Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal immediately became a classic staple in art film culture, and couldn't have been released at a more perfect time. The legendary works of Carl Theodor Dreyer were sadly neglected and so film-goers were startled with The Seventh Seal's upsetting imagery of its scorching beaches and bleak glades, its high contrast black and white cinematography, its ghastly symbolism, its Scandinavian aesthetics, its morbid wit and existential dialogue, and equal attention to religious-ethical concerns in a possibly godforsaken universe. The Seventh Seal suddenly launched art-house cinema stardom along with Bergman, leading actor Max von Sydow, and distributor Janus Films, and the film began to hold a place in movie annals as secure as that of Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin and Orson Welles Citizen Kane or any other earthshaking classic you care to name. The films iconic shot of Death playing chess with a Knight, and of its climatic sequence of the knight and of his followers being led away over the hills in a solemn dance of death, became a landmark in pop culture history and American reviewers emphasized the film’s cerebral artsiness with Bosley Crowther of the New York Times describing the film as “essentially intellectual” and “as tough and rewarding a screen challenge as the moviegoer has had to face this year". The Seventh Seal's story is a simple one: A man seeks answers about life, death, and the existence of God as he plays chess against the Grim Reaper during the Black Plague. The boldness of The Seventh Seal's symbolism and brooding uncompromising subject matter was immediately apprehensible to people trained in literary culture who were just beginning to discover the ‘art’ of film, along with critics and readers of Cahiers du Cinema who were discovering Bergman for the first time. With the rise of the Auteur Theory The Seventh Seal suddenly became the quintessential art film of high school and college literature courses discovering Bergman's recurring themes such as 'The fear of death' and the 'absence of God' which were grim subjects the director would endlessly explore throughout his career, taking different shapes, and several different forms.
The opening shot is a crow in the dreary sky. On a beach the waves are crashing intensely as you see a knight sprawled on the land with a chessboard perfectly lying next to him. The knight is named Antonius Block (Max Von Sydow), returning with his nihilistic squire Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand), after fighting in the Crusades and find Sweden being ravaged by the Black Plague. On the beach immediately after their arrival, Block encounters Death (The Grim Reaper) personified as a pale, black-cowled figure resembling a monk.
"Who are you?"
"I am Death."
"Have you come for me?"
"I've long been at your side. Are you ready?"
"My flesh is afraid, but I am not."
They both stare at the chess board that's sitting comfortably on land, with its pieces intact. The knight asks Death to a game of chess. Death agrees.
"As long as I hold out against you I get to live. And if I win you set me free--You drew black."
"Very appropriate don't you think?"
Block distracts Death and forestalls his demise by asking him to play a game of chess and makes a proposition. If he beats him in the game Death has to set him free, but if he losses he will gladly let Death claim him. Death agrees, and they start a game and after Block is finished with his first round of chess with Death, (other characters in the film don't see Death, they just witness Block playing alone) Block and his squire Jons travel for Block's castle for safety; where they believe the upcoming plague won't touch them.
The film then introduces Jof and his wife Mia (Bibi Andersson), their baby son, Mikael, and Skat who are all traveling actors. Jof has supernatural visions that others cannot see and one morning waking up he swears he sees the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus. Mia is skeptical of his visions which he has proclaimed he has seen many times in the past. Mia believes it's his imagination, but Jof swears he can see things most others cannot. "You and your visions," she says.
Meanwhile along there travels the knight and the squire enter a church where a painting Jons sees is of the upcoming plague and a fresco of the Dance of Death is being painted. Jöns decides to draw a small figure representing himself. "This is squire Jons. He grins at Death; his world is a Jons-world, believable only to himself, ridiculous to all including himself, meaningless to Heaven and of no interest to Hell." That of course upsets Block who overhears him because of his sudden confrontation with Death earlier on.
One of the best scenes of the film is when Block enters a church in the village and get's on his knees staring at a grotesque statue of Jesus on the cross. Block sees a confession booth and decides to confess his sins to the person inside of it, not knowing it is Death himself that he is confessing too.
