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The Seventh Seal

Directed by Ingmar Bergman with Max von Sydow, Bibi Andersson, Gunnar Björnstrand, Bengt Ekerot, Anders Ek, Nils Poppe, Ake Fridell, Inga Gill, Erik Strandmark, and Gunnel Lindblom, 1956, 96 minutes, black and white

cover of DVD "The Seventh Seal"

The Lust for Life and "A Great Content"

By Carter B. Horsley

What is the spiritual meaning of life?

Is there a God?

Such simple, basic questions have never been more forcefully and memorably put forward in a work of art than in director Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece, "The Seventh Seal," about a chess game between a knight, who has just returned from the Crusades, and Death.

This movie is no mere intellectual exercise, or diatribe, but a magnificent and compelling, brutal but beautiful examination of mankind’s strengths and weaknesses. As intense as the fervor of its philosophic soul-searching and its profound humanity, its greatness is in its artistry. The directing, acting and cinematography by Gunnar Fischer are sublime and its visual imagery is forever stamped in its viewer’s mind. The march of the flagellants, the burning of a witch, the chess match with Death and the "dance of death" atop a ridge are indelible moments in cinematic history.

Set in the Middle Ages, the film established Swedish director Bergman, who also wrote the script, not only as one of the major artists of film, but also as a major international intellectual whose bleak visions haunted a generation and more. Indeed, Bergman's passionate but cynical interpretations of personal values and angst were significant cultural monuments that went beyond Existentialism, which was gaining popularity in many circles, and depicted a ruthlessly discomforting world that seemed to be filled more with despair than hope. His depictions of such "problems," of course, while serious and often depressing to many, were essentially optimistic for they showed that someone cared enough to focus on the "problems." Some critics have compared the movie’s apocalyptic tone with popular fears about the threat of the Cold War that was then raging but that interpretation is a bit of a stretch as Bergman’s concerns are more personal than political as borne out by his entire oeuvre, which began in 1944 and continued for a generation after this film was made.

While many of his subsequent films would become quite ponderous, though no less intense or brilliant, this film brims over with a lust for life. At the end of the film when Death wins the lives of the knight and his small group, the squire is asked to be quiet by the knight’s wife after his cynical comments about the knight’s prayers and he responds that he will be, but "with protest."

The noble and kind knight, Antonius Block, played brilliantly by the stoic and lanky Max von Sydow, who was only in his late twenties when the film was made but looks like a man of 60 or so, is outwardly calm, but inwardly seething with a need to discover some "meaning" to life's vicissitudes, which at the time included the plague, Having survived a 10-year crusade, the war-weary knight has returned to his homeland with his loyal and very sardonic squire, Jöns, played with inspired glee by Gunnar Björnstrand.

Björnstrand starred in many of Bergman’s films and was remarkably versatile. It could well be argued that his persona in this film is Bergman’s and his role here is more dynamic and heroic than von Sydow’s knight. Von Sydow would go on to star in many more Bergman films and also in many Hollywood films. His power was his stoney face, his icy reserve, his tormented grimaces, his forlorn expressions. Björnstrand, in contrast, is a visceral character with humor and resources, compassion and fury, loathing and sympathy, a man who clutches life with passion and confronts death with protest.

Bergman’s preceding film, "Smiles of a Summer Night," was a delightful and witty comedy in the sophisticated tradition of Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward. Bergman has a sense of humor and his darkest scenes often alternate with light-hearted ones. His fame, of course, rests on his more sober works such as this and subsequent films like "Wild Strawberries" (1957), "Through A Glass Darkly" (1962), "Winter Light" (1962) "Persona" (1966), "The Silence," "The Passion of Ana" (), "Cries and Whispers" (1972) and "Scenes From A Marriage" (1973) and on his marvelous troupe of actors that would include after "The Seventh Seal" such great actresses as Ingrid Thulin and Liv Ullman.

As the film begins, the knight and his squire lie upon a rocky beach as their horses wade in the surf. The knight awakens and begins to pack when he turns to encounters Death, personified by a figure in a hooded black cape played with awesome and ominious assuredness by Bengt Ekerot. The knight convinces Death to give him a brief reprieve by challenging him to a chess match.

