By Carter B. Horsley
What is the spiritual meaning of life?
Is there a God?
Such simple, basic questions have never been
more forcefully and memorably put forward in a work of art than
in director Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece, "The Seventh
Seal," about a chess game between a knight, who has just
returned from the Crusades, and Death.
This movie is no mere intellectual exercise,
or diatribe, but a magnificent and compelling, brutal but beautiful
examination of mankind’s strengths and weaknesses. As intense
as the fervor of its philosophic soul-searching and its profound
humanity, its greatness is in its artistry. The directing, acting
and cinematography by Gunnar Fischer are sublime and its visual
imagery is forever stamped in its viewer’s mind. The march
of the flagellants, the burning of a witch, the chess match with
Death and the "dance of death" atop a ridge are indelible
moments in cinematic history.
Set in the Middle Ages, the film established
Swedish director Bergman, who also wrote the script, not only
as one of the major artists of film, but also as a major international
intellectual whose bleak visions haunted a generation and more.
Indeed, Bergman's passionate but cynical interpretations of personal
values and angst were significant cultural monuments that went
beyond Existentialism, which was gaining popularity in many circles,
and depicted a ruthlessly discomforting world that seemed to be
filled more with despair than hope. His depictions of such "problems,"
of course, while serious and often depressing to many, were essentially
optimistic for they showed that someone cared enough to focus
on the "problems." Some critics have compared the movie’s
apocalyptic tone with popular fears about the threat of the Cold
War that was then raging but that interpretation is a bit of a
stretch as Bergman’s concerns are more personal than political
as borne out by his entire oeuvre, which began in 1944 and continued
for a generation after this film was made.
While many of his subsequent films would become
quite ponderous, though no less intense or brilliant, this film
brims over with a lust for life. At the end of the film when Death
wins the lives of the knight and his small group, the squire is
asked to be quiet by the knight’s wife after his cynical
comments about the knight’s prayers and he responds that
he will be, but "with protest."
The noble and kind knight, Antonius Block,
played brilliantly by the stoic and lanky Max von Sydow, who was
only in his late twenties when the film was made but looks like
a man of 60 or so, is outwardly calm, but inwardly seething with
a need to discover some "meaning" to life's vicissitudes,
which at the time included the plague, Having survived a 10-year
crusade, the war-weary knight has returned to his homeland with
his loyal and very sardonic squire, Jöns, played with inspired
glee by Gunnar Björnstrand.
Björnstrand starred in many of Bergman’s
films and was remarkably versatile. It could well be argued that
his persona in this film is Bergman’s and his role here is
more dynamic and heroic than von Sydow’s knight. Von Sydow
would go on to star in many more Bergman films and also in many
Hollywood films. His power was his stoney face, his icy reserve,
his tormented grimaces, his forlorn expressions. Björnstrand,
in contrast, is a visceral character with humor and resources,
compassion and fury, loathing and sympathy, a man who clutches
life with passion and confronts death with protest.
Bergman’s preceding film, "Smiles
of a Summer Night," was a delightful and witty comedy in
the sophisticated tradition of Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward. Bergman
has a sense of humor and his darkest scenes often alternate with
light-hearted ones. His fame, of course, rests on his more sober
works such as this and subsequent films like "Wild Strawberries"
(1957), "Through A Glass Darkly" (1962), "Winter
Light" (1962) "Persona" (1966), "The Silence,"
"The Passion of Ana" (), "Cries and Whispers"
(1972) and "Scenes From A Marriage" (1973) and on his
marvelous troupe of actors that would include after "The
Seventh Seal" such great actresses as Ingrid Thulin and Liv
As the film begins, the knight and his squire
lie upon a rocky beach as their horses wade in the surf. The knight
awakens and begins to pack when he turns to encounters Death,
personified by a figure in a hooded black cape played with awesome
and ominious assuredness by Bengt Ekerot. The knight convinces
Death to give him a brief reprieve by challenging him to a chess
The knight and squire proceed to a village
that appears deserted. The squire goes looking for water and comes
upon a beautiful woman who is about to be raped by a man, Raval,
who had been the seminarist who had sent him and the knight on
the crusades a decade ago. The squire rescues the woman, who says
nothing, and scares off the seminarist, who later will succumb
himself to the scourges of the plague.
The next scene introduces a group of troubadours,
Skat, played by Erik Strandmark, Jof, played by Nils Poppe, Mary,
Jof’s wife, played by Bibi Andersson, and their son, Michael.
Jof has a vision of the Virgin Mary and Child walking nearby,
but his wife chides him for his "visions" that she does
not see. They move on in their covered wagon to give a performance
at the next village where Skat seduces, or is seduced, by Lisa,
the wife of the village smithy, Plog, in a scene that predates
the famous eating scene in "Tom Jones" by several years.
After the performance, Jof goes to the village
inn/tavern to get something to eat and is confronted by Plog who
inquires after the whereabouts of his wife who he has been told
has run off with an actor. Raval accuses Joseph of lying and of
being an actor too and taunts him and makes him dance on a tabletop
like a bear. The squire enters and rescues Joseph and "brands"
Raval with his dagger. Joseph steals a bracelet that Raval was
trying to sell and runs out. The squire sits for a drink and
with Plog about women in a very funny conversation, after which
Plog askes he can accompany the squire who agrees. As they leave,
a procession of flagellants comes into the village and stops briefly
for a monk, played by Anders Ek, to deliver a frightening sermon
of doom. Ek looks like a raggy character from a painting by Hieronymous
Bosch and his indictment of the villagers is excruciating and
demonic. His face contorts and his gaze is mesmeric. His oratory
conjures Hitler. Ek’s performance is fantastic.