"We carve an idol out of our fear and call it God. Must it be so cruelly inconceivable to know God with one's senses? Why does he hide in a cloud of half-promises and unseen miracles? How can we believe in the believers when we don't believe ourselves? What will happen to us who want to believe, but cannot? What about those who neither want to nor can believe? Why can't I kill God in me? Why does He live on in me in a humiliating way - despite my wanting to evict Him from my heart? Why is He, despite all, a mocking reality I can't be rid of? I want knowledge! Not faith, not assumptions, but knowledge. I want God to stretch out His hand, uncover His face and speak to me. "
"But He remains silent. "
"I call out to Him in the darkness. But it's as if no one was there."
"Perhaps there isn't anyone."
"Then life is a preposterous horror. No man can live faced with Death, knowing everything's nothingness. "
"Most people think neither of death nor nothingness."
"But one day you stand at the edge of life and face darkness."
"I met Death today. We are playing chess. My life has been a futile pursuit, a wandering, a great deal of talk without meaning. I feel no bitterness or self-reproach because the lives of most people are very much like this. But I will use my reprieve for one meaningful deed."
After giving away his strategy in the chess game, Block discovers that his listener is Death. "You tricked me," Block says and leaves the church. Right after leaving the church, Block sees a young woman who has been condemned to be burnt alive for supposedly consorting with the Devil. He wants to speak with her but the villagers wont let him afraid that she will put a demonic spell on him.
Shortly afterwards, Jons searches a village for water, and walks into an abandoned house where he watches a man robbing a corpse. He then sees him attack a servant girl who happened to walk in and catch him, and before being attacked and raped by the man Jons steps out of the shadows and saves her.
Jons recognises this man whose name is Raval, a theologian, who ten years ago had convinced Block to leave his wife and join a crusade to the Holy Land. Jons promises him that if he catches him attacking anyone again he is going to brand his face.
The girl eventually joins Jons for saving her life and Block, Jons and the servant girl ride into the next town, where Jof, Mia and Skat's acting troupe are performing. On the stage Skat introduces Jof and Mia to the crowd, but is lusting over Lisa, the blacksmith's wife, who is slowly beckoning him to run off together after the show. Jof and Mia's performance is making everyone in the crowd laugh and entertain with their silly routine until it is suddenly interrupted by the arrival of a procession of flagellants who are all marching in praying to God and condemning themselves of the arrival of the plague by whipping themselves along the back.
Later on that day at a public house a blacksmith named Plog who is Lisa's husband comes across Jof and tells him that an actor ran out with his wife. Jof, making fun of the situation says "Whether he ran out with your wife or not, you should kill him for just being an actor."
When Raval butts in and points out that Jof is an actor and the man who ran out with Plog's wife is part of Jof's troupe, Plog and Raval pick a fight with Jof. Ravel gets violent and forces Jof to dance on the tables like a bear, while everyone inside is laughing and mocking him. Jons walks in and sees Plog humiliating Jof and so stays true to his word slices Raval's face.
Meanwhile Death confronts Block once again to continue their chess game. "I been waiting", Death says as he suddenly steps into the camera shot with his pale white face partially hidden under that black robe. While continuing their game Block notices Mia and her son Mikael having lunch and he tells Death they will continue the game later. Mia politely invites Block over to enjoy a nice country picnic of milk and 'wild strawberries.' (Hence the title of his next film.)
Block accepts and says, "I'll carry this memory between my hands as if it were bowl filled to the brim with fresh milk...and it will be an adequate sign – it will be enough for me." When Jons comes back with Jof and Plog who apologized to Jof for losing his temper, Block decides to invite them all on his travels to his castle, where they will be safer from the incoming plague.
Traveling in the forest, they come across Skat and Lisa. Lisa, dissatisfied with Skat, returns to her husband. This is one of the few comedic scenes in this dark film where you can tell Jons does not have a great affection for women and is helping Plog say the right words when confronting Skat about running off with his wife.
