In medieval Europe only religious dramas were permitted. Gradually, artists were commissioned to create and perform plays as accessories to the Latin church services. Predominantly illiterate, people learned by rote and were reminded by art and craft. These medieval dramas were known as mystery plays (biblical stories), miracle plays (episodes of saints’ lives), passion plays (on the events of Holy Week and the Passion of Christ), or morality plays (allegories on morals rather than ethics). The forms are often referred to interchangeably.
The Seventh Seal, The Virgin Spring and Bergman's film interpretation (originally produced for television) of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, can be thought of as examples or interpretations of this form.
It is understandable that some people who have seen the first two - especially the latter - recoil from seeing them again, and consider Bergman dark, melancholic or disturbing. Yet many of these people will dwell on the Passion of Jesus or the death of innocent Desdemona in Othello (by Shakespeare or Verdi). Somehow they will return to these two but not to The Virgin Spring.
These are two of my favorite Bergman movies, perhaps enhanced by nostalgia because they were the first of his works I ever viewed. My father, Hugo Olsson, was editor and publisher of Vestkusten, the local Swedish newspaper in San Francisco, founded by his father. While I was still in high school, Dad thought I should appreciate Sweden’s culture and its international acumen (more than just our local foods, customs and traditions), so one night he took me to this double bill of Bergman classics at a local repertory cinema.
Thus began my appreciation of contemporary Swedish classics and of Bergman in particular. I was used to seeing black and white movies at our local theater, but like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, I discovered we were no longer in the land of the Lone Ranger or Flash Gordon, my typical childhood movie fare.
I also rank Bergman’s interpretation of Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute” among my favorites of his films. I see them all as interpretations of male-dominated orthodoxies. This third film is as distinct from the first two as its color is from their black-and-white media. The first two are starkly beautiful not only in the telling of their stories and of the acting but in the dilemma of dealing with God by emphasizing the medieval milieu, which is distinct enough from our period to give us the distance by which to judge their moral dilemmas, and our own.
But Seal, Spring and Flute are unified by Bergman and his troupe’s mastery of their medium, by their regard for how precious life is, and by the dramatically ritualized and realized irony in the telling of these tales.

The Seventh Seal
In this film, a knight (Max von Sydow) and his squire (Gunnar Björstrand) return from the Crusades to medieval Sweden, now suffering from bubonic plague. The knight is disillusioned by his Crusade experience and searches for a sign from God of personal commitment and seeks to do an altruistic act before he dies. The squire is stoic, accepting life as it is and judging people, society and institutions by how they help others.
The knight meets Death personified (Bengt Ekerot) and challenges him to a game of chess to avoid death until he can achieve one good deed. Along the way, knight and squire meet a family of actors: Jof (Nils Poppe), Mia (Bibi Andersson) and their infant son. Jof is a simple, kind man of visions. With us viewers, he is the only one who sees Death playing chess with the knight, sees the Virgin and Child, and sees Death leading his victims downhill in a danse macabre. Before Death claims him, the knight has experienced the joy of life with the actors’ gift of wild strawberries and milk, and he does his good deed by distracting Death so the actor’s family can escape death.


Are our fates sealed?
In Seal, the knight, returning from his evidently disheartening challenge and experience in the Crusades, wants to accept his relationship with God by evidence, not by indoctrinated authoritarian belief. He wants his own burning bush to appear before him to reveal and confirm his personal significance to God. Instead, on his journey home to his wife, he is confounded and confronted not merely with the presence of Death, of his own mortality, and of that of the victims of the plague as interpreted by the Church, but without any sense of assurance of personal salvation and eternal heavenly bliss in return for his devotion. Furthermore, he is challenged at every step of the journey by his squire’s distinctly alternative interpretation of life and more stoic acceptance of both life and death.
We the audience, with our modern perspective of historical distance, can judge the characters and their points of view. While acknowledging how harrowing and precarious human existence was in the Middle Ages, we are certainly no better humans than they are; however, our modern perspective allows us to see the futility or fruitfulness of particular philosophies. Further, of course, in addition to the history that separates us from the characters in the film, we are more worldly. Whether or not we are more formally educated, our awareness of multiple views among the world’s people, and the technological opportunities for news and views, requires us to have a more informed mind to live in our age. Indeed, our challenge today is one of information and communication. It is also one of lifelong learning and using our skills to survive, thrive and to fully live life.

The Virgin Spring
In Spring, a Christian knight or homesteader, Per Torë (Max von Syddow), his wife Märeta (Birgitta Valberg), and their teenage daughter Karin (Birgitta Pettersson) live with several servants, including Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom), their maid servant and daughter’s playmate, a pregnant pagan, jealous of Karin. At the daughter’s insistence, she is sent off through the forest to the church in all her finery to deliver candles as the family’s offering to the Virgin. The beautiful, blonde and richly robed daughter astride a white horse contrasts starkly with her dark-eyed, dusky companion in sackcloth upon a dark horse, as well as by her virginity and the other’s pregnancy, and by being innocent of her friend’s jealousy.
The two girls get separated. Karin continues until she meets three brother herders, one only a boy. In Christian charity and by flattery, she offers to share her meal with them. After lunch, the elder brother chases, rapes and kills the girl as the young boy looks on, frightened into silence.
Later the pagan brothers, coincidentally but unknown to them, arrive at the family homestead and are charitably given food and shelter for the night. After the knight goes off to bed, ignorant of the circumstances, the elder brother offers to sell the wife the girl’s garments.
Märeta leaves them to sleep, locking them in the lodge. When Per Torë sees the garments, he returns and kills all three, as the mother pleads for the innocent boy. They find their daughter’s body, and from the ground where her head had lain, a spring brings forth water. The father prays for forgiveness from his wrath and vengeance, promising to build on the site a chapel to God, in memory of his daughter and in acknowledgement of the miracle of the spring.

