OK! Wow! How to talk about this? I didn’t entirely get it – that’s the first thing to admit. I try to refrain from talking about myself all through these reviews but I feel like I have to describe my experience of seeing it for the first time because it was leaps and bounds. I really like it, for one and it’s one of those movies where you can actually imagine how excited people must’ve been when it came out. It feels different and it feels like someone making a statement that is outside of what anyone else is doing. It is a film that has become, essentially, the epitome of ‘arthouse‘ moviemaking; the knight, Antonius Block (Max Von Sydow), playing chess, against a brooding sky, with Death himself (Bengt Ekerot) in an allegorical tale about life and death, men and women, faith and fear. Ingmar Bergman also is one of those directors who uses things like trees and weather meaningfully. So, with all this, it could seem like an exercise in box ticking, look-at-who-I-like, miserablist art fan wank… but it isn’t.
No one ever tells you what the actual story is though, so for those of you who haven’t seen it, it does indeed start with Block on the beach with his cynical companion, Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand), returning to a plague ravaged Sweden after ten years fighting the Crusades. When a theatre play in a nearby village is interrupted by a procession of flagellants who cry fire and brimstone at the assembled villagers, Block and Jöns meet actors Jof (Nils Poppe) and Mia (Bibi Andersson). Because of their kindness, Block decides to take them to his castle to escape the Black Death. Meantime, Block’s faith in God is fading and Death keeps coming back to finish their game. If Death wins, Block shall die. Threaded throughout the main narrative there are also other tales of infidelity, corpse robbing, witchcraft and love. This sort of arthouse fare (although, it’s basically a horror film) is usually accused of having nothing happen in it but in 96 minutes, you get a Hell of a lot of plot!
So, let me describe what happened watching it: it became clear early on, that this is one of those films where every line of dialogue and every bit of lighting, editing and camera placement is meaningful, so – like with the labyrinthine plotting of Inherent Vice – I tried to fathom out everything… and I was overwhelmed. It was too much for me but unlike with Vice, I decided late on to let that stuff wash over me and concentrate on the characters and the story and it really paid dividends. By the end, I really was emotionally invested and on tenterhooks to know what would happen with Block, Jöns, Jof, Mia, et al. Repeat viewings, I think, will reveal the undercurrents in the film’s tale of life and death.
I didn’t quite get the set piece where the actors try to entertain the village folk and they are not having it. As Jof and Mia do their double act, the other actor, Skat, goes off for a shag with a woman he has singled out in the audience. The two scenes are intercut, clearly one commenting on the other, before the show is brought to a halt by the frightening, formidable arrival of the flagellants. The scene shows the performers trying to entertain a crowd that does not want to be entertained and then having to watch in awe and fear as the religious extremists get far more of a reverential response for coming in, making everybody feel bad, spreading fear and slagging everybody off!
Similarly, I was unsure about Block’s connection to a woman accused of witchcraft who turns up a couple of times. First seen in the stocks having apparently admitted to sleeping with the Devil and then later being led to the stake. Block has an immediate connection with her that must be tied up with his failing faith. The fact that I didn’t get it, doesn’t mean I can’t like it, though. Something in this movie worked it’s magic on me and I stayed the course. Most of Krzysztof Kieślowski‘s work I don’t get but I feel like he’s in control. We tend to know when an artist is thinking a step or two ahead of us, don’t we? Equally, we kinda know when an artist has not the first fucking clue what he or she is doing. I like that sometimes a movie comes along and even though I’m not quite up to speed, I don’t feel like the filmmakers are leaving me high and dry. They want to engage us but they’ve got their own agenda and they’re thinking outside the box. We’re being encouraged to keep up.
What is obviously great is DP Gunnar Fischer‘s lighting, which even after 60 years, is still amazing in it’s ability to define the actors’ faces and really give them presence, surrounding them in inky blackness or moody Scandiwegian landscapes. Elsewhere, Von Sydow really navigates us through the story with a very relatable nobility. No mean feat when you consider the density of the story and the potential aloofness of his character. He’s strong without being a cypher or an arsehole.
It’s also notable that for a film with so few predominant women that it constantly undermines the men. They are given enough rope when around the women and often they duly hang themselves. In one scene, Jöns has some quite ugly things to say regarding rape, made all the more shocking since the woman he is talking to, he has just saved from a similar fate. In other scenes, the men talk big but are soon seen blubbering, whining and willingly kowtowing to their better halves. Also of note is that towards the end, a pivotal scene begins to be seen from the perspective of one of the lesser female characters.
All in all, I loved it. Didn’t geddit but I loved it anyway!