Ah… Ingmar Bergman. I feel a little self-conscious even mentioning him these days. He, along with the pantheon of European cinema masters from the 1950s and 1960s, has fallen woefully out of favor in current film conversations (my feeling is because their work is in B&W and that turns off huge chunks of the younger movie-consuming population… for some unknown reason because people accept B&W portraiture and news photographs).
Bergman gifted us with a body of work that transcends, that elevates the medium, that redefined what was philosophically possible in cinema, and asks us to explore our own inner demons in a way very few other filmmakers have.
THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957) might be his most famous work but not necessarily his best (I don’t think one can say there is a “best” Bergman). The chess match with Death and the Dance of the Dead scene are indelible images that were injected into pop culture and are still going strong some 60 years later. However, right before the “Fin” credit card comes up is one of my favorite shots of the film. The chess board on the beach as the waves come crashing in.
The game is still in progress, there is no checkmate (yet) and neither Death nor Max von Sydow’s Knight thought to collect the pieces; why is that? Is this a new game? That makes more sense, right? Bergman is saying more than the cycle is unending, is he also offering the conceit that Death is forever open to bargain with the next soul on the precipice, right? Because the story at hand is over, so what IS next?
There’s something stark and beautiful and chilling in the way the chessboard is positioned in the frame and the manner in which Gunnar Fischer has lit the chessboard. The light is clearly otherworldly and coming from above… just look at how bleak the sky is in the background and how low contrast in the rest of the image is. So Bergman leaves us with a dash ambiguous hope? That the Knight, even though he wrestled with his sins throughout the film, has gone to heaven? Bergman’s personal philosophy would be betrayed by such a happy ending if it was overt. This sly tip of the hat is closer to his mordant style, don’t you think?