The Seventh Seal (1957): Legendary Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman’s existential masterpiece that depicts the epic battle of life and death

Bergman's treatise on life, death, and redemption

A Potpourri of Vestiges Review

By Murtaza Ali

Featured in IMDb Critic Reviews    

seventh seal directed by ingmar bergman
The Seventh Seal (1957)  - Original Title:  Det sjunde inseglet - By Ingmar Bergman
Our Rating: 10.0
IMDb Ratings8.4
Genre: Drama Fantasy
CastMax von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, Bengt Ekerot
Country: Sweden
Language: Swedish | Latin
Runtime: 96 min
Color: Black and White




SummaryA Knight and his squire are home from the crusades. Black Death is sweeping their country. As they approach home, Death appears to the knight and tells him it is his time. The knight challenges Death to a chess game for his life. The Knight and Death play as the cultural turmoil envelopes the people around them as they try, in different ways, to deal with the upheaval the plague has caused.


The Seventh Seal is a 1957 motion-picture written and directed by legendary Swedish filmmaker Ernst Ingmar Bergman. The movie is based on a play called ‘Wood Painting’ written by Bergman himself. ‘The Seven Seals’ is a phrase in the Book of Revelation that refers to seven symbolic seals that secure the book that John of Patmos saw in his Revelation of Jesus Christ. Upon the opening of each seal—by the only one worthy of opening it, who’s referred to as the “Lamb”—either a judgment is released or an apocalyptic event occurs. The Seventh Seal begins by quoting the following excerpt from the Book of Revelation: “And when the Lamb had opened the seventh seal there was silence in heaven about the space half of an hour. And the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared themselves to sound.” In ‘The Seventh Seal’, Ingmar Bergman portrays this silence, momentary but alarming, as a metaphor for the indifference of the Creator of mankind and the whole of cosmos towards His creation. 

Man von Sydow as the Crusading Knight Antonious Block fights death in the seventh seal, directed by Ingmar Bergman
The Seventh Seal: The Death rendezvouses The Knight
The Seventh Seal shakes the very foundations of organized religion by questioning the logic behind exalting an ‘Absentee God’ who’s oblivious to the needs and desires of his worshippers—something that Spanish maestro Luis Bunuel operatically depicts in his case study on Bourgeoisie plight, Viridiana (1961)The movie catapulted Bergman to the stature of an auteur par-excellence, thus marking the beginning of his tryst with cinematic brilliance that would continue for almost five decades. The Seventh Seal introduced Swedish cinema to the West in the same way as Rashomon had introduced Japanese cinema and Kurosawa to the Occident. The Seventh Seal and Rashomon together helped overcome the void that had been created in art cinema owing to the catastrophic occurrences of the Second World War, thereby paving the way for the subsequent success of Fellini, Antonioni, Truffaut, Godard and others.


Max von Sydow as Antonius Bloc, crusading knight, the seventh seal, directed by ingmar bergman
The Seventh Seal: The Knight Antonius Bloc
The Seventh Seal not only helped establish Bergman as one of the most influential filmmakers of the 20th century but, in the words of Bergman himself, it also helped him overcome his colossal fear of death. In an interview with Charles Thomas Samuels in 1971, Bergman says, “Say anything you want against The Seventh Seal. My fear of death—this infantile fixation of mine—was, at that moment, overwhelming. I felt myself in contact with death day and night, and my fear was tremendous. When I finished the picture, my fear went away. I have the feeling simply of having painted a canvas in an enormous hurry—with enormous pretension but without any arrogance.” The movie introduced to the world a new kind of existentialist cinema that helped draw parallels between the atrocities of the Medieval Era and the iniquities prevalent in the post-World War II phase with the threat of another war hovering over the world like the Sword of Damocles. Today, The Seventh Seal, having stood the test of time for over five decades, is touted as one of the most influential movies of all time that still continues to inspire movie-makers and movies worldwide.

