Seventh Seal, The (1957)
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Cast: Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, Bengt Ekerot
Plot: A man seeks answers about life, death, and the existence of God as he plays chess against the Grim Reaper during the Black Plague.
Genre: Drama / Fantasy
Awards: Won Special Jury Prize (Cannes).
Rating: PG for some disturbing scenes.
IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: NO)
Together with Wild Strawberries (1957) in the same year, The Seventh Seal cemented director Ingmar Bergman’s reputation as the leading filmmaker from the Nordic region. Bergman, who would continue to make great masterpieces such as Persona (1966), Cries and Whispers (1972), and Fanny and Alexander (1982), epitomized Swedish cinema with his strong, personal touch, and his penchant for continually exploring the human psyche and condition.
The Seventh Seal, often regarded to be one of his greatest works, and is said to be the late director’s personal favorite, is a masterful film filled with symbolic and allegorical imagery. While not the most enjoyable, nor is it the most emotionally gratifying of his oeuvre, The Seventh Seal still remains to be a film of considerable substance.
Winning the Special Jury Prize at Cannes, Bergman’s film has no real plot, except for a series of interactions between a knight, named Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) and Death (Bengt Ekerot) that are intercut with sequences of ordinary folks living in the time of the devastating Black Plaque. The lack of a plot makes the film less engaging than it should be, but truth be told, it is the beautiful yet bleak images that hold our attention the most.
Drawing from Kurosawa’s period films as inspiration, Bergman paid attention to period detail in both art direction and set design, and attempted to capture the creative spirit of films such as Rashomon (1950) and Seven Samurai (1954).
Although the jovial moments in The Seventh Seal come across as fleeting, such as the sequence in which a trio of performers are acting out a song-and-dance on a makeshift stage, only to be interrupted by a brutal procession of flagellants (which, in my opinion, is the film’s most hypnotic sequence), their inclusion suggest the hope of innocents in a time and place ravaged by disease and death.
Much has been said about the religious symbolism in The Seventh Seal. The iconic chess scenes that are played by Antonius and Death, which has survived numerous parodies in popular entertainment, remain to be the most unforgettable. Themes such as the existence of God, the fate of human existence, hope and death are explored not only in literal terms, but expressed through rich black-and-white cinematography that continues to wow audiences, such as the morbidly elegant 'dance of death' scene at the end.
Religious and existential issues are synonymous with Bergman’s works, and in The Seventh Seal, the director presents his most literal response to the question: is there a God? Or is there only emptiness, where only Death pervades? While tonally pessimistic and bleak, Bergman’s film manages to be surprisingly, or should I say, defiantly fervent in its expression of assurance – the assurance that the human spirit, for all it is worth against fate, is determined to fight on to the very end.
The Seventh Seal is now regarded as the quintessential European art film of the 1950s, a textbook picture on filmmaking, though maybe not on storytelling. While somewhat unfairly reduced by popular culture to its pivotal chess scene, could the film also have influenced Lucas’ 'Star Wars' saga?
Notice the striking similarities of Antonius (a Crusader knight) with Luke Skywalker (a Jedi knight), and Death with the Emperor (both are paled-face and wear a hooded, dark robe). Whatever the case, Bergman’s influence had been far-reaching, yet only a handful remembered him for who he was when he passed away in 2007.