In recent years, The Seventh Seal has often been honored more for its historical stature than its prevailing vitality. Those who attended its first international rollout and were changed forever by the experience are now second-guessing their attachment to a work so firmly ensconced in the realm of middlebrow clichés. Its Eisenhower look-alike Reaper, emblematic chess game, and Dance of Death have been endlessly emulated and parodied. Worse, The Seventh Seal quickly assumed, and has never quite shaken, the reputation, formerly attributed to castor oil, of something good for you—a true kiss of death. A movie that’s good for you is, by definition, not good for you.
So it’s a relief to set aside the solemnity of cultural sanction, along with the still-frame images that have adorned greeting cards, and return to Ingmar Bergman’s actual film: a dark, droll, quizzical masterpiece that wears its fifty-something years with the nimble grace of the acrobat Jof, who is the film’s true prism of consciousness. Not that its historical importance should be forgotten. As the picture that launched art-house cinema (along with Bergman, leading player Max von Sydow, and distributor Janus Films), The Seventh Seal holds a place in movie annals as secure as that of Battleship Potemkin or Citizen Kane or any other earthshaking classic you care to name.
Other imports had found appreciative audiences in the United States before The Seventh Seal passed through customs, including Kurosawa’s Rashomon in 1951 and Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria in 1957. But the effect of The Seventh Seal’s American debut at New York’s Paris Theater in October 1958, reinforced eight months later by the opening of Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, was transformative. With that one-two punch, cinema catapulted to the front line of a cultural advance guard that—shoulder to shoulder with modern jazz, abstract painting, Beat writing, theater of the absurd—sought to undermine the intractable mass taste promoted by Hollywood, television, and the Brill Building.
Everything about Bergman’s late-fifties work startled American filmgoers: the high-contrast cinematography and unsettling (endlessly reproduced) imagery; the scorching beaches and bleak glades; the fastidiously blocked compositions and credible invocations of the distant past; the magnificent company of actors; the taut plotting and elliptical dialogue—all handled with psychological astuteness, deft symbols, mordant wit, and equal attention to religious-ethical concerns in a possibly godforsaken universe and familial conflicts in an undoubtedly sexual one. At a time when the films of Carl Dreyer were largely neglected, Bergman advanced a Scandinavian aesthetic that rivaled, and in some respects trumped, that of the eminent novelists Knut Hamsun and Pär Lagerkvist, proving to a generation of eager moviegoers that cinema was a global pursuit of infinite promise, worth living for and talking about late into the night.
The Seventh Seal opens with a gorgeously baleful sky and a gliding eagle, almost frozen against the gathering clouds. A fourteenth-century knight and his squire, lately returned from the slaughter of the Crusades only to face the slaughter of the black death, are asleep on the beach. A long shot shows the sea and sky and rocky shore as though uncovering the world for the first time. The grim insinuations of this glossily disarming start are promptly borne out in the appearance of a decomposing face and a recurring skull that could not be more symbolically playful if it had “Memento Mori” stamped on its cranium. As one of the film’s several mischievous artists and performers observes, with archness worthy of Alfred Hitchcock, “A skull is more interesting than a naked woman.”
In 1958, American reviewers emphasized the film’s foreignness, its cerebral artiness. In his enthusiastic New York Times notice, Bosley Crowther described it as “essentially intellectual” and “as tough—and rewarding—a screen challenge as the moviegoer has had to face this year,” which evokes all the appeal of an algebra problem or a firing squad. Few called attention to the film’s comic sensibility and its affinity with other movies and cultural strategies of the period, which in retrospect are harder to miss.
Bergman uses as his central narrative device one of the oldest and most persistent paradigms in Western culture: the questing, idealistic hero (tall, gaunt, easily awestruck) and earthy, practical lackey (squat, well fed, ironic). The Don Quixote and Sancho Panza template has endured numberless variations, reversals, and buddy-buddy deviations, from d’Artagnan and Planchet to Vladimir and Estragon, from Mutt and Jeff comedy teams to singing cowboys and their dumpy sidekicks. Bergman’s version, as played by the magnetically craggy and prematurely aged Max von Sydow (he was all of twenty-eight) and the square-jawed Gunnar Björnstrand, promises, briefly, to be a conventional riff on righteous master and trusty servant. But a rude scowl from the latter indicates an unbridgeable gulf between them. Their most memorable conversations are not with each other.
The knight, Antonius Block, seeks proof of God or the devil, and gets no satisfaction from a strangely clueless Death (Bengt Ekerot), who may be the hardest-working man in eschatology—playing chess to harvest one soul, sawing down a tree to claim another. Block, the chess man, hopes to win his reprieve from Death by beating him through “a combination of bishop and knight,” though he knows better than most how utterly inefficient are the combined forces of religion and the military. “My indifference to my fellow men has cut me off from their company,” he laments. Unlike the blithe entertainer Jof (Nils Poppe), whose family he apparently saves by diverting Death’s attention, Block is not permitted visionary glimpses of God’s beneficence, but he sees man’s villainy, cloaked in religious avowal, everywhere. When Death finally arrives to claim him and his group, only Block blubbers in prayer. In contrast, his squire, Jöns, insists on his right as a man “to feel the immense triumph of this final moment, when you can still roll your eyes and wiggle your toes.”
