The Seventh Seal
|The Seventh Seal|
|Directed by||Ingmar Bergman|
|Screenplay by||Ingmar Bergman|
by Ingmar Bergman (play)
|Produced by||Allan Ekelund|
|Edited by||Lennart Wallén|
|Music by||Erik Nordgren|
|Distributed by||AB Svensk Filmindustri|
The Seventh Seal (Swedish: Det sjunde inseglet) is a 1957 Swedish historical fantasy film written and directed by Ingmar Bergman. Set in Sweden during the Black Death, it tells of the journey of a medieval knight (Max von Sydow) and a game of chess he plays with the personification of Death (Bengt Ekerot), who has come to take his life. Bergman developed the film from his own play Wood Painting. The title refers to a passage from the Book of Revelation, used both at the very start of the film, and again towards the end, beginning with the words "And when the Lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour".[Rev. 8:1] Here, the motif of silence refers to the "silence of God", which is a major theme of the film.
The Seventh Seal is considered a classic of world cinema, as well as one of the greatest movies of all time. It established Bergman as a world-renowned director, containing scenes which have become iconic through homages, critical analysis, and parodies.
Disillusioned knight Antonius Block and his cynical squire Jöns return from the Crusades to find the country ravaged by the plague. The knight encounters Death, whom he challenges to a chess match, believing he can survive as long as the game continues. The game they start continues throughout the story.
The knight and his squire pass a caravan of actors: Jof and his wife Mia, with their infant son Mikael and actor-manager Jonas Skat. Waking early, Jof has a vision of Mary leading the infant Jesus, which he relates to a smilingly-disbelieving Mia.
Block and Jöns visit a church where a fresco of the Danse Macabre is being painted, and the squire chides the artist for colluding in the ideological fervor that led to the crusade. In the confessional, Block tells the priest he wants to perform "one meaningful deed" after what he now sees as a pointless life. Upon revealing to him the chess tactic that will save his life, the knight discovers that it is actually Death with whom he has been speaking. Leaving the church, Block speaks to a young woman condemned to be burned at the stake for consorting with the devil. He believes she will tell him about life beyond death, only to find that she is insane.
In a deserted village, Jöns saves a mute servant girl from being raped by Raval, a theologian who ten years earlier persuaded the knight to join the Crusades and is now a thief. Jöns vows to destroy his face if they meet again. The servant girl accompanies Jöns into town, where the actors are performing. There, Skat is enticed away for a tryst by Lisa, wife of the blacksmith Plog. The stage show is interrupted by a procession of flagellants led by a preacher who harangues the townspeople.
At the town's inn, Raval manipulates Plog and other customers into intimidating Jof. The bullying is broken up by Jöns, who slashes Raval's face. The knight and squire are joined by Jof's family and a repentant Plog. Block enjoys a picnic of milk and strawberries that Mia has gathered and declares, "I'll carry this memory between my hands as if it were a bowl filled to the brim with fresh milk... And it will be an adequate sign — it will be enough for me."
Block now invites Plog and the actors to shelter from the plague in his castle. When they encounter Skat and Lisa in the forest, she returns to Plog, while Skat fakes a remorseful suicide. As the group moves on, Skat climbs a tree to spend the night, but Death appears beneath and cuts down the tree.
Meeting the condemned woman being drawn to execution, Block asks her to summon Satan so he can question him about God. The girl claims she has done so, but the knight only sees her terror and gives her herbs to take away her pain as she is placed on the pyre.
They encounter Raval, stricken by the plague. Jöns stops the servant girl from uselessly bringing him water, and Raval dies alone. Jof tells his wife that he can see the knight playing chess with Death and decides to flee with his family, while Block knowingly keeps Death occupied.
As Death states "No one escapes me", Block knocks the chess pieces over but Death restores them to their place. On the next move, Death wins the game and announces that when they meet again, it will be the last time for all. Death then asks Block if he achieved the "meaningful deed" he wished to accomplish and the knight replies that he has.
Block is reunited with his wife and the party shares a final supper, interrupted by Death's arrival. The rest of the party then introduce themselves, and the mute servant girl greets him with "It is finished."
