Death in Stockholm

Talk about serendipity – there I was in Stockholm on 14 July, the day that would have been Ingmar Bergman’s 100th birthday, and they were showing The Seventh Seal. What better way to enjoy a hot summer afternoon on vacation than to spend it in the company of a knight undergoing an existential crisis and the Grim Reaper himself?

Of the handful of Bergman films I’ve seen, The Seventh Seal is probably my favourite one, not least because it doesn’t correspond to the reductive cliché of the director’s works. It is earthy and bawdy and immediate, and for every medieval knight in existential torment due to a crisis of faith, there are sardonic squires, horny actors and buxom wenches right out of Carry On Ingmar suggestively nibbling on chicken drumsticks. Even – or especially – Death is both a metaphysical threat and a snarky trickster who isn’t too proud to take a cartoonish saw to the tree that an amorous actor has climbed on to pass the night safe from ghosts, wolves and robbers, in a scene that could almost be in a Looney Tunes short.

Of course it’s not all giggles: The Seventh Seal is about a world where death is omnipresent and where it may seem a sane reaction to walk the lands chanting and self-flagellating. But the film’s characters don’t all react with profound utterances and metaphysical malaise: they react as people do in the face of catastrophe, some by examining their faith, others by trying to get laid, and yet others by enjoying the fresh milk and the sweet wild strawberries.

Where a film like Persona could be described as a precursor to the uncanny mindscapes of David Lynch, The Seventh Seal is closer to Don McKellar’s Last Night by way of Chaucer and Boccaccio. It’s a shame if people avoid it because they watched the (admittedly funny) parody by French & Saunders at an impressionable age. There are few gateways to Bergman that are as effective, as affecting, engaging and, yes, entertaining as this one.

In that spirit: happy 100th birthday, Ingmar Bergman!

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