The knight and squire proceed to a village that appears deserted. The squire goes looking for water and comes upon a beautiful woman who is about to be raped by a man, Raval, who had been the seminarist who had sent him and the knight on the crusades a decade ago. The squire rescues the woman, who says nothing, and scares off the seminarist, who later will succumb himself to the scourges of the plague.

The next scene introduces a group of troubadours, Skat, played by Erik Strandmark, Jof, played by Nils Poppe, Mary, Jof’s wife, played by Bibi Andersson, and their son, Michael. Jof has a vision of the Virgin Mary and Child walking nearby, but his wife chides him for his "visions" that she does not see. They move on in their covered wagon to give a performance at the next village where Skat seduces, or is seduced, by Lisa, the wife of the village smithy, Plog, in a scene that predates the famous eating scene in "Tom Jones" by several years.

After the performance, Jof goes to the village inn/tavern to get something to eat and is confronted by Plog who inquires after the whereabouts of his wife who he has been told has run off with an actor. Raval accuses Joseph of lying and of being an actor too and taunts him and makes him dance on a tabletop like a bear. The squire enters and rescues Joseph and "brands" Raval with his dagger. Joseph steals a bracelet that Raval was trying to sell and runs out. The squire sits for a drink and commiserates with Plog about women in a very funny conversation, after which Plog askes he can accompany the squire who agrees. As they leave, a procession of flagellants comes into the village and stops briefly for a monk, played by Anders Ek, to deliver a frightening sermon of doom. Ek looks like a raggy character from a painting by Hieronymous Bosch and his indictment of the villagers is excruciating and demonic. His face contorts and his gaze is mesmeric. His oratory conjures Hitler. Ek’s performance is fantastic.

The knight goes into a church to pray and when he sees a robed priest behind a open grill he proceeds to start his confessional. He does not realize that the robed priest is Death and during his confessional he reveals his plan to beat Death at chess. Death then reveals himself and the knight is shocked but recovers to rejoice in the fact that he is still alive. In a remarkable and very fine scene, the knight stands and looks at his hand and says, "This is my hand, I can move it, feel the blood pulsing through it. The sun is still high in the sky and I, Antonius Block, am playing chess with Death." He and the squire then encounter a young girl who is being escorted by eight armed guards to be burnt at the stake. The knight and squire try to comfort the young, delirious woman and are distraught at her plight.

The knight comes upon Jof and Mia, played by Bibi Andersson, with their son and joins them for some wild strawberries and a bowl of fresh milk in an idyllic scene. Jof and Mia and their son are pure, wholesome and an obvious embodiment of the concept of the Holy Family and the partaking of the bowl of fresh milk is analogous to the Christian concept of communion.

The knight convinces Joseph to take his family with him to his castle because it is a route where the plague has not yet raged and Jof agrees.

The knight’s party travels into the forest where they run into Skat and the smithy’s wife, Lisa, whom Skat calls Kunigunda. Plog wants to fight Skat to the death, but Skat pulls out a false dagger and stabs himself in the heart enough to convince Plog. After the knight’s party moves on, Skat gets up and climbs a tree to sleep safely only to be awaken by the sound of sawing. He looks down and sees Death sawing down his tree.

A storm rages and the knight sees Death and continues his game, but overturns the chess board to divert Death’s attention from Jof and Mia who flee in the wagon with their son. Their escape is the good deed that the knight longed for. The encounter of the knight with the child and his joyful parents is one of the most poetic lyric sequences on film and the simple pleasure of drinking some milk with the lovely young family is the film's catharsis for in the end they escape Death's net. Bergman, however, is not suggesting that innocence overcomes Death, nor that the good shall inherit anything, but that wholesomeness is worthy in and of itself and that little joys are often the most important.

