Ingmar Bergman, and particularly this film of his, has long been considered a sort of byword for chilly existential angst, and indeed the iconic scene of the knight (Max von Sydow) playing chess with Death (Bengt Ekerot) has been recycled more regularly than most film images over the years, often for mocking comic purposes. And certainly there’s a lot of angst and hand-wringing over the existence and nature of God and the Devil — the story is filtered through the consciousness of a man who has been away ten years on the Crusades, torn asunder from his happy home life, not unlike Odysseus. At the film’s outset he finds himself, along with his squire (Gunnar Björnstrand), dashed on the rocks of his homeland, hence the visitation from Death. Yet what I think gets lost in that reductive summation of the film’s legacy is quite how comic it is (though it’s comedy sometimes like that found in Bresson, another forbidding cinematic master of the existential — you’re never quite sure if it was really intended or how deeply it runs, and that can make for a confusing viewing experience). It’s a much fresher and more watchable film than you might expect, coming to it only from its reputation, and the ways that it deals with crises of faith never overwhelms the human drama, as the story of the knight and his squire intersects with a band of travelling players. Along the way there are comic characters (the carpenter Plog, for example, whose story involves a bit of knockabout farce) and an understated sense of life in the mediæval era, which points up both the social and religious miasma without undue condescension.
Criterion Extras: There’s so much packed onto this disc that I haven’t yet watched it all (will update this post when I do), but the commentary is by film scholar Peter Cowie, who certainly knows his Bergman. He narrates a half-hour featurette charting Bergman’s entire career, and though he gets a bit carried away at times (stating that Bergman had a “unique understanding of the psyche of women” is surely a bit of a stretch on several levels), it’s still a good introduction to the man’s work. Cowie also interviewed the star Max von Sydow, presented here as a 20-minute audio interview. There’s a short filmed introduction by Bergman himself (made in 2003 for Swedish television), who is, to say the least, rather cranky, and his interviewer Marie Nyeröd made a longer portrait called Bergman Island (2006), also included here. Finally, there’s an audio tribute by Woody Allen presented alongside clips of Bergman’s key films.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman (based on his play Trämålning) | Cinematographer Gunnar Fischer | Starring Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, Bengt Ekerot | Length 96 minutes || Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, February 1998 (and at a friend’s home on DVD, London, Sunday 7 December 2014)