Jöns, the caustically plain-speaking singer of bawdy songs, is one of Bergman’s (and Björnstrand’s) greatest characters. Stronger than the knight because he is more secure in his agnosticism, he is not indifferent to man. He is instead contemptuous of military deliverance (“Our crusade was so stupid that only a true idealist could have thought it up”) and religious pageantry (“Is that sustenance for modern people? Do they really expect us to take it seriously?”), and doesn’t need a diversionary ploy to save Jof from the perfidy of men. Jöns gets many of the best lines, which resonate with the kind of verbal incongruities that Samuel Beckett had recently unleashed, especially as he tries to console the cuckolded blacksmith, who tells him, “You believe your own twaddle.” “Who says I believe it?” Jöns replies. “But ask for a word of advice and I’ll give you two. I’m a man of learning, after all.”
In the end, Jöns and Block share the same fate, chained hand to hand in the Dance of Death that only Jof can see. He and his wife, Mia (Bibi Andersson), and their child escape the holocaust, after inviting Block to participate in a sacramental meal of milk and wild strawberries. We don’t know for how long they will be spared, but more than any of the other characters, they are us, neither courageous nor craven; they are devoted more to family than to God (or to the gods of war), and consequently live in God’s grace.
The angelic Mia is one of five women in the film, of whom only the libidinous, chicken-gnawing Lisa, the blacksmith’s wife, is seen in the Dance of Death. Six centuries before movie magazines, Lisa sets her cap on the closest thing she can find to a matinee idol, the actor Skat, and seduces him while his partners Jof and Mia sing a song about the devil shitting on the shore. The other women are the knight’s Penelope-like wife, risking plague to welcome him home; an alleged young witch, bound for the stake, who takes the fanatics at their word, embracing the devil they insist lurks everywhere; and the silent maid (Gunnel Lindblom), saved from one rape but perhaps victimized by others. These three do not fear death—the last two welcome it with evident relief—and are absent from Jof’s vision of Death’s humiliating dance. Is it because they embrace death that they are spared that mortification (for they, too, have been reaped; we have seen the witch’s final throes and heard Death’s promise to harvest them all), or are they absent from Jof’s vision simply because it is Jof’s vision? He has never seen the knight’s wife or the witch, and has shown only a benign indifference to the mute maid.
Bergman’s religious symbolism, which distinguished The Seventh Seal from his previous films and marked many of those to follow, paralleled a turnabout in the work of his fellow Swede Pär Lagerkvist, a man no less attuned than Beckett to existential paradox. Lagerkvist, whose dramatic work Bergman had directed as recently as 1956, had been Sweden’s most celebrated writer for nearly forty years when, in the 1950s, his concerns took a sharp turn toward religious inquiry in a series of short novels, beginning with Barabbas and The Sibyl. His primary theme must have registered with Bergman: did God create man or did man create God, and does it matter once the bond of faith is accepted? Having lost faith on the eve of apocalypse, Block, like Lagerkvist’s pagans at the dawn of Christianity, needs God to show himself.
Bergman acknowledged a correlation between his vision of the Middle Ages and the midcentury fear of atomic devastation. As an ardent filmgoer, he could not have been unmindful of the ongoing welter of end-of-days scenarios, sublime and ludicrous. The Seventh Seal opened in Stockholm in February 1957; in the preceding two years alone, apocalypses, holocausts, plagues, eschatology, and resurrection informed, among many other films, Kiss Me Deadly, Ordet, Night and Fog, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Forbidden Planet, The Wrong Man, Moby Dick, It Came from Beneath the Sea, The End of the Affair, The Night of the Hunter, The Burmese Harp, Land of the Pharaohs, and The Ten Commandments. Dozens more were on the way, including a few about Jesus, the most egregious of them with von Sydow in the starring role.
Yet of those films only The Seventh Seal maintains throughout a peculiarly modernistic insistence on doubt. It embraces doubt the way most of the others embrace piety, futility, or melodrama. Only The Seventh Seal achieves uncanny timelessness by convincingly re-creating the time in which it is set. No self-respecting Egyptologist is likely to use a still from The Ten Commandments in a historical study. But in 2008, John Hatcher illustrated his book The Black Death: A Personal History with Renaissance artworks, plus a shot of Bergman’s Dance of Death, which feels entirely appropriate. Nor have the film’s moral concerns dated—its disdain for religious persecution, trumped-up wars, and the deals most of us desperately make with Death to delay the inevitable. Meanwhile, Jof and Mia ride off into the sunset with their infant acrobat-in-training son: for the clowns, there is no final curtain.