Re-Watchterpiece Theater is a series that explores the organic way that attitudes about films change after you watch them a second time, a third time, or more, further down the line than the original viewing.
Re-watchterpiece Theater is usually a vehicle for me to tackle questionable films, or films that are likely to elicit a much different response at this point in my life compared to the first time I watched it. And that’s what makes today’s choice so odd. The Seventh Seal has been one of my favorite films from the moment I saw it. It hasn’t even been that long ago that I last saw it. But sometimes, you find yourself in a Bergmany mood and sometimes, in that Bergmany mood, you find that you’ve learned some new tricks.
The First Viewing
As I mentioned in the introduction, I went bananas for The Seventh Seal the first time I saw it. I thought it was tremendous that a filmmaker dared to ask serious questions about death, God, faith, and the perceived emptiness of the world. I had never seen a filmmaker tackle questions like that with such brutal honesty. I also had a deep appreciation for the simplicity of the cinematography. It was astounding how deep and rich a setting could look in simple grayscale. It was stark and iconic, full of silhouettes, without being muddled or complicated. In some odd way, it served as a graphic design lesson- and let that be a lesson to you all. Less is more, and The Seventh Seal proves it.
To illustrate just how much I enjoyed this film upon the first viewing, it inspired me to watch 15 more Bergman films within six months. Within two years of my first viewing of The Seventh Seal, Bergman and his films had resonated so much with me that I actually got a Bergman-themed tattoo. In short, The Seventh Seal completely revolutionized my perspective on movies.
One thing that occurred to me right away upon the re-watch is just how perfect the timing was for this kind of movie. I’ve seen it several times since the initial watch but I’d never really put it into the context of when it was made. The Seventh Seal was released in 1957. That’s 12 years after the end of World War II; 12 years after the end of the holocaust; smack at the beginning of the Cold War and nuclear arms race, where the entire world could have been annihilated; and there were plenty of other wars going on in the era preceding it. In other words, it’s no wonder that a movie about death, God, and the afterlife would find such a prominent global audience in that type of environment.
Just as I noticed the beauty of the simplicity of the cinematography in the first viewing, this time I noticed the perfect simplicity of the story itself. This movie is one of the reasons I struggle when people say that Bergman is too esoteric. It’s an extremely straightforward set-up, ripe with symbolism that’s easy to grasp. And yet, it’s made no less effective for its lack of subtlety. Bergman had themes he wanted to convey and he cut right through all of the crap to convey them in the cleanest, quickest, most efficient manner possible. Given the weight of his themes, that feat is made all the more impressive. It’s easy to marvel at the economy of what Bergman achieved with The Seventh Seal.
Part of this re-watch occurred approximately 20,000 feet in the air, on a plane, while I was fighting depression (which, by the way, is a fucking HORRIBLE idea). And that’s probably part of why I noticed the sheer totality of it all. One thing that I’ve always laughed about is how cold and ruthless and rational Death is in The Seventh Seal. He is unrelenting, he does not bargain, and he stops for no man or woman. And he comes to us all. Bergman makes this point by bringing death to a blacksmith, a mislabeled “witch”, an artist, a knight, a squire, believers and non-believers, men and women alike. Nobody escapes, and everyone must deal with it in their own special way.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up one last aspect of the cinematography. Specifically, the use of shadow is brilliant throughout. Part of that comes out with the silhouettes, but not always. There’s one scene relatively early on where Antonius Block is giving confession. He bends down to his knees, wrestling with his understanding of the world, all while the church window pane’s shadow frames him in the shot. Again, it’s not that there’s so much more added in that image. It’s simple- just a shadow- and yet it adds to the scene.
Obviously, my opinion of the film hasn’t changed, and it probably never will. It has and always will be one of my very favorite films. That said, the re-watch proved a very important point. Truly great films will keep teaching you no matter how many times you view them.