crusading Knight Antonius Bloc (Max von Sydow) with Squire Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand), the seventh seal, directed by ingmar bergman
The Knight Antonius Block and The Squire Jons
Squire Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand), the seventh seal, directed by ingmar bergman
The Artist Paints the Fresco of Dance of Death
The plot of The Seventh Seal revolves around a disenchanted Swede knight Antonious Block , who returns home after years of relentless fighting in the Crusades, giving a metaphorical account of his epic game of chess with the Grim Reaper—the Personification of Death. Block is accompanied by his grumpy yet stalwart squire, Jons. Block, after having spent the better part of his youth fighting in the Holy Land, finally realizes the futility of the mission undertaken by him a decade back on the call of a theologian. On his arrival to his native Sweden, he comes to know that the country is ravaged by The Black Plague. While playing a solo game of chess on a beach, Block encounters the Grim Reaper who, in his personified form, resembles a monk: pale-faced and dressed in a black hood. The Death tells Block that his time has come. Undeterred by the sudden revelation, Block challenges the Grim Reaper to a game of chess on the conditions that he should be allowed to live as long as he is able to keep the Grim Reaper at bay and that if Block wins, the Death should set him free. The Death accepts the offer gleefully and hence begins an epic battle of wits as the hunter and the hunted try to outfox each other. Owing to Death’s overwhelming schedule, the game of chess is played intermittently: on each encounter the game begins from the very point it was left in the previous one. 
 
Actors Jof and Mia in The Seventh Seal, Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Actors Jof and Wife Mia Perform to their Audience
The Flagellants Imitate the Dance of Death, The Seventh Seal, directed by Ingmar Bergman
The Flagellants Imitate the Dance of Death
After the initial round, all of Block’s pieces remain intact as he, accompanied by the squire, continues his march towards his castle with the faint hope of reuniting with his wife, whom he had left behind on the call of the theologian. On their way, they pass a troupe of performers: Jof and his wife Mia, their baby boy Mikael, and their manager Skat. Subsequently, the knight and the squire enter a church where an artist seems busy painting the Dance of Death. When questioned by Jons about the apprehensions that a painting as macabre as the one being painted could give rise to, the artist replies, “Why make them happy? Why not scare them? A skull is more interesting than a naked woman!” In the meantime, the knight approaches the confessional booth and confesses to the priest that his life had been a meaningless pursuit: high on talk, but low on action. He also tells the priest about his game of chess with the Grim Reaper and asserts that he wants to use his reprieve to do one meaningful deed. The knight and squire proceed with their journey as the latter while trying to get some water for his master encounter Raval—the theologian who had convinced the knight to leave his wife and join the Crusades a decade back. Raval is no longer a theologian but has perverted to become a lowly thief who robs the dead and rapes the hapless women. Jons rescues a servant girl from his clutches and promises to brand him on the face if they ever meet again. The girl joins the squire as the trio ride into the town where Jof and Mia's performance is interrupted by the sudden arrival of a procession of flagellants imitating the Dance of Death.

Antonius Block Savors a Bowl of Fresh Milk and Strawberries, The Seventh Seal, directed by ingmar bergman
Antonius Block Savors a Bowl of Fresh Milk
death plays chess with antonius block (max von sydow), the seventh seal, directed by ingmar bergman
The Seventh Seal: Death on the Prowl
At an eating joint, Jof comes across Raval who humiliates Jof by making him hop and jump on the table repeatedly. Jons, on identifying Raval, comes to Jof’s rescue and fulfills his promise by slicing Raval’s forehead. On the next morning, Block comes across Mia who offers him some wild strawberries and warm milk. Moved by Mia’s hospitality, Block says, “I shall bear this memory between my hands as carefully as a bowl of fresh milk. And it will be a sign and a great contentment.” He courteously invites Mia, Jof and Mikael to his castle, where he feels they would be safer from the plague. However, the Grim Reaper soon starts to close in on Block, cornering him move by move, with a greater intensity as the Black Plague spreads far and wide. With the stench of death growing exponentially, the knight has his job cut out to do the “one meaningful deed”. Any further revelation of the plot would reflect remissness on my part and so I would rather let my readers savor it with their own eyes for a consummate cinematic experience. The somber theme of The Seventh Seal can appear to be highly pessimistic to the less keen eye, for it’s never easy to fathom the latent optimism in Bergman’s oeuvre, which thrives on skepticism, iconoclasm and self-denial vis-à-vis belief, acceptance and gratification. But, a keener observer would knows better, for he would know that beneath this veneer of skepticism lies an overwhelming sense of optimism that has the power to inspire even the most pessimistic of the beings. 
 
