Persona

Is The Seventh Seal the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

A few weeks ago after I watched Last Year at Marienbad, I sat with the experience after I finished it. I didn’t like the movie, but I got the sense that maybe you weren’t supposed to like it. “Challenging” is a word that gets thrown around a lot for movies like that, as is “experimental.” It’s certainly the former, with very little narrative structure, frequent inconsistency, and a constantly overwriting central truth. You are supposed to turn it over in your mind and try to solve it for yourself. At least, I think you’re supposed to do that. It’s the only way that movie makes sense to me.

I expected the same to be true of Persona, given the way people talk about the experience of watching it for the first time. People seem to be split on Last Year at Marienbad in a way they are not split on Persona, but both movies really demand a lot of the viewer in a way that a traditional story does not. Typically you see characters grow and change and your experience is determined by how you feel about what they experienced. We don’t interrogate this much because on a basic level it seems to be a stupid question. Asking yourself why you watch movies or read stories isn’t something you feel a need to do because you aren’t “buying into” an idea, it’s just what you do. Persona has a narrative, and arguably the core of it is just a look at personal identity and how we define ourselves. It spirals out from there and it compounds it with a structure that, yes, challenges you, and that’s why I find it so much more interesting.

It’s maybe a given that Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece is a better movie than Last Year at Marienbad, but this intro isn’t just to provide space for me to dunk on a movie I didn’t like or to praise a movie I did. Today we’re talking about The Seventh Seal, a movie that really doesn’t need an introduction. It’s Bergman’s first masterpiece, to reuse the term, and it’s the one where the guy plays chess with death. You are aware of it even if you can’t place it or haven’t seen it. It’s a scene that’s been redone so many times so explicitly that it transcends any space where you’d talk about classic film.

The Seventh Seal is the kind of movie that makes you think about film class. This is one of the starting points, where you go deeper than Pulp Fiction and you get your mind blown about what film can do. I expected the experience to be closer to Last Year at Marienbad than Persona, even though it’s Bergman. There are a lot of films on the lists of great films that are difficult, sometimes nearly impossible, to watch today. A true galaxy brain exploration of death including a literal chess match for your life never seemed like Monday night viewing. Even when you concede something is important or influential, it is sometimes a big ask to sit down and actually take it in. Whether it’s intimidating or you’re just worried you won’t like the original because you’ve seen so many derivatives, if you’re anything like me you put off eating your proverbial vegetables.

It’s not what I thought it was. I considered a few ways to present this information and I’ve decided it’s fine to look stupid. I expected this to be boring and to feel “important,” but not necessarily engaging. It’s anything but, much closer to a true narrative than the reputation suggests. Max von Sydow plays Antonius Block, a knight on his way back from the Crusades. He meets death and decides to play chess with him to delay the inevitable. He makes a bet as a play for his life, but there’s a sense that this isn’t really serious. We don’t know a single thing about Block when he sits down to play chess.

Block’s life becomes somewhat clear as he and his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) wander the countryside and experience what this land is like. They see horrible, unspeakable misery and a world ruined by plague and futile response to plague. We really only see the plague once, as a character screams and dies while other characters remark on being unable to even provide respite. The real tragedy is what happens in response, which feels a little close to home in 2021. In one town, the duo see an extended caravan of characters whipping themselves, dragging crosses, and moaning as they shamble into a ruined town. The message could not be clearer about what degree of hope exists.

I encourage you to experience it for yourself. That’s a simple thing to say about any movie, but I found it remarkable to watch Block’s journey and constant, seemingly reasonable demands for a sign. Christianity is often about resisting this impulse and the reality that the need for a sign is part of the journey, but the acceptance that none will come is part of the destination. Block asks a woman condemned to death due to belief that she has interacted with a demon if she can summon Satan. He is willing to tempt the darkness just to ask about the light. The Seventh Seal is undeniably a complicated story, but scenes like this are very clear. Block is the extreme version of the doubt and uncertainty about forces larger than our world that we all experience.