The knight leads his party to his castle where he has a reunion with his beautiful wife, played by Inga Landgré, who prepares dinner for his guests and proceeds to read from the Book of Revelations the text. The door is knocked and the squire gets up to see who it is but comes back and says there was no one. A few minutes later, however, Death enters and the knight’s party rises to confront him and introduce themselves. The knight kneels in prayer and is mocked by the squire but the girl rescued by the squire who has not spoken during the film finally speaks and says "It is finished," one of the last utterances of Jesus Christ as the black robe of Death obscures her face.

Jof and Mia wake up and the storm has passed. Jof sees a "dance of death" on a ridge, which is wife cannot see and they proceed on their way. The "dance of death," one of the most famous images in film history, shows Death with his scythe leading most of the knight’s party up a hill.

The excellent Criterion Collection DVD of this film has an exception has a marvevlously restored print of the film, an audio commentary by Peter Cowie, a biographer of Bergman, a filmography that includes sequences from "Wild Strawberries" and "The Magician," the film’s theatrical trailer, and a section on the film’s restoration.

Erik Nordgren’s score is restrained but very effective and Bergman makes dramatic cuts in the soundtrack that are startling and also effective. The film abounds in surprises: the squire’s raspy snarls; the witch’s moaning; the monk’s riveting attack on the villagers; Jof’s beatific smile; the knight’s reserve at his wife’s welcome; the knight’s group’s introduction of themselves to Death; Death’s humor; the squire’s nonchalance when he sees the face of plague.

The characters of Skat, Lisa and Plog are the weakest and their antics detract considerably from the central focus on the knight’s quest for spiritual redemption and metaphysical answers, yet his surface. Yet his lack of irritability at the frailties and cruelties of others serves to reinforce our focus on his quests. He is not entirely impervious to others as demonstrated by his giving a pain-killing dose of medicine to the witch before she is burned at the stake, and it is rather fascinating that he does not try to counter the squire’s cynical observations, although by implication he countenances them by continuing to let him accompany him. He is almost resigned to his fate. The heart of the film is his encounter with Jof and Mia and their child and the simple joy of sharing their sustenance. The radiant comfort of humanity and life – the happy child crawling on the grass, Mia’s beauty and Jof’s rapture – is Bergman’s message that life is amazing despite all the perils, disorientations, alienations, frustrations, enigmas.

The story had its origin in a morality play written by Bergman earlier in his career. In his fine website, Walt Bruckner notes that Bergman rewrote the play several times and changed the knight from being mute and had Jons, the squire as the central character. There can be little doubt that that Bergman is attacking organized religion and the repellent practices of many of its followers, but his fervent philosophy is profoundly humanistic.

Peter Cowie’s commentary on the splendid Criterion Collection DVD points out that the harsh Swedish climate permits only 5 to 6 weeks of shooting.

For those weaned on special effects and fast editing and color, "The Seventh Seal" may seem at times a bit slow, but its marvelously strong black-and-white photography resonates with the quite brilliant and to-the-point dialogue. Life and death are not tidy. The challenges that each individual must face must be on his own terms.

This film ranks 2nd in Carter B. Horsley’s Top 500 Sound Films and is ranked 98th in the International Movie Data Base’s top 250 films as of December 25, 2000.

Click here to order the Criterion Collection DVD of "The Seventh Seal" for 15 percent off its list price from amazon.com.

Click here to order Ingmar Bergman's 1995 book, "Images: MyLife in Film," which is on backorder, from Amazon.com for $17.95.

Click here to order here Berman's 1989 book, "The Magic Lantern, an Autobiography,"from Amazon.com,where it iso n back order, for $14.95.

An interesting, long article by Norman N. Holland, who likens "The Seventh Seal" to a Grünewald painting can be found at http://www.class.ufl.edu/users/nnh/7thseal.htm.

A major discussion of The Seventh Seal with numerous illustrations can be found at http://mason-west.com/Bergman/seal7.shtml.

A good discussion guide on "The Seventh Seal" by Doug Cummings can be found at http://www.u.arizona.edu/~dpc/seal.html.

Robert Ebert’s review of "The Seventh Seal" can be found at http://www.suntimes.com/ebert/ebert_reviews/1999/01/seal1206.html.

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