Jof and his family have sheltered in their caravan from a violent storm, which he interprets as the Angel of Death passing by. In the morning, Jof's second sight allows him to see the knight and his companions being led away over the hillside in a wild Dance of Death.
- Gunnar Björnstrand – Jöns, squire
- Bengt Ekerot – Death
- Nils Poppe – Jof
- Max von Sydow – Antonius Block, knight
- Bibi Andersson – Mia, Jof's wife
- Inga Landgré – Karin, Block's wife
- Åke Fridell – Blacksmith Plog
- Inga Gill – Lisa, blacksmith's wife
- Erik Strandmark – Jonas Skat
- Bertil Anderberg – Raval, the thief
- Gunnel Lindblom – Mute girl
- Maud Hansson – Witch
- Gunnar Olsson – Albertus Pictor, church painter
- Anders Ek – The Monk
- Benkt-Åke Benktsson – Merchant
- Gudrun Brost – Maid
- Lars Lind – Young monk
- Tor Borong – Farmer
- Harry Asklund – Inn keeper
- Ulf Johanson – Jack's leader (uncredited)
Ingmar Bergman originally wrote the play Trämålning (Wood Painting) in 1953 / 1954 for the acting students of Malmö City Theatre. Its first public performance, which he directed, was on radio in 1954. He also directed it on stage in Malmö the next spring, and in the autumn it was staged in Stockholm, directed by Bengt Ekerot, who would later play the character Death in the film version.
In his autobiography, The Magic Lantern, Bergman wrote that "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." The script for The Seventh Seal was commenced while Bergman was in the Karolinska Hospital in Stockholm recovering from a stomach complaint. It was at first rejected by Carl-Anders Dymling, head of Svensk Filmindustri and Bergman was given the go-ahead for the project from Carl-Anders Dymling 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. 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."
Portrait of the Middle Ages
With regard to the relevancy of historical accuracy to a film that is heavily metaphorical and allegorical, John Aberth, writing in A Knight at the Movies, holds
the film only partially succeeds in conveying the period atmosphere and thought world of the fourteenth century. Bergman would probably counter that it was never his intention to make an historical or period film. As it was written in a program note that accompanied the movie's premier "It is a modern poem presented with medieval material that has been very freely handled... The script in particular—embodies a mid-twentieth century existentialist angst... Still, to be fair to Bergman, one must allow him his artistic license, and the script's modernisms may be justified as giving the movie's medieval theme a compelling and urgent contemporary relevance... Yet the film succeeds to a large degree because it is set in the Middle Ages, a time that can seem both very remote and very immediate to us living in the modern world... Ultimately The Seventh Seal should be judged as a historical film by how well it combines the medieval and the modern."
Similarly defending it as an allegory, Aleksander Kwiatkowski in the book Swedish Film Classics, writes
The international response to the film which among other awards won the jury's special prize at Cannes in 1957 reconfirmed the author's high rank and proved that The Seventh Seal regardless of its degree of accuracy in reproducing medieval scenery may be considered as a universal, timeless allegory.
Much of the film's 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.
However, the medieval Sweden portrayed in this movie includes creative anachronisms. The flagellant movement was foreign to Sweden, and large-scale witch persecutions only began in the 15th century.
Generally speaking, historians Johan Huizinga, Friedrich Heer and Barbara Tuchman 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 Death, famine, the Hundred Years' War between France and England, and the Papal schism. This is sometimes called the crisis of the Late Middle Ages, and Tuchman regards the 14th century as "a distant mirror" of the 20th century in a way that echoes Bergman's sensibilities. Nonetheless, the main period of the Crusades is well before this era; they took place in a more optimistic period.
The title 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 "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?...What is going to happen to those of us who want to believe but aren't able to?" Death, impersonating the confessional priest, refuses to reply. Similarly, later, as he eats the strawberries with the family of actors, Antonius Block states: "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." Melvyn Bragg notes 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 meted out by Bergman's father, a chaplain in the State Lutheran Church. 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."
