The Seventh Seal (1957, Ingmar Bergman)
Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal is sometimes viewed, along with certain early works of Kurosawa and Fellini, as the film that launched arthouse and foreign cinema as viable fixtures of cultural conversation in America, at least in the big cities and among the intellectual classes; it’s hard to say whether it was as much a turning point in Bergman’s career as it was for widespread appreciation of film as a fine art worthy of deep discussion and analysis. Certainly Bergman would undoubtedly be alienated by the manner in which, in the U.S., a taste for the avenue of expression exemplified by his movies is unfairly associated with privilege and pretension, arguably a very different perspective from what one encounters in Europe; but there is no denying that when most casual filmgoers or film students think of Bergman, they will quickly think of the iconic and indelible images from this film — the personage of Death shrouded in black, the chess game on the beach, the stark photography, the portraits of plague and pestilence, and most of all, the delirious closing Danse Macabre. Indeed, there are few moments as iconic and purely beautiful (and sobering) as the first three minutes of the first scene of The Seventh Seal, in some ways the cinematic equivalent to the early chapters of Dickens’ Great Expectations in their complete harnessing and absolute control of an art form.
Yet those associations are often subject to ridicule, as Gary Giddins points out in his essay accompanying Criterion’s release of the film; the elemental nature of Bergman’s preoccupations and arguments, like his emotional openness as a writer and filmmaker, always leaves him very much open for mockery. But this tendency does not illustrate a deficiency with the film; it does not indicate that Bergman’s poetic visualizations are rote or sophomoric. Rather, the effect the film has of causing discomfort and dismissal is a direct result of its daring: the audacity in its use of very recognizable human characters and an elegant, unassuming story to ask direct, unsparing questions about life, death and God puts many viewers off-balance, makes them want to resist its earnest efforts to confront and make sense of a larger slice of the world than most artists would typically dare to confront. As Death himself says at one point in the picture, most people are loath to ever think of what death brings, much less to look it squarely in the face.
That’s the only explanation for how a film that is often so playful, is invariably so overwhelmingly gorgeous and has the epic pull of a classic literary work has gained such a reputation as a first-year film school slog; this seems to be a view primarily taken by those who either haven’t seen the film or watched it with one eye open. At bottom The Seventh Seal, despite its title taken from an apocalyptic passage of the Book of Revelation, is an engaging road movie driven by an enigmagtic chase of sorts, following the return of a despairing but gentle knight (Max von Sydow) and his boorish squire (Gunnar Björnstrand) from the relentlessly bloody battles of the Crusades, whereupon they find themselves chased by the spectre of the Black Plague and eventually by Death itself, portrayed in human form by Bengt Ekerot, who cuts a singularly haunting figure through simple trickery of ice-cold glare and menacing wardrobe. Death is immediately delayed and challenged by the knight Antonius Block to a game of chess that will determine his ultimate fate, and — as it turns out — that of the friends he picks up in a sort of de facto stagecoach through the woods to his castle, where his estranged wife awaits.
The inevitability of death and the silence (and possible nonexistence) of God, two favored themes of Bergman’s, hang over the proceedings, which all have a certain unapologetic emotional heaviness that one coming to the film today is certainly trained to expect. With that in mind, however, the film’s spirit, beauty and sense of journey have a surprising buoyance, helped along by the unerring bluntness of its spiritual and philosophical questioning of the universe’s moral fabric and purpose. The secret is that Bergman’s camera flinches no more at love and delicacy than it does at horror, squalor and various literal and metaphorical plunges into oblivion. Its wry humanism is best experienced through its varied and disparate cast of characters — a juggler (Nils Poppe) and his wife (the great Bibi Andersson) who genuinely love one another and their toddler-age son, whose many outdoor scenes of unqualified pleasure boast a kind of innocent joy rarely explored onscreen with such sincerity; a tearful blacksmith who learns to live with his wife’s adulterous nature; a cantankerous painter of morbid church scenes (based on Albertus Pictor) whose matter-of-fact fatalism offers better comic relief than the wisecracking, misogynistic squire Jöns, whose cruelty toward the mute girl (Gunnel Lindblom) he rescues then spends the rest of the movie bossing around is difficult to square with the broadly open heart of Bergman’s narrative, and is easily the film’s greatest flaw. Even Death is funnier, given a few opportunities for genuine mischief, including an almost Looney Tunes-like moment that has him sawing down a tree presently occupied by the next doomed human on his list.
But best of all is von Sydow’s Block himself, a largely calm and assured, even sensual presence — which lends more credence to his scattered outbursts of anguish — who forms a visage more pronounced in its quiet mystery than even Death himself, which is presumably one reason he’s able to temporarily stave off his fate; Block divides the game up into portions because he refuses to die without completing one last important task, though which exact achievement he’s referring to is never made clear. Perhaps it’s his coy rescue of the juggler Jof and his sweet young family, who all live to see another Plague-ridden sunny day in the country, or his honestly heartening reunion with his wife (Inga Landgré)… but it’s more likely, given Bergman’s predilections, that he means his quest for, in the words of this vision of Death, a guarantee: an assurance that he will be confronted with some sort of grace upon accepting death and not eternal, inescapable darkness. This final answer to the ultimate question is, alas, not forthcoming; but by the time Block is unable to delay the end any further, it feels like an embrace of some abstract nirvana more than bleak existentialism; as in so many of Bergman’s black & white films, we find some sort of glory and comfort in the mundane reality of dread and death.
The Seventh Seal was one of many films in the first half of Bergman’s cinematic career to be lensed by the cinematographer Gunnar Fischer, and it is one of the most distinctive-looking motion pictures of any era, the high contrast photography doing as much work in this arena as Bergman’s catalog of lyrical imagery. The two feed off one another brilliantly, resulting in a sublime mixture of the idyllic and the Gothic. No one makes you “feel the space,” so to speak, like Bergman; and apart from Hitchcock, no one shoots faces like he does, capturing their naked openness, their flaws, their panic. At the same time, however, the film is enhanced by the fact that it does not at all exist in a vacuum, for all its singularity, continuing conversations sparked by fellow Swede Victor Sjostrom decades earlier in The Phantom Carriage, only to be continued by everything from The Twilight Zone to Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev to Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey to Bergman’s own Wild Strawberries, with which this film shares a truly profound sense of exhilaration, especially at its conclusion: the cast marching to death in the mode of a dance upon the volcano, illustrating the thin and unknowable line between life and death, existence and eternity in one of the most striking shots to appear in any film — one so powerful in its open philosophical acceptance of mankind’s defining fear that Bergman is wise to cut away rather quickly and return to the jester and his wife, gently prodding the former over his catalog of “visions.” She may as well be talking to the director, or to us.
That specific shot, free of any specific religious messaging and devoted exclusively to the precise fact of Death, tells us everything about Bergman’s beliefs in its mixture of glee and bottomless terror, the way he feels life should be lived and the way he wants to instruct himself to live it, even though we’re fully aware that the 97 minutes he’s just spent attempting to persuade himself and his audience will be repeated ad nauseam for all time. Such an impassioned missive deserves to be received and processed on a human-to-human level, which is what Bergman thoughtfully requests of us: he means us to continue these conversations, not to simply subscribe to his fancy, and this is why it’s such a bore when his work and this film particularly are viewed as dismal homework requirements for cinephilia and art appreciation rather than vague starting points for a renewed zest for life and art alike. We should be less dismissive of the idea of enrichment; and even as Bergman surveys a landscape of plague, destruction and barbarism, however perverse it may sound, what he finds is majestic in its optimism.