The Seventh Seal (1957)

D: Ingmar Bergman
S: Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand

A Mediaeval knight plays chess with death as a plague ravages the countryside, laying waste to peasant and noble alike. He is trying to discern whether or not God exists before he dies. But he can only delay the Reaper as long as the game continues, and meanwhile he walks the land meeting people who inform his speculations.

The irresistible metaphysical/ philosophical bent of Ingmar Bergman's most celebrated film continually belies both its wit and subtlety, as well as its sheer entertainment value. Shot on a modest budget over a short few weeks, Bergman only managed to secure finance for the film on the basis that it would be cheap, quick and marketable, after the success of Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) at the Cannes film festival.

The Seventh Seal is all the more remarkable because its simplicity and directness about complex issues allows audiences to immediately become involved with Bergman's world so completely that they do not even sense Bergman's presence. The film does not contain the meaning of life, or offer universal answers to any of life's questions. It is rather an individual director's study of his own relationship with God and with Man which moves quickly and often quite humorously towards an inevitable conclusion that nonetheless fills the viewer with a sense of peace and wonder. That it is often regarded with such awe and respect is testament to how skilfully Bergman has touched his own soul.

Beautifully shot in black and white by Bergman's regular cameraman, Gunnar Fischer, the film's visual starkness casts the Swedish landscape in the realms of imagination; at once real and unreal, beautiful and terrible. Its wandering characters; knights, squires, priests, misfits, criminals, actors and bawdy wenches are standard archetypes both liberated and constrained by Bergman's dialogue, making them both human and inhuman. They are ciphers of human endeavour, icons representing various disciplines and discourses. But they are also warm, funny, touching and believable people whose stories intrigue and finally involve us.

Above them all stands the towering figure of Death, played with poker-faced glee by Bengt Ekerot. His unenviable task is to walk an actor's tightrope between appearing laughable and terrifying. He is at once ridiculous and unsettling. His sardonic grin and wry sense of humour are always overlaid by his ghostly white countenance, impossibly black cloak and lethal scythe. Though drawn from popular images of the figure dating through the middle ages, this Death has endured in the movies in direct homage to this film, appearing in recognisable form as an object of affectionate parody in Woody Allen's Love and Death (1975) and the popular comedy Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey (1991) and at the climax of the failed Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Last Action Hero (1993).

No less remarkable are Bergman regulars Max von Sydow and Gunnar Björnstrand as the Quixotic protagonists; one aloof and serious, the other sharply ironic. Together they embody an acute awareness of dramatic construction and the need for contrast as well as offering a sharply defined pair of performances, modulated to both observe and participate in the various dramas they encounter, until both men become equal in death, along with most of the rest of the characters in the film.

The exceptions are the actor and his wife, played by Nils Poppe and Bibi Andersson, whose rural idyll and life of artistic exploration seems the only ray of hope and sunshine in a dark and dying world, and, true to this portrayal, they escape Death at the film's climax and are blessed by the sight of the others dancing along the horizon to meet their still uncertain destiny in the afterlife.

The Seventh Seal is an eternal movie classic, not only because it is made with skill and craft, but because its sheer energy and economy make it seem so instinctive a work of art that we scarcely sense the presence of the artist; a work whose honour is to God, not man, as Bergman intended.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.