Some of the powerful influences on the film were Picasso's picture of the two acrobats, Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, Strindberg's dramas Folkungasagan ("The Saga of the Folkung Kings") and The Road to Damascus, the frescoes at Härkeberga church, and a painting by Albertus Pictor in Täby church. Just prior to shooting, Bergman directed for radio the play Everyman by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. By this time he had also directed plays by Shakespeare, Strindberg, Camus, Chesterton, Anouilh, Tennessee Williams, Pirandello, Lehár, Molière and Ostrovsky. The actors Bibi Andersson (with whom Bergman was in a relationship from 1955 to 1959) who played the juggler's wife Mia, and Max von Sydow, whose role as the knight was the first of many star parts he would bring to Bergman's films and whose rugged Nordic dignity became a vital resource within Bergman's "troupe" of key actors, both made a strong impact on the mood and style of the film.
Bergman grew up in a home infused with an intense Christianity, his father being a charismatic rector (this may have explained Bergman's adolescent infatuation with Hitler, which later deeply tormented him). As a six-year-old child, Bergman used to help the gardener carry corpses from the Royal Hospital Sophiahemmet (where his father was chaplain) to the mortuary. When as a boy he saw the film Black Beauty, the fire scene excited him so much he stayed in bed for three days with a temperature. 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 J. S. Bach did at the end of every musical composition.
Gerald Mast writes:
"Like the gravedigger in Hamlet, the Squire [...] treats death as a bitter and hopeless joke. Since we all play chess with death, and since we all must suffer through that hopeless joke, the only question about the game is how long it will last and how well we will play it. To play it well, to live, is to love and not to hate the body and the mortal as the Church urges in Bergman's metaphor."
Melvyn Bragg writes:
"[I]t is constructed like an argument. It is a story told as a sermon might be delivered: an allegory...each scene is at once so simple and so charged and layered that it catches us again and again...Somehow all of Bergman's own past, that of his father, that of his reading and doing and seeing, that of his Swedish culture, of his political burning and religious melancholy, poured into a series of pictures which carry that swell of contributions and contradictions so effortlessly that you could tell the story to a child, publish it as a storybook of photographs and yet know that the deepest questions of religion and the most mysterious revelation of simply being alive are both addressed."
The Jesuit publication America identifies it as having begun "a series of seven films that explored the possibility of faith in a post-Holocaust, nuclear age". Likewise, film historians Thomas W. Bohn and Richard L. Stromgren identify this film as beginning "his cycle of films dealing with the conundrum of religious faith".
Upon its original Swedish release, The Seventh Seal was met with a somewhat divided critical response; its cinematography was widely praised, while "Bergman the scriptwriter [was] lambasted." The film won the Nastro d'Argento for Best Non-Italian Film in 1961. Swedish journalist and critic Nils Beyer, writing for Morgon-tidningen, compared it to Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc and Day of Wrath. While finding Dreyer's films to be superior, he still noted that "it isn't just any director that you feel like comparing to the old Danish master." He also praised the usage of the cast, in particular Max von Sydow, whose character he described as "a pale, serious Don Quixote character with a face as if sculpted in wood", and "Bibi Andersson, who appears as if painted in faded watercolours but still can emit small delicious glimpses of female warmth." Hanserik Hjertén for Arbetaren started his review by praising the cinematography, but soon went on to describe the film as "a horror film for children" and said that beyond the superficial, it is mostly reminiscent of Bergman's "sophomoric films from the 40s."
Bergman's international reputation, on the other hand, was largely cemented by The Seventh Seal. The film ranked 2nd on Cahiers du Cinéma's Top 10 Films of the Year List in 1958. Bosley Crowther had only positive things to say in his 1958 review for The New York Times, and praised how the themes were elevated by the cinematography and performances: "the profundities of the ideas are lightened and made flexible by glowing pictorial presentation of action that is interesting and strong. Mr. Bergman uses his camera and actors for sharp, realistic effects."