How do we await our Spring?
In Seal we were confronted with a personal odyssey to discover God, but in Spring, we see challenges to live as a Christian in a world where evil exists — such as we know from the Book of Job, and when God restores Job’s riches, it is not clear if he brings back to life his dead children, or provides him new ones, after which he survives to see his great-great-grandchildren.
In Spring, the Christian knight is similarly challenged, but rather than regaining his daughter, a spring issues from where she had lain. And this is interpreted as a miraculous sign of God’s blessing.
Here again Bergman, the director, and Ulla Isacksson, the scriptwriter, provide a perspective of historic distance. In narrative structure, this is a retelling of Job. But unlike in the biblical version — where the author is privileged to record not only God’s responses to Job but even arguments between God and Satan —we the viewers, from our modern perspective are challenged to provide and enunciate the implicit lesson, which may differ from the biblical one. Instead, as in many Bergman films, we both joy and pity the human condition, particularly what harm we cause to each other and the crises we bring upon ourselves.

The Magic Flute
In this film interpretation of Mozart’s opera of the same name, Tamino, a noble prince in danger asks the gods to save him. He faints and is saved by the Queen of Night’s maids, but awakens to a rustic bird catcher, Papageno, who accepts his thanks for salvation.
The Queen of the Night persuades Papageno and Prince Tamino to rescue her daughter Pamina from captivity under the high priest Sarastro; if they rescue her, Tamino will marry her. For their protection, the Queen gives Tamino a magic flute, to Papageno magic bells, and to both a trio of cherubs to advise them.
Papageno finds Pamina and tells her of Tamino and his quest. The cherubs lead Tamino to Sarastro’s temple, promising him Pamina if he is steadfast and wise. When Tamino enters and sees Pamina, the two embrace. However, Sarastro orders that Tamino must undergo trials to gain wisdom and fidelity worthy of Pamina.
Preparing for their trials, Papageno longs for a wife, and is offered a cup of water by an old hag. He asks if she has a boyfriend; she says he is her boyfriend but leaves before he can discover her name. Similarly Pamina is attracted to Tamino by his flute but despairs when he cannot answer if he loves her, because of his vow of silence.
Sarastro urges Tamino and Pamina to bid a final farewell to each other before Tamino’s ultimate trials. Later the hag returns to Papageno and orders him to promise to marry her or remain eternally imprisoned. When he consents, the hag is transformed into the young and pretty Papagena.
After Tamino’s armed guards announce he can now speak with Pamina, she enters and declares they will share the remaining trials of fire and water together, which they do; they are protected by his magic flute.

Does the Magic lie in the stars or in ourselves?
In this fable the stakes are not mortal and the mood is comic, contrived and charmed. Nonetheless, like the previous two Christian fables, this too involves an indoctrination of an orthodoxy resulting in earthly (and perhaps eternal) salvation.
Neither Mozart nor Bergman get into the quarrel over religion or sexism. Boy wins girl is an age-old story. This film is to be enjoyed. So Bergman, during the overture, concentrates on the audience but particularly one girl’s delight in the music, the staging and the story.
The noble and rustic characters are taught the ethical verities that ensure they will find true love and harmony in their lives with an appropriate partner: Tamino wins Pamina; Papageno, Papagena. Artistic whimsy is a key element in this movie, often hailed as one of the greatest interpretation’s of Mozart’s classic. And long after the artificial rituals of trials and tribulations, what lingers is the music and the clever adaptations of this opera, played in Drottingholm’s period theater, and the sublime craft of the actors. This film launched the world-renowned classic tenor, Håkan Hagegård, to greater public admiration.

Bergman’s comprehensive tales
It is us, Bergman’s audiences of the last half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st who must find meaning in these fables, even beyond the astounding virtuosity of their filming and acting.
These three films are among my favorites of Bergman’s work, although I have a dozen or more favorites to choose from. All are stories, within various genres, that demonstrate life-giving forces. Although many of his films have autobiographical elements, Bergman is remarkable for transforming his demons into stories more applicable to a general public. The quantity and development of his oeuvre is remarkable, but not all films may appeal to everyone.
When we examine his work as a whole, we are struck by his compassion for the human condition, in the nature of Dante’s telling of the Divine Comedy, from a higher, more comprehensive perspective. The other aspect that is so apparent throughout his films (as throughout most drama) is how we cause our own conflicts and conditions. While reflecting upon dramas from this perspective, one pities the human condition unless one finds joy in life. It is this comprehensiveness that Comedy shares with Tragedy.

By Ted Olsson