It’s not really about what it builds to, but I still will try my best to not spoil it. Block’s conversations with death are what remain in the public understanding, but it’s really about how Block sees himself and what he thinks he can do about it. The Crusades brought him only disillusionment and further proof that this world is a dark place. The world after this one eludes him, as it eludes everyone, and that’s not a story that has an ending other than the ending we’re all going towards. It’s not as bleak as all that, really, but it’s about finding the one thing you can control in a world where so much is chosen for you.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Yeah, I’d say it’s better than Rian Johnson’s modern noir Brick. I was genuinely surprised by how watchable I found it. I said in the main section that I’m okay sounding stupid and I think that’s just a risk you need to be willing to take when you barely scratch the surface of something that’s this huge. Brick is a movie I’ll come back to more often, but I’ll really sit with The Seventh Seal for quite some time.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, I prefer Bergman’s examination of identity in Persona more than The Seventh Seal. I think that’s probably a universal opinion, but this is the first time we’ve compared two films by the same director in this section. Obviously The Seventh Seal, and all of the other films, inform what Persona says about who is coming to save you and what you should do about it, but the setting alone of Persona makes it more relatable. The choice to set this examination in the Middle Ages and the set piece of a real chess game with the real, actual figure of death is an enormous swing, but it’s a testament to Bergman that is doesn’t feel pretentious or absurd. It’s a movie about asking questions that everyone will always be asking, so it’s timeless even with that abstraction.

You can watch The Seventh Seal on The Criterion Channel (subscription required). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Persona the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

Back in an era where it was much harder to watch “classic” films, I sought out Wild Strawberries. Ingmar Bergman is one of those names you know even before you spend any time with serious film, but I had no idea what I was going to see. I specifically didn’t look up anything, I just knew it was a movie I was “supposed to” see, so I saw it. I didn’t really get it. I didn’t like it or dislike it, it just washed over me and I went on to other things.

There’s a lot that’s been written about how you’re supposed to watch movies. You need to know what you’re doing, which seems a little crazy to say but is definitely true. I didn’t know, then, and I’m not sure I do now, but I’m at least closer to it than then. David Lynch famously gave a profane quote about watching movies on your phone and called it “such a sadness.” I watched Wild Strawberries on a DVD I got in the mail, which must sound like a very silly thing to do to someone who isn’t a very specific age. I’ve watched a few other Bergman films since then, but only recently did I tackle Persona, the top of the mountain, and not on a phone.

The experience of Persona reminded me of seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey as a teenager. I felt like it was a joke, somehow, and that everyone kept telling people it was a classic because they wanted other people to have to deal with it because they’d had to sit through it. I liked a lot of it, but some of the more expressionistic stuff felt impenetrable, as though it wasn’t just that I didn’t get it but that there wasn’t something to get. It’s since become one of my favorite films. You don’t owe any movie that level of work, but as Lynch says, it’s a sadness if you aren’t willing to try, given the assumption that the movie is worth it.

Persona reminded me of that experience because the opening is the most daring thing I’ve ever seen put to camera. A series of horrific images mixes with a projector showing a film. We see a spider walking and we see nails being driven into hands. We see brutality even beyond that and we are shocked, immediately, before we even see a character. The character we do see, a boy, isn’t identified until much later and we only see that he sees other people before we get anything that could pass for narrative.

This is one of the greatest films of all time and there’s consensus, such as it is possible for that to happen, beyond reasonable doubt. If you don’t like Persona, the math suggests that you must be wrong, which is always a weird place to approach a film. I was horrified, immediately, but you’re supposed to feel that way. You’re supposed to be disoriented, maybe even frustrated, and to wonder what the point of this is. That’s a very weird way to start one of the greatest films of all time.

This is the inspiration for the elements of the story in Fight Club where a projectionist cuts together horrific things to shock audiences. There’s a direct reference in Fight Club to one of the images in Persona, and the techniques in the film further this reference. The story even owes a really strong nod, though that’s more complicated. It’s surely not only the relationship to Fight Club that does this, but the only negative thing anyone can find to say about Persona is that it is a dreaded “pretentious” movie.

