The Seventh Seal (1957): Sweden – directed by Ingmar Bergman
Not rated by the MPAA – contains some mature themes
This is a phenomenal movie. I had first watched it years ago when I started going through IMDB’s top 250 list, and it was probably my first exposure to Ingmar Bergman. I appreciated it some at the time, but it didn’t resonate with me. Later on, watching more of Bergman’s films, I was always moved in ways no other films ever moved me. I’ve loved Bergman for a while but hadn’t had a chance to rewatch The Seventh Seal in quite some time.
I was worried, through the first third or so, that maybe it wasn’t going to live up to the ridiculously high expectations I had for it. Its critical success, too, had my hopes absurdly high. Fortunately, as the film progressed and got deeper and deeper I was struck to the core by it, as all Bergman’s films hit me. It is fantastic, a unique experience that couldn’t be made today.
You’re probably familiar with some of the images in the film; a Knight playing chess with Death on the beach, Death leading some of his victims in a final dance along a hillside. These are famous moments, but the film is so much more. The plot is not particularly difficult to grasp. A knight has been away at the crusades for the past 10 years and has just returned home to Sweden with his squire. The Plague is destroying the land and has people worried about Judgment Day. While on the beach the knight, Antonius Block (played by Max von Sydow), gets a visit from Death; it’s his time to go. Block argues that they should play a game of chess; if he wins it’s not his time, if he loses, then, well… He knows Death is a clever tactician, but it’s his only chance to hold on to life for a few more hours or days.
The game plays out as the knight travels inland, to a couple villages and then on to his castle. He doesn’t know if his family is still alive, or if his wife is dead or just fled the castle to avoid the plague. He and the squire run into a variety of people on the way, including a blacksmith and his wayward wife, the priest who told them to go off to the Crusades, and who now steals bracelets from the dead bodies strewn about. They see a group of penitent people who roam the countryside lashing themselves. Not too unlike the monks in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but this time more serious. They also meet a young family, who are traveling actors. The father’s name is Joseph and the mother is Mary, and they have a young son with them.
The film doesn’t shy away from the religious references. In fact, the entire film the knight struggles with questions of existence and suffering, of love and death, and, most importantly, the existence of God. These struggles make the film what it is. These are the questions people have about life, but no movie dares touch them. One chilling moment involves the knight confronting a young woman sentenced to burn at the stake. She’s been accused of carnal knowledge with the devil and suspected to be the cause of the plague. God is punishing them. The knight talks to her briefly, asking if she has seen the Devil. She claims she has, and wants to know why he needs to talk to the Devil. He answers that he wants to ask him about God.
That’s the question that permeates the film. If God exists, why doesn’t he answer? Why has the knight suffered for 10 years in a foreign land, just to come home and find it in such a state? He cries out to God nearly the entire film, but all he feels is emptiness and nothingness. There is a glimmer of hope, though, as you might expect when young parents named Mary and Joseph are involved. The film asks the questions, the same ones Bergman struggled with in his life, and it doesn’t necessarily provide all the answers. But just that it asks them makes the film a treasure. Not only was The Seventh Seal the film that broke the foreign film barrier in the U.S., it also showed the world that film could be art, and philosophical art at that. It also had an audience; people went and paid money to see Bergman’s films. These days that idea is almost absurd.