swedish filmmaker ingmar bergman, the seventh seal
Swedish Maestro Ingmar Bergman
One striking feature of Bergman’s earlier works is the undercurrent of dark, scurrilous humor that adds a whole new dimension to his cinema. However, as his works grew somber, this undercurrent of humor was replaced by a stark, seething sarcasm aimed to sear the indifference and ignorance of the ruck. Bergman once said of his movies, “I don't want to produce a work of art that the public can sit and suck aesthetically… I want to give them a blow in the small of the back, to scorch their indifference, to startle them out of their complacency.” Bergman’s existential, multidimensional works succeeded in fathoming the hitherto unfathomable depths of the human psyche that not only refined cinema but also redefined it.

An innocent girl burnt to death on false account of Devil Worship, the seventh seal, directed by Ingmar Bergman
The Seventh Seal: A Girl Being Condemned to Death 
Crusading Knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) and Squire Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand) witness immolation of an innocent girl
The Knight and Squire Witness the Immolation  
Renowned American movie-maker Michael said of Bergman, “Bergman was the epitome of a director's director—creating beautiful, complex and smart films that imprinted permanently into the psyche—inspiring filmmakers all over the world to create their own movies with similar passion and brio.” Bergman stood tall among the handful of auteurs whose avant-garde works seemed to possess a softer corner for the spirit of womanhood and it is for this reason he was often touted as a vanguard feminist: His female characters were intellectually driven, strong, patient and liberal, while his male characters were usually selfish, indifferent, dogmatic and self-indulgent. Bergman’s films touched upon various facets of existence: be it social, personal, religious, spiritual, or ethical. Critic Peter Rainer wrote of Bergman, “He is undeniably one of the great directors, but he has always stood for more than the sum of his films. From the first, he was regarded as a visionary who grappled with the Big Questions of God and Man. His symbol-thick films were drenched in the night sweats of mortal torment. He was the kind of artist we had been brought up to believe was the real deal: He suffered for our souls.” Bergman passed away in July 2007, leaving behind arguably the richest oeuvre in the history of cinema. 

Theologian Raval Succumbs to The Black Plague, The Seventh Seal, directed by Ingmar Bergman
Theologian Raval Succumbs to The Black Plague
Gunnar Bjornstrand as The Pastor in The Winter Light, directed by Ingmar Bergman
Gunnar Bjornstrand as 'The Pastor' in The Winter Light
The Seventh Seal continues to enjoy its well-deserved apotheosis and is still widely regarded as Bergman’s most decorated work. It has been imitated on countless occasions, not only in form of parodies or lampoons but also in form of serious works: be it Monty Python series, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive or Woody Allen’s oeuvre. Like most great works of Art, it doesn't enjoy unqualified praise: while some exalt it as an exemplary specimen of Art others dismiss it with disdain. People, under the disenchanting influence of its endless imitations, often tend to underestimate its true power and Bergman’s astonishing achievement that’s yet to be paralleled, perhaps with the likely exception of Kurosawa’s Rashomon, in the whole of cinema. Only someone of Bergman’s stature could have succeeded in meticulously balancing so many contrasting acts: comedy with tragedy, aesthetics with concept, logic with linearity, and clarity with nebulosity. The actors in the movie have given memorable performances with special mention of Max von Sydow as Antonius Block, Bibi Andersson as Mia, and Gunnar Bjornstrand as Jons. Bjornstrand as Jons is indeed mesmerizingly brilliant. His role of the Pastor in The Winter Light (1963) is in exact contrast to this role. Anyone who would have seen him first in role of the stern pastor in The Winter Light would find it difficult to comprehend his ease at levity as the witty yet contemplative squire, Jons. 
 