Lisa instigates the fight trying to egg Plog on by telling him to kill Skat and Jon says, "Good lord, why did you give us women?" Plog decides not to quarrel with Skat especially after Skat uses a trick knife and pretends he killed himself.
After the others leave, Skat gets up and smiles at his acting performance and decides to climb a tree for the night. In one of the films iconic moments, after Skat is high enough on the tree, Death appears below and starts cutting it down, informing the actor that his "time is up." When Skat pleads that there must be "special rules for actors", Death responds that Skat's "performance is cancelled on account of death, " and the tree breaks off and kills him. (The last shot showing the stump and a squirrel hopping on top of it was merely an accident of chance in the filming but Bergman loved it and left it in.)
The seven travelers eventually come across the condemned woman again who is guilty of consorting with the Devil where she is scheduled to be burned at the stake that very day. As the villagers are setting up her execution Block notices the girls hands have been broken. He asks a villager why they have broken her hands, and they say "they didn't" and to ask the monk over there. Suddenly Block looks over and there's Death in the distance. The knight demands to Death, "What have you done with the child?" Death asks, "Do you never stop asking questions?" Block answers, "No. Never."
This is Block's chance for the answers to his questions and so he confronts the possessed woman and asks her to summon Satan, so he can ask him about God. The girl claims that she already has done so and for Block to look into her eyes, but Block does not see him. Block tells her the only thing he sees in her eyes is "dumb terror," and gives her herbs to take away her pain.
As they start the execution Block and Jon are witnessing the woman being burned at the stake and are helpless to stop it. Jon asks Block, "The Angels. God. Satan. Or just emptiness?" Block answers, "NO! Nothingness!! NO!!!" While she is being burned you can see Death in the background on his knees praying.
As they continue their journey through the forest Raval reappears dying of the plague, and he pleads for water. The servant girl attempts to bring him some, but Jon stops her and tells her it's no use. They don't get near Raval as he is screaming, "I'm afraid of dying, I don't want to die!!!" and he finally collapses. Jon says there's nothing more they can do and decide to move on.
That evening they decide to rest which will be the last time Block and Death can finish their game of chess. While they are playing Jof with his sixth sense tells Mia that he can see the knight playing chess with Death. Mia looks up and just sees Block playing by himself but Jof is convinced with his visions especially this one. Out of fear for his wife and child he decides for them to flee from the group and get as far away from Death as they can while Death is preoccupied with Block.
While finishing their game Death makes a point of Block's new fellow companions. Death states that Block looks worried after he brought up his companions. Curious on what Death is getting at Block states, "Nothing escapes you." Death answers, "Nothing escapes me. No one escapes me."
Block realizes that the group he brought along could be in potential danger of Death's presence so to distract Death longer so Jof and Mia get a better heads start he purposely knocks the chess pieces over and tells Death he forgot where the pieces were supposed to be on the board. Death slowly smiles and says "I haven't" as he picks up the chess pieces and puts them correctly back on the board in there original places. Death finally wins the game on his next move and announces to Block that his time and all those traveling with him-will be up.
"When my time is up will you finally reveal your secrets?"
"I have no secrets."
"So you know nothing?"
"I am unknowing."
Near the end of the film Mia and Jof have slipped away, Block and the rest of the group finally reach Block's castle on top of the mountains. When all five walk in the castle, Block sees his wife waiting for him. She heard he returned from war and expected he would be coming back. The knight is finally reunited with his wife, and they all share one 'last supper' while his wife reads the same passage that was shown in the prologue of the film.
She suddenly stops reading as all of them turn and look at who has entered the castle. Death has entered and has come for them like he had promised. Block gets on his knees and prays to God pleading for his life saying, "God you who are somewhere, must be somewhere, please have mercy on us, because we are small and frightened and ignorant." All five of them introduce themselves to Death before he takes them on his journey and the servant girl with an expression of fear and excitement gets on her knees before Death and says her only line in the film. "It is finished."