That word doesn’t really mean anything anymore when you’re talking about a movie. It’s just a stand-in for “I don’t like it.” It’s the thing you accuse 2001 of when you’re a teenager. It’s looking at something you don’t get and, yes, demanding that there is no there there. As you age out of that you open yourself up to realizing that it’s possible, and even likely, that the problem lies with you.

Persona demands this immediately. The opening is horrific, but it’s a test. The viewer has to be prepared to be shocked and frightened by things they are already frightened by, but this is all to get you in the mood. It’s for much better minds than me to explain, but it inarguably prepares you to see something that’s just a little off. When we join the narrative and it’s so straightforward, it feels like a relief.

A nurse, Alma, is assigned to take care of a woman, Elisabet. The patient has opted to no longer speak or move, but the hospital staff have deduced this is not an actual illness, but a choice. An especially intense doctor suggests they retire to the seaside and recoup. The two women go to the sea and we see the contrast between the two women play out over and over. Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann were cast partially because they look similar, allowing for visual tricks where the two appear to become one another and to create a sense that these two belong in this setting.

It’s all these two women. No one else is on screen for more than a few minutes or a few lines. This is almost entirely a mute part from Ullmann and a nonstop ramble, sometimes confident and sometimes nervous, from Andersson. It’s incredible and gripping, partially horrific because of how we got here but partially because of the creeping hope that Ullmann will speak. Her armor cracks as Andersson challenges her motives and it provides space to discuss themes in a way that other films would struggle to do naturally.

This is all part of what makes Persona one of the most talked about movies of all time. I couldn’t believe it, over and over, and I’m still not sure I do. It can be frustrating to see a movie where the given reality at any moment might be up for debate, but that shifting here suggests that maybe it never happens. Maybe this is all as it seems, which might even be worse.

Andersson gives one of the all-time monologue performances during a graphic description of a surprising day from her youth. If you somehow haven’t seen it but plan to, I won’t give the game away, but it is iconic for a reason. It briefly suggests these two might connect, but their paths are headed towards an entirely different thing. The tension comes from Elisabet’s silence, but also from the impact the silence has on the talkative Alma.

During high points of tension, Bergman cuts away to show the self-immolation of Thích Quảng Đức in South Vietnam and a famous photograph of the Warsaw Uprising. These are some of the most significant and memorable acts of resistance in modern history, and here they are meant to ratchet up the intensity of what the characters are experiencing. Elisabet is said to be silent because it’s all too much. Her doctor hypothesizes this is a response that allows her to take no action and risk no mistakes. Is this true? Is it a simplification? Does it matter?

The performances are world-class, but the mystery of why it’s happening goes so much deeper than asking why one will not speak. The visual effects are one thing and it’s fair if a cutaway to a horrific world event or an unexpected frame skip works for you or not, but you cannot deny what you’re seeing. It’s important to see movies like this, if only to recognize when they get cribbed down the line. Bergman made something undeniable that will haunt people forever, but he also had that Velvet Underground kind of influence on filmmakers. People saw this and started a band, so to speak, and it won’t leave you for a very long time after you see it.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Yes. I liked PlayTime fine, but Persona is a masterpiece. I thought PlayTime was ambitious and surprising, but especially for the last hour I was checking my watch a lot. The restaurant scene is extremely long and doesn’t necessarily build on the premise, though I think the first half of PlayTime ranks among the best things I’ve ever seen.

Is it the best movie of all time? Yes, so far. I will dethrone In the Mood for Love, unexpectedly, for Bergman’s horrific look at what it actually means to be you. I intended to write mostly about how Persona is an inspiration for Mulholland Drive, which is not really a new idea or anything, but I left it out entirely because I ran out of space. I just loved it, not because I liked the experience, but because I was so surprised. It’s a really nice feeling to be surprised by what a movie can do, even if that surprise isn’t a good one. This is one of the most unsettling things I’ve ever seen, but by that I mean that you owe it to yourself to scale the mountain.

You can watch Persona on The Criterion Channel (subscription required) or HBO Max. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.