Friday, February 05, 2016

BAMPFA: CINEMA MON AMOUR—The Seventh Seal (1957)

In her introductory remarks for the opening night program of Pacific Film Archive's inaugural season at the new Barbro Osher Theatre, Senior Film Curator Susan Oxtoby expressed her excitement and pleasure in sharing the new facility with the public. "I look forward to all of the memories that we're beginning in this cinema starting tonight," she beamed.

Oxtoby explained that she and fellow curator Kathy Geritz wanted the first season in the new venue—which extends through April—to be reflective of all the strengths of what the Pacific Film Archive (PFA) has been doing over the years from day one at the original venue. "Our programming," she relayed, "is informed by the extraordinary connections that we have to the UC Berkeley campus community, be it faculty members or the many students that we've worked with over the years. It brings a great richness to our work. Our work here in the film department is also very much informed by all of our deep connections to the international community of film archives. Many of the programs that we bring and put on screen come in from archives overseas and we're very fortunate to be able to showcase such a broad representation of the history of cinema and contemporary film."

Oxtoby and Geritz wanted a year-long film series that would celebrate cinephilia and created the series "Cinema Mon Amour (For the Love of Film)", which in its first week kicks off with Barbro Osher's selection of Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957), but which also honors the past directors of PFA—Sheldon Renan, Tom Luddy, Lynda Myles, and Edith Kramer—by inviting each to host a program. "In this way," Oxtoby offered, "we'll actually be able to understand more about our history as an institution."

Looking ahead, "Cinema Mon Amour", which is supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, will soon be bringing in Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin, thereby setting a template for the series that will celebrate local celebrities and international filmmakers who will select works and talk about why these films are important to them.

With regard to Barbro Osher's selection of The Seventh Seal, Oxtoby offered that we would be seeing a freshly-struck print out of Stockholm with new subtitles out of Los Angeles and that this brand-new print—generously underwritten by Jenny and Mark Lundner—would remain in the archive for future screenings for decades to come. The popularity of The Seventh Seal has necessitated two added screenings, the first of which has already sold out.

Barbro Osher, Honorary Consul General of Sweden, approached the podium next and playfully posed to her audience, "How many of you have wished to have your own movie theater? And I'm not talking a small home entertainment center but a real movie theater on the site of a world-famous university? This is a dream come true."

Calling out to Edith Kramer in the audience, Osher shared the honor with her, saying that Kramer helped Osher's career gain sure footing at this "august university" and, of course, PFA. She recalled how they would sneak out for cigarettes inbetween films. They can't do that anymore and she misses those cigarette breaks and her conversations with Kramer that taught her so much about film and film archives. Kramer's burning interest and dedication brought Osher into PFA in a totally new and much deeper way.

"So why did I pick Ingmar Bergman?" Osher elucidated. "Well, you understand that this was a must. He is the biggest filmmaker in Sweden. I have other love stories with Jan Troell, Roy Andersson and others; but, Ingmar Bergman is absolutely the master, and The Seventh Seal is the mark of his mastership. It cost next-to-nothing to make. The nature presented is from the southern tip of Sweden and is very dramatic and well-suited for the silvery filmmaking that you will see. It's also a story of life and death and everything inbetween, including family love."

Linda Haverty Rugg approached the podium next. A professor in the Department of Scandanavian at UC Berkeley, Rugg has written extensively on Ingmar Bergman and offered insight on The Seventh Seal. "I've thought about this film a lot," she began, "I've even written about it. I taught it many times at Berkeley and usually I have three hours to cover the film, but tonight I have about 10-12 minutes. So I'd better get cracking.

"When Bergman turned his attention to what was going to become The Seventh Seal, he was actually best known internationally for comedy. He had won a prize for a romantic comedy at Cannes in 1956 for Smiles Of A Summer Night. In Sweden, by contrast, one of Stockholm's most prominent cultural critics had blasted Smiles Of A Summer Night, saying that he was 'ashamed' to have seen it. As was often the case for Bergman's career, it was foreign acclaim that spurred him on to daring experimentation. Appreciative audiences in art theaters—very much like this one—in France, the United States and around the world helped him find the support that he needed to make films like The Silence (1963), Persona (1966) and the one we're going to see tonight—The Seventh Seal.

"The first time Bergman submitted a manuscript for The Seventh Seal—which he originally entitled The Knight and Death—the producers at Svensk Filmindustri turned it down. But then when he won at Cannes, Bergman tells this story, quoted from his autobiography Images: My Life In Film:

" 'I flew down to meet the head of Svensk Filmindustri, Carl Anders Dymling. We sat in a hotel room in Cannes, completely overcome and confused, selling copies of Smiles Of A Summer Night at bargain basement prices to all kinds of horse traders. I set the refused manuscript for The Seventh Seal down in front of him and said, "It's now or never, Carl Anders!" So he said, "Well, I have to read it first." And I said, "You must have already read it since you turned it down." "Maybe I didn't read it that carefully."

"When Dymling gave the green light for production, he offered—as Barbro mentioned—an extremely limited budget and allowed 36 days for the shooting. The filming began on July 2, 1956. Most of the film was actually made in studios outside of Stockholm, but—as Barbro mentioned—some of the outdoor scenes, especially the amazing opening scene, were shot on the southwestern coast of Sweden at a place called Hovs hallar. There were little over 20 people involved as the core cast and crew. Many of them were already Bergman regulars from his work in theater and earlier films.