bibi anderson, liv ullman, persona, directed by ingmar bergman
Bibi Anderson (Left) and Liv Ullman in Persona
On the other hand, Max von Sydow’s anguished caricature became the archetype of heroism in the new existential cinema of the 50s and the 60s. Bibi Anderson’s role of a happy-go-lucky wife also offers a great contrast to her complex portrayals in other Bergman masterpieces like Persona (1966)Like a quintessential Bergman movie, the synergy between breathtaking imagery and titillating music is omnipresent. Several scenes in the movie serve to be great moments of epiphany: be it the one that features the procession of flagellants imitating the Dance of Death, or the one that depicts the immolation of young girl condemned for supposedly consorting with the Devil, or the final scene that depicts the Grim reaper leading its newly claimed victims over the hills in a solemn Dance of Death. The sequence that depicts the knight and his companions savoring the wild strawberries and warm milk amidst the incipient darkness epitomizes hope as the highest cinematic virtue; the scene that depicts the theologian Raval writhing in pain helplessly (before finally succumbing to Death) in his final few moments represents cinema as its most macabre.          

dance of death in seventh seal, directed by ingmar bergman
The Seventh Seal Finale: Dance of Death
Overall, The Seventh Seal demonstrates the true power and purpose of cinema by serving to be a quintessential work on existentialism. Here, Bergman is at his most imaginative and insightful in portraying the epic battle of life versus death. The Seventh Seal complements brilliantly the themes of melancholy and pessimism with those of euphoria and optimism. The movie also demonstrates the human ability to rise after a fall, the very ability that given him the power to snatch victory even from the jaws of defeat. The questions that Bergman asks of his viewers in The Seventh Seal have the power to perplex a soothsayer and make an omniscient look doubtful, and perhaps it is the probing ability of 'The Seventh Seal' that makes its viewing challenging and nigh unbearable for the unscrupulous. The movie is highly recommended to all those who are not averse to savoring cinema that’s auteur-driven as well as thought-provoking. The Seventh Seal can also serve as an entry point of Bergman’s decorated oeuvre as its lays down the foundation of his more complex explorations as propagated through his subsequent works. Hence, it's is a great means to get acquainted with Bergman’s body of work before exploring his exceedingly challenging works like Persona, The Winter Light, Cries & Whispers (1972), etc. A must watch! 

Readers, please feel free to share your opinion by leaving your comments. As always your feedback is highly appreciated!  

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4 comments:

  1. Great Post Mutrtaza !! I really enjoyed all the info in the first few paragraphs. Even I always thought of Seventh Seal as the movie that made Bergman Bergman, if you know what I mean.

    I saw The Seventh Seal very recently. For some reason, I always thought it will not be very accessible like other more famous Bergman's work Persona or Cries and Whisper. But I was surprised to see how accessible it was, especially as you said for a movie that typified art cinema. One more thing that I also appreciate about it is A movie that is essentially about Death, there is so much hope in it. Scene in which they are all sitting around, drinking milk and eating wild strawberries really has made a great impact on me. 

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  2. Thanks Shantanu for those kind words! I had watched it for the first time about 3 years back and being new to such kind of thought-provoking cinema I was caught in a kind of a limbo. It took me some time to come to terms with it's through might and power. I have been wanting to review it for some time, but couldn't muster the courage. Finally, I decided to watch it again... and to my surprise, I ended up having an experience of a lifetime. Thinks appear so different and so clear! I had followed a similar approach for Tarkovsky's Stalker and it had been of great help. Btw, you are absolutely right about the latent hope in Bergman's works despite the apparent pessimism that they seems to propagate.    

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  3. Bhavana UpadhyayaJune 6, 2012 at 12:42 PM

    Your post is always so rich in content-it is dense and deep and well written. I wish you were in my city and we had a movie club and you could give lectures before and after the movie. It would make the reading so much enriching! Now it is hard for me to follow without watching Seventh Seal again--I watched it long time back...:(

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  4. Thanks Bhavana for those kind words! The movies made by greats like Kurosawa, Fellini, Bergman, Bunuel, Tarkovsky demand such type of deep and detailed analysis.  I feel burdened when I am not able to justify their cinematic brilliance and supremacy as art. Btw, the idea of a movie club is a tempting one... maybe sometime in the near future we can actaully formulate something on those lines :-P

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