where the daughter had been killed.

Both classical films inspire us to look for meaning in the world around us, before Death has us checkmate.
9 points out of 10 for both films. Ingmar Bergman official website. The "Seventh Seal" of the film title refers to Revelations, where the seventh seal to be broken on the day of last judgment, will reveal "the secrets of God." The Virgin Spring was based on a Medieval Swedish ballad. The film served as the basis for the trashy shocker The Last House on the Left by Wes Craven (1972).