In one of the most memorable final scenes in film history, Mia, her husband Jof and their baby Mikael surviving the horrifying night, now wake up safe to a beautiful and sunny new day, and a new beginning for the rest of their lives.
That morning Jof and his wife are getting ready to continue on with their journey when Jof has another vision and can clearly see from faraway the knight and his followers being led away over the hills, all holding hands in a solemn dance of death. Jof describes this beautiful yet tragic vision, "They bear away from their light, while their strict lord Death bids them to dance... and the rain washes, and cleanses the salt of their tears from their cheeks." Mia of course can't see what he sees and she says once again being skeptical, "You and your visions."
The script for the The Seventh Seal was commenced while Bergman was in the Karolinska Hospital in Stockholm recovering from a stomach complaint. It was at first rejected and Bergman was given the go-ahead for the project from Carl-Anders Dymling at Svensk Filmindustri only after the success at Cannes of Smiles of a Summer Night.
Bergman rewrote the script five times and was given a schedule of only thirty-five days and a budget of $150,000 and it was to be the seventeenth film he had directed. All scenes except two were shot in or around the Filmstaden studios in Solna. The exceptions were the famous opening scene with Death and the Knight playing chess by the sea and the ending with the dance of death, which were both shot at Hovs Hallar, a rocky, precipitous beach area in north-western Scania.
In the Magic Lantern autobiography Bergman writes of the film's iconic penultimate shot: "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."
Much of the film's Middle Ages imagery is derived from medieval art. For example, Bergman has stated that the image of a man playing chess with a skeletal Death was inspired by a medieval church painting from the 1480s in Täby kyrka, Täby, north of Stockholm, painted by Albertus Pictor. The title in the beginning of the film refers to a passage about the end of the world from the Book of Revelation, used both at the very start of the film, and again towards the end, beginning with the words."
However, the medieval Sweden portrayed in this movie includes creative anachronisms. The last Swedish crusade (the third) took place in 1293 and the Black Death hit Europe in 1348. In addition, the flagellant movement was foreign to Sweden, and large-scale witch persecutions only began in the 15th century. Generally speaking, historians have all argued that the late Middle Ages of the 14th century was a period of "doom and gloom" similar to what is reflected in this film, characterized by a feeling of pessimism, an increase in a penitential style of piety that was slightly masochistic, all aggravated by various disasters such as the Black Plague, famine, the Hundred Years' War between France and England, and papal schism. This is sometimes called the crisis of the Late Middle Ages and Barbara Tuchman regards the 14th century as "a distant mirror" of the 20th century in a way that echoes Bergman's sensibilities. Nonetheless, the period of the Crusades is well before this era; they took place in a more optimistic period.
And when the Lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour" (Revelation 8:1). Thus, in the confessional scene the knight states: "Is it so cruelly inconceivable to grasp God with the senses? Why should He hide himself in a mist of half-spoken promises and unseen miracles?" Similarly, later, as he eats the strawberries with the family of actors, Antonius Block says: "Faith is a torment – did you know that? It is like loving someone who is out there in the darkness but never appears, no matter how loudly you call. Some believe that the concept of the "Silence of God" in the face of evil, or the pleas of believers or would-be-believers, may be influenced by the punishments of silence made out by Bergman's strict father. Interestingly, in Bergman's original radio play sometimes translated as A Painting on Wood, the figure of Death in a Dance of Death is represented not by an actor, but by silence, "mere nothingness, mere absence...terrifying...the void."
Strong influences on the film were Bibi Andersson (with whom Bergman was in a relationship 1955–59) who played the juggler's wife Mia, Picasso's picture of the two acrobats, Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, Strindberg's Folk Sagas and To Damascus, the frescoes at Haskeborga church and a painting by Albertus Pictor in Täby kyrka. Just prior to shooting Bergman directed for radio the Play of Everyman by Hugo von Hofmannstahl. By this time he had also directed plays by Shakespeare, Strindberg, Camus, Chesterton, Anouilh, Tennessee Williams, Pirandello, Lehár, Molière and Ostrovsky.
