On its auspicious opening night, the magnificent new home of the Berkeley Art Museum (BAM) and the stunning Pacific Film Archives (PFA), the Barbro Osher Theater sets the standard for teaching and appreciating the most significant of films for their art and intellect. Barbo Osher herself, together with her husband Barney, were honored and thanked for the significant monument to art they made possible through their generosity in donating this gift for all movie-lovers.

Barbro Osher, Consul General of Sweden for northern California, spoke with heartfelt thanks in naming this theater for her. She also thanked the PFA for allowing her to choose the first film to be shown in the Barbro Osher Theater: of course, she admitted, it was not hard to select the director, Ingmar Bergman. She chose his iconic classic, The Seventh Seal, because for her, like so many others, it was the heralding comet announcing the arrival of a world master and a masterpiece.

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Life Made Sweder

The story of the magnificent new Movie Theater and the new visual arts center of the University of California, Berkeley.: Barbro Osher Honor Benefits Cinephiles

Professor Linda Haverty Rugg, an authority on Ingmar Bergman from UC Berkeley's Scandinavian Department, provided a most interesting introduction to the film, even for those of us who had seen it numerous times. Her talk piqued our interest in seeing the film with new insight. She put the movie into context — most of us recognized this film as a classic masterpiece without realizing that before this Bergman was best known internationally for comedy: He had won the prize for romantic comedy at Cannes the year before in 1956 for "Smiles of a Summer Night" and would win the next year with "The Seventh Seal."

Astonishing to me were two facts: 1) the film’s script had originally been rejected by an ignorant and bureaucratic decision of Svensk Filmindustri; and 2) when they finally accepted Bergman’s script, they gave him but three dozen days to complete it, which is stunning, even for a low budget, black and white film. Fortunately, Ingmar Bergman was working with his repertory theater troupe of actors, and his team of just 25 people (cast and crew!) shot two iconic scenes on location in southern Sweden, while most of the film was created in a Stockholm sound studio. Given Max von Sydow’s fame and starring role in this film, I had not realized this was his first movie with Bergman, though at age 27 he had already been a member of Bergman’s theater company of actors.

What was revelatory was how Bergman deepened the roles of his actors with each subsequent film. Rugg revealed that with this film Bergman really began to deploy his corps of actors in stylized symbolic roles in subsequent films: Max von Sydow the striving, disappointed idealist; Gunnar Björstrand the pragmatic, worldly skeptic; Bibbi Andersson the optimistic, naïve young woman. Rugg showed how Bergman played out this — and more — through his films: “Their moves change in relationship to the other figures and according to the grand strategy of the game, but their basic characters remain the same.” I can’t wait to examine other Bergman films with this new understanding.

Professor Rugg startled the audience with a well-chosen quote, made more profound by the fact that Bergman’s father was a Lutheran pastor, whose sermons and services his son had to endure. Rugg taught us the impact of that tutelage, as reflected upon later by Bergman: “Like all churchgoers in all times I have been absorbed by altar paintings, altarpieces, crucifixes, stained glass windows and murals. There was Jesus, bloody and tortured, Mary leaning against John: Behold your mother, behold your son. Maria Magdalena, the sinner, the knight playing chess with Death. Death cutting down the tree of life with a saw, a terrified poor sinner sitting at the top, wringing his hands.”

As people in medieval Scandinavia attempted to make sense of life from their culture’s image, so we today search for meaning through the art of today: cinema. Rugg referred to the contradictory exchange of perspectives in Bergman’s script as the equivalent for the medieval theological debate poems, but because of the brutality depicted in the film, I always considered it more in terms of the medieval "flying," the ritualistic poetic exchange of insults (from Old English flytan (quarrel), from Old Norse flyta (provocation)).

Rugg surely is correct that the film’s story — coming after WWII in Europe with its millions dead and displaced, followed by the armageddon of the Cold War with fears of a MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) nuclear apocalypse haunting the survivors — was not only appropriate more than half a century ago but is also important for us now. Today we face our current threats: irrational and hysterical clamor stifling and stopping us from acting on global warming; religious wars; today’s equivalent of the medieval Black Death as a series of infectious diseases (AIDS, ebola, Zika); mass migrations of refugees inducing quarrels among otherwise cohesive nations; preachers and politicians reciting jeremiads while the masses chant in unison their own versions of these "Days of (Divine) Wrath" (Dies Irae); some even trying to hasten the end of days in order to be eternally saved.

Professor Rugg immeasurably increased the enjoyment of this classic for me and everyone else in the audience that night with her stimulating seminar.

Ted Olsson
San Francisco