Monday, July 20, 2009

Andrew O'Hehir: Dirty jokes, hot witches and a chess game with Death

Dirty jokes, hot witches and a chess game with Death
by Andrew O'Hehir

Deep in an audio interview that's half-buried among the extras on the Criterion Collection's new double-disc DVD set of "The Seventh Seal," Max von Sydow drops an odd little film-history bombshell. When Ingmar Bergman contacted him about a role in that 1957 film, von Sydow says, Bergman first suggested that he should play Jof, the lovable clown and family man who survives the Black Death together with his wife and child. How might the entire history of art-house cinema -- and von Sydow's subsequent career playing Nazi officers, tormented intellectuals and Jesus Christ -- have been different?

Ultimately, a boyish comic actor named Nils Poppe took the role of Jof, and von Sydow was reassigned to play Antonius Block, the brooding knight who is returning from the Crusades, alongside his wisecracking, cynical squire (Gunnar Björnstrand, in a performance that may outdo von Sydow's). Tormented by religious doubt and fear, Block plays a memorable game of chess with Death, buying just enough time for Jof's family to escape the latter's clutches. This seemingly insignificant casting detail offers an important clue to "The Seventh Seal," the movie that launched the international art-house movement -- and a movie that has acquired, as a direct result of its iconic stature, a totally unjustified reputation for humorlessness, obscurantism and difficulty.

Faced with an overwhelming glut of classics and art films on the DVD market, and a perennially distracted audience that is largely unfamiliar with anything made before the mid-'70s, Criterion is repackaging many of the most famous titles in its catalog. (Alain Resnais' "Last Year at Marienbad" has been reissued in a similar deluxe edition, and it's also worth a fresh look.) After 52 years it may be that the penumbra of intellectual seriousness around "The Seventh Seal" has finally dissipated, and the endless TV-commercial and greeting-card parodies of its images have faded from memory. If so, it's about goddamn time, because if you simply sit down and watch the movie without prejudice, it's full of surprises.

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1 comment:

Gabrielle Björnstrand said...

Of course Gunnar Björnstrand did outdo von Sydow, especially in that movie.