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.
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.
In the words of film critic Roger Ebert, "some filmmakers are born. Ingmar Bergman was made. Self-made." Bergman was born in 1918 in Uppsala and was the son of a Lutheran minister being raised with a strict and intense religious upbringing. Since his father worked as a charismatic rector young Bergman used to help the gardener carry corpses from the Royal Hospital Sophiahemmet to the mortuary where his father was chaplain. Growing up, young Bergman became fascinated by the themes of death and the bleak side of humanity which brought upon his fascination with Adolf Hitler and the horrors of the holocaust.
Bergman originally started out in the theater, and when most people think of Bergman and his work they think of it to be bleak, brooding and depressing, and in many cases that’s true; but they were also thought provoking, exciting and extremely entertaining. Interestingly enough, despite living a Bohemian lifestyle in partial rebellion against his upbringing, Bergman often signed his scripts with the initials "S.D.G" (Soli Deo Gloria) – "To God Alone The Glory" – just as JS Bach did at the end of every musical composition.
When he first started out in films a lot of his smaller works like Summer with Monika weren't commercial successes. When he did Sawdust and Tinsel and The Magician you could see his bleak chamber-drama style and themes slowly start to creep through his storylines. His film The Virgin Spring was a disturbing tale about a group of men who brutally rape and kill a young woman and they unknowingly ask for food and shelter from the girl's parents, setting the stage for chilling revenge, and won Bergman his first Foreign Language Oscar. Ironically his big break came when he decided to direct Smiles of a Summer Night, which was an absurd comedy of manners which also included many of Bergman's bleak themes of infidelity and tragedy. Smiles of a Summer Night was not only one of the few comedies he directed, but the one commercial success that gave the Swedish studios the confidence to finally give Bergman more artistic freedom in his projects to do what he wanted; and Bergman took great advantage of it.
In 1957 Bergman directed two of his most acclaimed films, The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries. Both stories are about men coming to the ends of their lives and are on a journey to discover the meaning of life and the absence of God. Both films were well received but it was The Seventh Seal that became Bergman’s Auteur signature on what kind of artist he truly was, and gained his position as a world-class director. Wild Strawberries starred the great Swedish director Victor Sjöström (whom directed the silent film The Phantom Carriage) as he played a widowed professor who confronts his past torments, regrets and sins he had made throughout his younger life.
After Wild Strawberries Bergman's themes expanded in more radical and creative ways and in the 60's created his spiritual trilogy, Winter Light about a priest questioning his faith, Through a Glass Darkly, about a woman who believes God came to her in the form of a spider and The Silence, which is about two sisters and their unhappy and tense relationship. Within five years since The Seventh Seal, he had established himself as the first real auteur of Swedish cinema. His surreal art masterpiece Persona was where he experimented with the laws of film once again with the opening scene as being one of the greatest and most beautiful art forms of the cinema. The narrative in Persona even shifts as well, where two character's start to merge with one another and begin to form as one person. Both of his favorite leading ladies Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson played the nurse and the patient and are very similar in looks and features, that when Bergman does the classic shot of juxtaposing both faces together as one, it's quite frightening.
Cries and Whispers was one of Bergman's most bleak and painful films about the bitterness and contempt between three sisters, and was one of his first films he shot in color focusing distinctively on the color red, believing red was the color of ones soul. Eventually the Swedish film company gave Bergman all the freedoms any director could ever have and let him film on his own private land on Fårö Island. There he made some of his most fascinating art films which were Shame his only film that dealt with the effects of war, Hour of the Wolf which is a sort of vampire like horror film and The Passion of Anna which shows the miscommunication of husband and wife, all three starring actor Max Van Sydow and actress Liv Ullmann playing both the parts of husband and wife.
