Silver Screen Streak List #03:
04. The Fifth Seal (1976)
Written by dorrk
The Fifth Seal (1976)
The Fifth Seal (1976): Reviewed
There's a segment of Claude Lanzmann's documentary Shoah, during which a Holocaust survivor recalls the job assignment which saved his life, assisting his fellow Jews as they entered the crematorium and guiding them towards the chambers in which they would be murdered. He relates the anguish of performing this duty, and how he contemplated suicide, only to have some condemned prisoners beg him to continue, so that one may possibly survive and tell their story. Zoltán Fábri's 1976 philosophical thriller The Fifth Seal (named after the seal in the Book of Revelations regarding martyrdom) isn't quite so heavy, but raises similar issues in a provocative manner.
In Nazi-occupied Budapest, four men meet for nightly drinks and banter while the horrors of war and authoritarianism rattle outside. One of the men raises a hypothetical moral dilemma that so provokes the others they carry it home with them and continue to wrestle with its implications. As a thought-exercise in personal ethics, it's a thorny issue that is only as complicated as one chooses to make it; when the same question confronts them directly in real life, however, it's the type of conundrum that blurs the lines between integrity, weakness, conscience, evil and love, and the clarity provided by immediacy reveals no easy answers.
I wish I could say that I was as taken with the form of Fábri's film as much I was stimulated by its content. There's not actually anything wrong with The Fifth Seal -- for a low budget chamber allegory twisting the political nipples of police states (like 1976 Communist Hungary), it's not only potent, but is shot with subdued flair given its limited resources and is finely acted by actors who look a little too much alike. It's few flourishes are its weakest moments, particularly its early blinking montages of Hieronymus Bosch's painting "The Garden of Earthly Delights," which in-the-moment is showy and perplexing, and later only functions as foreshadowing that was too-on-the-nose. The Fifth Seal is one of those sharp little think-pieces that focuses so intently and perceptively on the difficulty of its ideas that it sacrifices its potential to do more dramatically, to make the audience feel for the characters as they struggle with its concepts, rather than just appreciate the artifice of the provocation.