The knight goes into a church to pray and when
he sees a robed priest behind a open grill he proceeds to start
his confessional. He does not realize that the robed priest is
Death and during his confessional he reveals his plan to beat
Death at chess. Death then reveals himself and the knight is shocked
but recovers to rejoice in the fact that he is still alive. In
a remarkable and very fine scene, the knight stands and looks
at his hand and says, "This is my hand, I can move it, feel
the blood pulsing through it. The sun is still high in the sky
and I, Antonius Block, am playing chess with Death." He and
the squire then encounter a young girl who is being escorted by
eight armed guards to be burnt at the stake. The knight and squire
try to comfort the young, delirious woman and are distraught at
The knight comes upon Jof and Mia, played by
Bibi Andersson, with their son and joins them for some wild
and a bowl of fresh milk in an idyllic scene. Jof and Mia and
their son are pure, wholesome and an obvious embodiment of the
concept of the Holy Family and the partaking of the bowl of fresh
milk is analogous to the Christian concept of communion.
The knight convinces Joseph to take his family
with him to his castle because it is a route where the plague
has not yet raged and Jof agrees.
The knight’s party travels into the forest
where they run into Skat and the smithy’s wife, Lisa, whom
Skat calls Kunigunda. Plog wants to fight Skat to the death, but
Skat pulls out a false dagger and stabs himself in the heart enough
to convince Plog. After the knight’s party moves on, Skat
gets up and climbs a tree to sleep safely only to be awaken by
the sound of sawing. He looks down and sees Death sawing down
A storm rages and the knight sees Death and
continues his game, but overturns the chess board to divert Death’s
attention from Jof and Mia who flee in the wagon with their son.
Their escape is the good deed that the knight longed for. The
encounter of the knight with the child and his joyful parents
is one of the most poetic lyric sequences on film and the simple
pleasure of drinking some milk with the lovely young family is
the film's catharsis for in the end they escape Death's net. Bergman,
however, is not suggesting that innocence overcomes Death, nor
that the good shall inherit anything, but that wholesomeness is
worthy in and of itself and that little joys are often the most
The knight leads his party to his castle where
he has a reunion with his beautiful wife, played by Inga Landgré,
who prepares dinner for his guests and proceeds to read from the
Book of Revelations the text. The door is knocked and the squire
gets up to see who it is but comes back and says there was no
one. A few minutes later, however, Death enters and the knight’s
party rises to confront him and introduce themselves. The knight
kneels in prayer and is mocked by the squire but the girl rescued
by the squire who has not spoken during the film finally speaks
and says "It is finished," one of the last utterances
of Jesus Christ as the black robe of Death obscures her face.
Jof and Mia wake up and the storm has passed.
Jof sees a "dance of death" on a ridge, which is wife
cannot see and they proceed on their way. The "dance of death,"
one of the most famous images in film history, shows Death with
his scythe leading most of the knight’s party up a hill.
The excellent Criterion Collection DVD of this
film has an exception has a marvevlously restored print of the
film, an audio commentary by Peter Cowie, a biographer of Bergman,
a filmography that includes sequences from "Wild Strawberries"
and "The Magician," the film’s theatrical trailer,
and a section on the film’s restoration.
Erik Nordgren’s score is restrained but
very effective and Bergman makes dramatic cuts in the soundtrack
that are startling and also effective. The film abounds in surprises:
the squire’s raspy snarls; the witch’s moaning; the
monk’s riveting attack on the villagers; Jof’s beatific
smile; the knight’s reserve at his wife’s welcome; the
knight’s group’s introduction of themselves to Death;
Death’s humor; the squire’s nonchalance when he sees
the face of plague.
The characters of Skat, Lisa and Plog are the
weakest and their antics detract considerably from the central
focus on the knight’s quest for spiritual redemption and
metaphysical answers, yet his surface. Yet his lack of irritability
at the frailties and cruelties of others serves to reinforce our
focus on his quests. He is not entirely impervious to others as
demonstrated by his giving a pain-killing dose of medicine to
the witch before she is burned at the stake, and it is rather
fascinating that he does not try to counter the squire’s
cynical observations, although by implication he countenances
them by continuing to let him accompany him. He is almost resigned
to his fate. The heart of the film is his encounter with Jof and
Mia and their child and the simple joy of sharing their sustenance.
The radiant comfort of humanity and life – the happy child
crawling on the grass, Mia’s beauty and Jof’s rapture
– is Bergman’s message that life is amazing despite
all the perils, disorientations, alienations, frustrations, enigmas.
The story had its origin in a morality play
written by Bergman earlier in his career. In his fine website,
Walt Bruckner notes that Bergman rewrote the play several times
and changed the knight from being mute and had Jons, the squire
as the central character. There can be little doubt that that
Bergman is attacking organized religion and the repellent practices
of many of its followers, but his fervent philosophy is profoundly
Peter Cowie’s commentary on the splendid
Criterion Collection DVD points out that the harsh Swedish climate
permits only 5 to 6 weeks of shooting.
For those weaned on special effects and fast
editing and color, "The Seventh Seal" may seem at times
a bit slow, but its marvelously strong black-and-white photography
resonates with the quite brilliant and to-the-point dialogue.
Life and death are not tidy. The challenges that each individual
must face must be on his own terms.