Cold Winter Night of the Soul

It felt strange on the evening of December 7, 2007 to be settling in at the Detroit Film Theatre for a serious film about death. After all, this was the Christmas and Hanukkah season, with its festive fun and life-affirming joy.

But I was grateful to the DFT for scheduling the 1957 film The Seventh Seal as part of a three-film salute to Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, who died on July 30, 2007. The DFT probably had to make an extra effort to book the films and re-design the printed schedule for its Fall 2007 season, which started September 6.

I wasn’t the only person in an appreciative mood that December 7 evening. Helping to introduce the 7 p.m. showing of The Seventh Seal was DFT founder Elliot Wilhelm, who thanked DFT patrons for sponsoring new seats in the restored auditorium. He also praised Friends of Detroit Film Theatre Chair Margaret Thomas, who represents the DFT at community events and “who does so much, to make so many things possible.”

Elliot noted that when the DFT opened in 1974, Bergman was one of the “Big Three” directors of foreign film, along with the French François Truffaut and the Italian Federico Fellini. Elliot saluted the audience for helping the DFT fulfill its mission of bringing classic foreign film to Detroit. “It’s pretty amazing to see a long line of people outside waiting to see The Seventh Seal,” he observed.

Ingmar Bergman

Before The Seventh Seal started, I thought about what might have brought people to see this movie, instead of one of the many Hollywood blockbusters that are filling the theaters for the holiday season.

Was it a deep, informed interest in Ingmar Bergman’s films? Was it the novelty of movies out of the mainstream that got good publicity in the Detroit newspapers? Was it the brand name draw of Bergman, for people who know his name, but had never seen his films? Mixed in was probably a curiosity about the newly re-opened Detroit Institute of Arts.

Bergman’s darkly philosophical films, with their accents of humor, had put him in almost his own category. The 1966 book New cinema in Europe (by Roger Manvell) includes chapters titled, “The French Film,” “Ingmar Bergman,” “The British Film”. David Shipman’s 1982 book The Story of Cinema has a chapter called, “Ingmar Bergman: The Quest for Understanding.”

The Seventh Seal might be Bergman’s most famous film, with its hooded figure of Death. And that’s what the movie is all about—how death shadows us, how it makes us search for meaning, how it makes us confront our deepest fears. It was ironic and poignant to realize that Bergman’s own encounter with death was what brought The Seventh Seal to the DFT. Now he finally knows the truth about what he explored through his films.

I emerged from the coldness and bleakness of this film into the vibrant elegance of the DFT, and the lively sounds of other viewers re-adjusting to the real world. Later, as I walked to my car, I thought about the family in the movie that included parents with names similar to Joseph and Mary (Jof and Mia), and their young boy, which made this a very unique movie of the Christmas season.

The Bergman series continues on December 8 with The Magician (1958), and on December 9, with the upbeat The Magic Flute (1975). The DFT then takes a holiday break until Thursday, January 10, 2008, when another season of stimulating cinema begins.

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Copyright © 2007 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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