The film is now regarded as a masterpiece of cinema. The Village Voice ranked The Seventh Seal at number 33 in its Top 250 "Best Films of the Century" list in 1999, based on a poll of critics. The film was included in "The New York Times Guide to the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made" in 2002. Empire magazine, in 2010, ranked it the eighth-greatest film of world cinema. In a poll held by the same magazine, it was voted 335th 'Greatest Movie of All Time' from a list of 500. In addition, on the 100th anniversary of cinema in 1995, the Vatican included The Seventh Seal in its list of its 45 "great films" for its thematic values. The film was included in film critic Roger Ebert's list of "The Great Movies" in 2000. Entertainment Weekly voted it at No. 45 on their list of 100 Greatest Movies of All Time. In 2007, the film was ranked at No. 13 by The Guardian's readers poll on the list of "40 greatest foreign films of all time". Indian film maker Adoor Gopalakrishnan praised the film saying "One can watch 'Seventh Seal' even without subtitles as it is most appealing to the eye." In January 2002, the film was voted at No. 82 on the list of the "Top 100 Essential Films of All Time" by the National Society of Film Critics. In 2012, the film ranked 93rd on critic's poll and 75th on director's poll in Sight & Sound magazine's 100 greatest films of all time list. In the earlier 2002 version of the list the film ranked 35th in critic's poll and 31st in director's poll. Also in 2012 it was voted one of the 25 best Swedish films of all time by a poll of 50 film critics and academics conducted by film magazine FLM. In 2018 the film was ranked 30th in BBC's list of The 100 greatest foreign language films. In 2021 the film was ranked at No. 43 on Time Out magazine's list of The 100 best movies of all time.
On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 93% based on 54 reviews, with an average rating of 9.1/10. The website's critical consensus reads: "Narratively bold and visually striking, The Seventh Seal brought Ingmar Bergman to the world stage – and remains every bit as compelling today". On Metacritic, the film has a rating of 88/100 based on 15 reviews, indicating "universal acclaim".
The Seventh Seal significantly helped Bergman in gaining his position as a world-class director. When the film won the Special Jury Prize at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival, the attention generated by it (along with the previous year's Smiles of a Summer Night) made Bergman and his stars Max von Sydow and Bibi Andersson well known to the European film community, and the critics and readers of Cahiers du Cinéma, among others, discovered him with this movie. Within five years of this, he had established himself as the first real auteur of Swedish cinema. With its images and reflections upon death and the meaning of life, The Seventh Seal had a symbolism that was "immediately apprehensible to people trained in literary culture who were just beginning to discover the 'art' of film, and it quickly became a staple of high school and college literature courses... Unlike Hollywood 'movies,' The Seventh Seal clearly was aware of elite artistic culture and thus was readily appreciated by intellectual audiences."
Film and television
The representation of Death as a white-faced man who wears a dark cape and plays chess with mortals has been a popular object of parody in other films and television.
Several films and comedy sketches portray Death as playing games other than or in addition to chess. In the final scene of the 1968 film De Düva (mock Swedish for "The Dove"), a 15-minute pastiche of Bergman's work generally and his Wild Strawberries in particular, the protagonist plays badminton against Death, and wins when the droppings of a passing dove strike Death in the eye. The photography imitates throughout the style of Bergman's cinematographers Sven Nykvist and Gunnar Fischer.
The film is referenced in several songs. The plot is recapitulated in Scott Walker's "The Seventh Seal" from his album Scott 4. There is a passing reference in Bruce Cockburn's song "How I Spent My Fall Vacation", from his album Humans, in which the song's narrative is bracketed by two young men watching the film in a cinema. On Iron Maiden's album Dance of Death (2003), the title track was inspired by the final scene of The Seventh Seal where, according to guitarist Janick Gers, "these figures on the horizon start doing a little jig, which is the dance of death."
In 2016, composer João MacDowell premiered in New York City at Scandinavia House the music for the first act of The Seventh Seal, a work in progress under contract with the Ingmar Bergman Foundation, sung in Swedish. The work was under production by the International Brazilian Opera (IBOC) as part of the celebrations for the Ingmar Bergman centenary in 2018.
The posters for the opera with photography by Athena Azevedo and design by Toshiaki Ide and Hisa Ide, featuring dancer Eliana Carneiro, in a collaboration work by the International Brazilian Opera (IBOC) and IF Studio LLC, have won multiple prizes in the Graphis Inc. International Competition, including double Platinum in the Poster and Design categories.
- A Matter of Life and Death (1946 film) § Chess
- Knight of faith
- Middle Ages in film
- Death (personification)
- List of historical drama films
- List of submissions to the 30th Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film
- List of Swedish submissions for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film
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