Bergman eventually worked a lot in television movies as well which broke new ground for Swedish television. Scenes from a Marriage was a extremely bleak dialog driven film about a deteriorating marriage, and then you have Bergman's adaptation of Mozart's opera The Magic Flute, which was shot like you were watching the story live on the stage. And finally it comes down to Bergman's final swan song Fanny and Alexander, which pretty summed up all his thoughts, feelings, and themes that he used over the decades in film and on stage to create one epic five and a half hour masterpiece.
And yet it is the The Seventh Seal that became Bergman’s iconic signature on what kind of artist he truly was. The Seventh Seal is set during the Middle Ages and tells the classic story of a Knight named Antonius Block and of his friend and squire Jons as they both return home from the Crusades, while a Black Plague is slowly sweeping through their country. As they approach home, Death appears to Block (only Block can see him) and Death tells him that it is his time. Block instead makes Death an offer and challenges him to a game of chess and if Block defeats him he will be allowed to live. Death accepts the challenge and the game slowly continues as Block and Jons try and make their journey back to the Knight’s castle along with a group of traveling performers named Jof and his wife Mia.
The classic shot of Death playing chess with a Knight has now become a landmark in pop culture history and every film historian and film buff knows of it. When The Seventh Seal was released in 1957 it startled filmgoers with its upsetting imagery of the scorching beaches and bleak glades, its high contrast black and white cinematography, the bleak symbolism and religious ethical concerns on such themes of the ‘fear of death’ and ‘the absence of God.’ Fear of death and the absence of God are two common Auteur Theories that Bergman uses throughout the Seventh Seal and he uses again it throughout his career, taking many different forms and shapes.
Within the themes of ‘The fear of Death’ Bergman seems to come to terms with death on a massive scale as he uses the theme of the Black Plague as a metaphor for the concern of 21st century disasters, like global warming, climate-change, and earthquakes. Bergman even acknowledged a correlation between his vision of the Middle Ages and the mid-century fear of atomic devastation of the 1950’s. Not only can the film be looked at as a doomsday metaphor but with its grotesque images of death, it can also be looked as a form of manifestation of modern memento more and within its characters is a reminder of our own mortality as well.
When Block first confronts Death on the beach for the first time in the beginning of the film the dialogue between the two characters isn’t necessarily about the subject of Death, but about playing the game of chess. Block doesn’t seem to be too concerned with his fate at that moment and instead wants Death to answer him some existential questions that he has, which are the form of questions every human wants to know the answer to like: “What is the meaning of life?” Of course Death does not answer any of Block’s questions but simply states, “You ask too many questions.” These direct religious themes of God and death drew from Bergman’s strict religious childhood as he states in an interview: “When one is born and raised in the home of a minister, one has a chance at an early age to catch a glimpse behind the scenes of life and death. Father conducts a funeral, father officiates at a wedding, father performs a baptism, acts as a mediator, writes a sermon. The Devil became an early acquaintance."
Bergman also recalled in another interview on how he accompanied his father on several trips to countryside churches where the medieval wall paintings and carved figures of the Dance of Death greatly fascinated him. Several of these figures appear in The Seventh Seal right from the opening shot of the sea eagle hovering in the grey sky while you hear a narration for the Book of Revelations: “And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.” The film imagines the medieval past through a series of images of death that ultimately scares human beings, namely the figure of Death himself, the skull, Christ on the cross and the infamous ending of the Dance of Death.
The Dance of Death is a symbol that appears three times in the film The Seventh Seal. The first time it occurs it is more subtle as it appears in mural of a rural church where Block and Jons visit as Jon’s talks with the painter. It appears a second time when Jof and Mia’s comedy performance is interrupted by a marching parade of flagellants flogging themselves, praying and chanting as one person carries a wooden crucifix. And the third time it appears is in the final scene of the film as Jof and his family make their escape from Death’s wrath, and Jof can see the Dance of Death in the open countryside with his wife believing her husband is having another one of his so called visions.
