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The Seventh Seal

The Seventh Seal

By John Bleasdale • October 13th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
AB Svensk Filmindustri

Original release: February 16th, 1957
Running time: 96 minutes

Country of origin: Sweden
Original language: Swedish and Latin

Writer and director: Ingmar Bergman

Cast: Max Von Sydow, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Bengt Ekerot, Bibi Andersson and Nils Poppe

The Seventh Seal

The Seventh Seal is one of those works of art, like Hamlet (1948), that you can recognise at a glance even if you haven’t seen it. The opening ten minutes have been seen over and over again, in celebrations, documentaries, postcards, stills, posters or parodies and such is its iconic power that—like the opening few minutes of A Clockwork Orange (1971) — it almost tips up our memory of the film in its entirety.

In fact, Bergman’s film, as a hallowed classic of world cinema, can seem off-putting to many. It deals with weighty topics, it has a medieval setting, it’s in Swedish, Woody Allen quotes it. If Death doesn’t scare you, the chess probably will. And yet this gnomic, beautifully shot film, is quick paced entertaining and startlingly compelling.

A knight, Antonius Block (Max Von Sydow) awakes on a beach. The sun is low on the horizon and we can’t be sure if it’s dawn or dusk. A black clad figure appears. Death (Bengt Ekerot) has come for the knight. A calm unblinking presence of watchful intelligence—despite his Nosferatu pallor—this is no cackling villain, but rather a force of life, who’s amused and intrigued by the offer of a game of chess.

Although we’ve seen parodies of this scene from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life (1983) to Bill And Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991), the original has within itself a knowing sense of its own silliness. There’s an obvious humour and the performers play their roles with half smiles, as they quarrel, goad and cheat each other.
The Seventh Seal

The high-minded wit of the knight is contrasted with his servant, Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand), the Sancho Panza to Sydow’s Don Quixote. Jons is a drinker and fornicator, a brawler and a singer of bawdy songs too. Whereas Block wanders through the film, largely immune to others, a traveller whose passport has already been confiscated, Jons still has debts to settle and takes obvious joy in rescuing a girl and beating up the cleric who inspired their participation in the crusades.

They both feel they’ve largely wasted their lives, though Block needs his reprieve from Death not so much in order to return home as to perform ‘one meaningful act’.

The second group is a small family of minstrels who are on their way to Elsinore. The clown father Jof (Nils Poppe) sees visions, beautiful visions of the Virgin Mary, though he’s not above faking them. ‘What about when you said the devil painted our wheels red with his tail and yet you had red paint under your fingernails?’ his wife Mia (Bibi Andersson) admonishes him. ‘I have to fake those visions so you’ll believe the true ones,’ is not only a funny response it also seems to stand out like a kind of artistic credo: the faking of visions to provide a portal to truth.

With their baby child and lecherous and rascally colleague, they seem like an oasis of crude beauty and sense in a landscape which is full of suffering, ignorance and imminent death. Their performance is interrupted by a parade of flagellants and Jof is humiliated and almost lynched by a fearful but raucous tavern crowd. Their art is a The Seventh Sealkind of spit in your eye attempt at hope, a joi de vivre which sees one of the troupe run off with the blacksmith’s wife. The bawdy comedy of this subplot is a merciful distraction to the witch burning and self harm of a world that has lost all hope and reasonableness.

Ultimately, Jof, Mia and their son are a holy family of optimism and possibility. On sitting with them for a while Block says, ‘I will carry this moment between my hands as if it was a bowl filled to the brim with fresh milk’. It’s what makes life worth living: love, community, simple pleasures. Block will ultimately see his loss of chess as a victory because it will save this family. Something else will go on. It doesn’t ultimately matter if it isn’t him. But perhaps not.

The conclusion of The Seventh Seal has a wonderful ensemble feel. When Death arrives at the Knight’s castle, the party are not unanimous in how to receive him. As the knight indulges in fervent prayer, Jons is powerfully insistent on his The Seventh SealGodless view of existence, though with poetic irony it is the mute girl who Jons rescued that gets to say the last word: ‘It is finished’.

The once more iconic Dance of Death which Jof sees as another of his visions for his wife to dismiss—‘you with your visions’—is disturbingly poised. The dance that should imply concord and harmony looks more like a chain gang being dragged where they don’t want to go.

To add a final meta-touch, the actors had gone home and so the image we see is actually an electrician and a pair of bemused tourists in the characters costumes. However, this is totally consistent with what we’ve already been told by Jof: ‘I fake some vision so you believe the true ones’.

John Bleasdale

John Bleasdale

John Bleasdale is a writer based in Italy. He has published on films at various internet sites and his writing can be found, along with blog posts, collected at johnbleasdale.com.

He has also contributed chapters to the American Hollywood and American Independent volumes of the World Directory of Cinema: (Intellect), Terrence Malick: Films and Philosophy (Continuum) and World Film Locations: Venice (Intellect). You can also follow him on Twitter @drjonty.

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