Cineastes everywhere may be in love with Ingmar Bergman’s films; he’s won all kinds of international awards, including the Golden Palm of Palms at Cannes and an honorary Oscar in 1971. However, making films in Sweden has fostered a need among some filmmakers to develop an opinion on this giant and many of his younger peers have chosen to distance themselves. His movies are too old-fashioned, theatrical and out of touch is one common assessment.
Still, watching his perhaps greatest masterpiece, The Seventh Seal, makes one think of not only how groundbreaking it was in its time but how intellectually challenging it is. Nowadays, few Swedish films try to achieve what Bergman was looking for.
In the 14th century, the plague is ravishing Sweden. Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), a knight, and his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand), have recently returned from the Crusades only to find more misery in the country they once left behind. Block often plays chess on his own – or so it seems. What Jöns doesn’t know is that Death (Bengt Ekerot) has followed them for some time, engaging Block in matches. The knight figures that these duels can forestall his own demise, and Death enjoys playing games with Block. As the knight and the squire journey through the countryside, they encounter people who have succumbed to the plague as well as representatives of the church who are too busy hunting down “witches” to offer much solace to a population in need.
But they also meet a couple of actors (Nils Poppe, Bibi Andersson) who are traveling with their infant son and a manager, offering people a few laughs wherever they can. Block appreciates their company, but is constantly reminded of the danger of having Death as a companion…
Depressing theme is alleviated by a sense of humor
One of the boldest and most interesting Swedish films ever made, The Seventh Seal has Bergman taking his personal misgivings about religion and putting them on display. In his view, there may be a God but he is awfully silent, even in the face of unspeakable evil. Even the title of the film, lifted from the Book of Revelation, is a reference to a God who remains quiet. This silence is filled by oppressive, punishing interpretations of his words, as articulated by a church that commits murder in God’s name. It doesn’t take a genius to recognize Bergman’s own experiences in the matter, having been raised by a very strict father who was a priest. Few films at this time were as critical of organized religion. At the same time, this depressing theme is alleviated by a great sense of humor, represented by Poppe whose actor specializes in comedies and Björnstrand whose cynicism becomes a welcome sarcastic and witty counterbalance to Block’s earnestness and the silly marital quarrels between a blacksmith and his unfaithful wife.
The cast is worth kudos, including von Sydow whose thoughts on death and self-sacrifice turns him into a Christ figure. As for the medieval setting, there are plenty of mistakes; once the plague hit Sweden the Crusades were long over, and so-called witches were rarely burned at the stake prior to the 1600s… but Bergman was hardly out to make a historically accurate epic. Several scenes are now classic, and often spoofed, brilliantly staged by cinematographer Gunnar Fischer. They include the climactic Dance of Death and the first chess match set to the backdrop of a raging ocean.
Modern Swedish filmmakers are more interested in portraying social interactions and upheavals. Doing what Bergman did may look awfully conservative today, but we should never forget that The Seventh Seal changed Sweden as a moviemaking country at its core.
The Seventh Seal 1957-Sweden. 96 min. B/W. Produced by Allan Ekelund. Play (“Wood Painting”), Screenplay and Direction by Ingmar Bergman. Cinematography: Gunnar Fischer. Music: Erik Nordgren. Cast: Max von Sydow (Antonius Block), Gunnar Björnstrand (Jöns), Nils Poppe (Jof), Bibi Andersson, Bengt Ekerot, Åke Fridell… Inga Gill, Gunnel Lindblom, Inga Landgré, Anders Ek, Gudrun Brost, Mona Malm, Tor Isedal, Gösta Prüzelius.
Trivia: Original title: Det sjunde inseglet.
Last word: “The image of the Dance of Death beneath the dark cloud was achieved at hectic speed because most of the actors had finished for the day. Assistants, electricians, and a make-up man and about two summer visitors, who never knew what it was all about, had to dress up in the costumes of those condemned to death. A camera with no sound was set up and the picture shot before the cloud dissolved.” (Bergman, “Magic Lantern”)