Bergman is known for his theme of ‘The Absence of God.’ The doubtful idealistic Knight Antonious Block is a man who seeks some form of proof in the existence of God and the Devil, and throughout his journey he gets no answers, even from Death himself. In one of the best scenes of the film Block enters a church and heads to a confessional unaware that Death is behind the grill playing the part as the priest as Block asks a series of existential questions saying: “We carve an idol out of fear and call it God. Must it be so cruelly inconceivable to know God with one’s senses? Why does he hide in a cloud of half-promises and unseen miracles? How can we believe in the believers when we don’t believe ourselves? What will happen to us who want to believe, but cannot? I want knowledge! Not faith, not assumptions, but knowledge. I want God to stretch out His hand, uncover His face and speak to me.”
Block confesses that his death is forthcoming but would like to perform one meaningful deed before he dies, and will try to hold off Death in the game of chess as long as he can. Block later even tries to pry the proof of God and the devil through an encounter with a young girl who the authorities pronounced is possessed by the Devil, a charge that sentences her to be burned at the stake. Before her execution Block tries his best to get what proof he can that the girl is for sure the Devil herself, but hearing her nonsensical words he instead discovers that the girl is merely a frightened and deluded individual, caught within a society of superstitions and hysteria.
Each character within The Seventh Seal is said to represent each part of the human spirit. Block and Jons are polar opposites, in which Block is the part that worries and doubts, tormenting himself to discover any kind of proof and facts of God's existence, while Jon the squire seems to be more confident with his Agnosticism and less fearful with the mysteries of the universe. When Death arrives at the end to claim everyone Block cries out to God begging for his life while Jons calmly accepts his fate unafraid insisting on his right as a man "to feel the immense triumph of the final moment, when you can still roll your eyes and wiggle your toes."
In several ways Jons is the heart of The Seventh Seal, and the stories true form of consciousness, and rationality. Jons is honest and confident enough to speak out against the stupidity of the war that him and Block have fought for saying, "our crusade was so stupid that only a true idealist could have thought it up," and also religious pageantry saying, "Is that sustenance for modern people? Do they expect us to take it seriously?" When asked by the blacksmith if he believes in his own speakings Jons says, "who says I believe it? But for a word of advice and I'll give you two. I'm a man of learning, after all." He also has his pessimistic view of the female sex, and knows how treacherous they can be to a man stating, "Good lord, why did you give us women?" He is very optimistic on the absurdity of men, and of worldly things and yet has a sharp wit of irony and humor with the atrocious acts that he observes around him, and seems content with them.
Jofs is the comedic character in the story who diverts his family from death near the end of the film. He seems to be the only character that seems to have a paranormal sense of seeing things that no one else can see and his wife Mia seems to be the skeptic, not believing her husband’s supernatural visions.
Jof's wife Mia is one of the five female characters in the film who was not claimed by death. Lisa, the blacksmith's wife who commits infidelity, Block's wife who gladly waits and welcomes her husband's arrival home, the young witch (who probably was delusional) bound and burned at the stake, and last but not least is the tragic servant girl who was saved by rape and remains a silent enigma throughout the whole film; until the very end when Death claims them all, and she welcomes him with a happy relief and saying her only words: “It is finished.”
In The Seventh Seal Bergman acknowledged a correlation between his vision of the Middle Ages and the mid-century fear of atomic devastation of the 1950s. He must have been mindful of the ongoing fear of end-of-day scenarios with the rise of nuclear weapons and when the film opened in Stockholm in February 1957; it was at a time when several other films that featured themes of apocalypses, plagues and holocausts were being released around the world.