"One of the innovative things about The Seventh Seal that often goes unremarked is that this is the point where Bergman begins to deploy his core of actors in a fascinating way. He's already started to cast the same group of people in his films. You'll recognize Gunnar Björnstrand, who plays Jöns the squire in this film and Anders Ek, who plays an unforgettable monk for a few minutes. They had all appeared in other Bergman films at this point. But what happens in The Seventh Seal is the crystallization of roles so that, for example, the Knight who's played by Max von Sydow—who has not appeared in a Bergman film before this, though he was one of Bergman's stage actors—takes on a particular function: he's the striving, disappointed idealist. Gunnar Björnstrand, the squire, he stands as von Sydow's opposite: the pragmatic, worldly skeptic. This pairing of the two actors and their functions is repeated in The Magician (1958) where von Sydow is the magician who wants to make real magic and Björnstrand is the skeptical scientist. It happens again in Winter Light (1963) where von Sydow is the despairing congregant who wants to believe and Björnstrand is his pastor, who doesn't believe and who cynically observes that one might as well kill himself—life is meaningless—which von Sydow then does.

"If you're a Bergman fan, or you become one, you will see this repetition that Bibi Andersson appears again and again as the optimistic, naïve young woman who—over many films—eventually becomes bitterly disappointed and disillusioned. By the time we get to Scenes From A Marriage (1973), she's a very angry form of an ideal optimistic person. Ingrid Thulin is a masculinized woman who grows evermore frighteningly masculine. Allan Edwall—who you may not know, he plays the father in Fanny and Alexander (1982)—is the mournful philosopher. Those are just a few of the things that repeat. The actors perform—in a sense—as chess pieces on Bergman's board. Their moves change in relationship to the other figures and according to the grand strategy of the game of the narrative; but, their basic characters and powers remain the same.

"Speaking of chess, Bergman's vision for The Seventh Seal began with an image of a knight playing chess with Death. Bergman's father—as many of you may know—was a pastor and, as a child, Bergman sat through many church services; his father in the pulpit above the congregation. He says about his experiences at church: 'Like all churchgoers in all times, I became distracted by the altar paintings, altar pieces, crucifixes, stained glass windows and murals. There was Jesus, bloody and tortured. Mary leaning against John. "Behold your mother. Behold your son." Mary Magdalena, the sinner. The knight playing chess with Death. Death cutting down the Tree of Life with his saw that terrified poor sinners sitting at the top.'

"Bergman visits this Tree of Life image, as you'll see, and he has his characters enter a church and confront the mural of the Dance of Death. He shows us the Crucifix where the bloodied and tortured Jesus hangs. But most memorable is the re-creation of the chess game with Death, which forms the central action of the film and is one of the most parodied and quoted motifs in film history. You may know it from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989). In subsequent films characters play badminton with Death, they play Battleship, they play Twister with Death; but, Bergman is already aware himself of the absurdity of this game with Death and he's also aware of the absurdity of human beings struggling to cheat Death. He even makes a little fun of himself when he introduces the two antagonists Life and Death, as you will see.

"Bringing Death to life was a bold move. The Seventh Seal is a film set in a historical moment and the way Bergman relays this on an extremely limited budget is to focus on the imagery and the ideas of the time. You may notice that some of the costumes have zippers in back. There was only a limited attempt to be faithful to some idea of material authenticity. By bringing the church paintings to life, and the chess game, and the Tree of Life, and Jof's vision of the Virgin Mary, and the stunning re-creation of the Dance of Death at film's close, he emphasizes how the people in the film understand death, life and God through the vehicle of artistic representation. Their fears and hopes are materialized in paintings and sculpture and the stories and songs of their culture. The film's audience is invited to enter this world through our own art form: cinema. Bergman created a film that performs as a medieval theological debate poem; an important genre during the period he represents. 'The Owl and the Nightingale' is one example from English literature. The 'Parlement of Foules' by Chaucer is another.

Here in The Seventh Seal the debate unfolds between the knight and his squire about the existence of God and the possibility of salvation. You can decide yourself if and how this debate is resolved. But why a medieval film in a modern age, especially if you're putting zippers on the costumes? Historical films are usually created with the issues of the author's time in mind. In 1956, when Bergman filmed The Seventh Seal, the war in Europe had recently ended. Millions of people had died or been displaced far from home. The Cold War had erupted and fears of nuclear apocalypse determined global policies and haunted the war's survivors. The story of a disappointed knight returned from an unsuccessful crusade only to find the countryside at home ravaged by plague: this was not a distant narrative after all. Today, with the dread of global warming and religious wars, the debate about life's meaning continues.

The first time I saw this film, it was shown by a campus film society on a bed sheet hung on a wall in a cafeteria. We sat on uncomfortable folding chairs and listened to the rattle of the rickety 16mm projector. We struggled to read the white subtitles against white backgrounds. The focus was muddy and the print was worn with scratches. And still it was one of the most powerful films I had seen. Tonight you will see with beautiful clarity Gunnar Fischer's photography; the amazing light that makes the night luminous and breaks through in shafts through the dark forest. I hope you will also find it a powerful film, so relevant and absorbing today.


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