The Seventh Seal

The Seventh Seal

On Film / Essays — Oct 13, 1987

For more than forty years, The Seventh Seal has been a benchmark by which all other great foreign films are judged. It launched the international career of its director, Ingmar Bergman, and made a star of its 27-year-old leading actor, Max von Sydow.

The Seventh Seal and the other Bergman masterpieces that soon followed it—Wild Strawberries, The Magician, and The Virgin Spring—were as important to the development of world cinema as the New Wave in France or the work of Fellini, Antonioni and Bertolucci in Italy. Bergman’s work proved that essential philosophical and human issues could be explored on film and still reach a wide audience.

The miracle is that Bergman’s genius enabled him to reflect the trepidation of the Cold War era and yet also transcend it, so that The Seventh Seal continues to enthrall each new generation with its complex investigation of love, self-sacrifice, and the problems of pain and death.

At first glance, the film would appear insufferable. It is set in the Middle Ages at a time when the plague was ravaging Europe, orthodox religion was locked in the battle with paganism and the disillusionment brought about by the Crusades, and it describes a knight’s doomed attempt to forestall death. Yet nearly everyone who sees The Seventh Seal emerges stunned and thrilled by its visual splendors, and inspired by one or other of the major characters.

The Seventh Seal takes its title from the Book of Revelation, and in 1956 the threat of Apocalypse seemed as palpable as it must have been in medieval Sweden. Yet Bergman refuses to succumb to the pessimism that pervades all those about him; he identifies now with the zealous knight, now with his cynical squire. His characters manage to overcome the fear of Death, rather than the fact of Death, and if, as the knight discovers, one can achieve even a single gesture of goodwill, then the long struggle of life will be justified.

The 1950s was Bergman’s most fruitful decade. He made The Seventh Seal while attached to the Malmö Municipal Theater in southern Sweden. It was a hectic round of stagework in winter, and filmmaking in summer. Bergman used the same loyal troupe of performers and technicians from film to film and from play to play. The Seventh Seal itself grew out of a short morality play Bergman had written during the early 1950s, but such is his imaginative use of real locations, and so fluent his montage, that any notion of theatricality is banished from the screen. The film abounds with images that have become instantly recognizable emblems of world cinema—the knight Antonius Block confronting Death across a chessboard, the procession of the flagellants, or the “Dance of Death” against the louring skyline in the final moments.

For all its richly embroidered dialogue, The Seventh Seal remains a personal film in the profoundest sense of the term. Bergman is exorcising his own demons, his own dread of the eternal darkness, and to his surprise and delight this process has appealed to audiences in practically every corner of the world. It is as though for the first time in the movies someone had dared to ask in public those most intimate and basic questions that each of us asks in private; to illustrate and analyze on screen the doubts and fears, yearnings and aspirations, for which most filmmakers cannot find a visual language. And by couching his drama in an historical framework, Bergman has ensured that it does not date.

Made with a tiny crew on a modest budget, in a mere 35 days of shooting, The Seventh Seal breathes an extraordinary authenticity. We instantly believe in the medieval mood, and we accept the young Max von Sydow as a white haired, world-weary survivor of the Crusades. P.A. Lundgren’s set designs mirror the frescoes that as a boy Bergman used to gaze at when visiting local churches with his father. Erik Nordgren’s music score echoes the fierce, unsettling beauty of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. Above all, the cinematography of Gunnar Fischer (who worked on all the great early Bergman films) invests each image, each sequence, with a crystalline depth and detail. Apart from Gregg Toland and Bergman’s own subsequent collaborator Sven Nykvist, nobody has matched the luminous, almost hallucinatory brilliance of Fischer’s lighting on The Seventh Seal.

Scrutiny of the film reveals just how meticulous is Bergman’s balance of the somber and the carefree, the harsh and the satirical. Each encounter with Death gives way to an earthy, humorous episode. And just when we feel it safe to accept the relaxed banter between, for example, the squire and the blacksmith, Bergman seizes us by the throat with savage glee and plunges us into the heart of darkness, as a monk harangues the penitents, or as a young girl is put to the stake in a forest clearing.

This superb edition of The Seventh Seal enables us to relish the film as it looked in 1957, and to marvel even more at Bergman’s loving attention to every composition, every cut, and the structure of each sequence.

The Seventh Seal throbs and reverberates with intelligence and emotion as perhaps no other European film has done in the intervening years. It remains Bergman’s great trailblazing masterpiece, his Hamlet, his Faust.