The Seventh Seal was released at a time when the great works of Carl Theodor Dreyer was sadly forgotten, in which Bergman used such similar spiritual themes and took them to a completely different artistic level. The Seventh Seal's reflections on life and death, and it's existential symbolism was immediately apprehensible to people trained in literary culture who were just beginning to discover the ‘art’ of film, along with critics and readers of Cahiers du Cinema who were discovering Bergman for the first time.were just beginning to discover the ‘art’ of film, with critics and readers of Cahiers du Cinema among others, discovered Bergman with this film. With the rise of the Auteur Theory the film suddenly became a staple of high school and college literature courses and Bergman wrote in his autobiography The Magic Lantern, “Wood painting gradually became The Seventh Seal, an uneven film which lies close to my heart, because it was made under difficult circumstances in a surge of vitality and delight.” But the boldness of The Seventh Seal is what gives it its everlasting power; which is why it's hailed as one of the greatest films in the world. Even today The Seventh Seal is the iconic film that most film buffs associate director Ingmar Bergman with, and the classic scene of Death playing chess with a Knight from the crusades has become parodied several times in our pop culture, from Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey to Woody Allen's Love and Death. The absence of God carries itself throughout the film and the answer if he/she exists or not is never answered or explained and Bergman purposely leaves its answers ambiguous. A story like The Seventh Seal wouldn’t be understood with the modern audience, because people are now used to themes of psychology and answers to the human mind and not fantastic stories about the boogeyman. The Seventh Seal closely resembled more themes from the silent era, from films like F.W. Murnau’s Faust or even Victor SJostrom’s The Phantom Carriage, which was the film’s original inspiration. These days with evolution, science and psychology it’s less with people about the questions of God and the Devil and more about the questions on the human mind. Bergman seemed to realize this and updated and modified his themes throughout his career with such films as Persona, Cries and Whispers and Scenes from a Marriage. When making what many critics consider his swan song Fanny and Alexander, Bergman seemed to combine all that he had loved from film and the stage, combining all his older themes like God, magic, ghosts, fantasy, and the supernatural, along with the new like pathology, identity, philosophy, psychology, and the human mind. When The Seventh Seal was first released in the late fifties it startled American filmgoers with its unsettling imagery, the scorching beaches and bleak glades, its high contrast black and white cinematography, the bleak symbolism and religious ethical concerns with the absence of God. American critics hailed the films imagery and Bosley Crowther of the New York Times described the film as being "essentially intellectual" and "as touch and rewarding...a screen challenge as the moviegoers has had to face this year." Unlike Hollywood movies, The Seventh Seal clearly was aware of elite artistic culture and was readily appreciated by intellectual audiences, and now today the film has been regarded since its release as a masterpiece and one of the greatest films in the world. It was Ranked #8 in Empire magazines The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema in 2010. The Seventh Seal is a landmark of the cinema, with its stark imagery and its uncompromising subject matter, which might bother some people. I can remember so clearly this film being not only one of the first Criterion DVDs that I purchased but it being one of the first real art films that I ever witnessed on the screen. The Seventh Seal and Bergman’s themes on the Absence of God and the Fear of Death have deeply effected many viewers all over the world; including me. I greatly relate to the main protagonist Antonius Block, and I understood his anger and frustration on believing in a God who cannot even show himself at a time where there's death, poverty, war and human suffering. The Seventh Seal became one of the most important films in my life and Ingmar Bergman became one of my all time favorite film artists. To sum it up for me, without The Seventh Seal, I wouldn't be doing this website. It was a film that wasn't afraid to ask the questions we all want to know the answers to. Did God create man or did man create God? How can one believe in something when there is very little proof to believe? How can you believe in God if you don’t believe in the believers who believe in him? Why does God seem to be silent, even during mankind’s most atrocious and evil acts? In many ways The Seventh Seal is a modernistic story that discusses the doubts of faith of a human being and Bergman embraces these ideas on doubt. And yet these universal questions doesn't necessary make The Seventh Seal a religious or anti-religious film because Bergman gives no explanations or answers to any of its themes and leaves the films message ambiguous. Bergman instead seems to be reassuring the audience that it’s OK to doubt and ask questions, which is one of the many drives why artists keep making movies, because they keep asking questions in which they will never know the answers to.