THE 100 GREATEST FILMS OF ALL TIME – 30: The Seventh Seal

by Daniel Suddes

The Seventh Seal (1957) Directed by: Ingmar Bergman  Written by: Ingmar Bergman.  Starring: Max von Sydow, Bengt Ekerot, Nils Poppe, Bib Andersson.  Oscar Count: (0)

Is it possible to look at this film with fresh eyes? The premise today of a man playing a board game with Death (or the embodiment of death) may seem like B-grade fodder. It has been used to often in so many different films by so many different people. Everyone from Woody Allen to Bill and Ted has made their own version of this film. Neil Gaiman changed the genders of Death in his landmark Sandman series, but not much else. Can something that has been seen in so many places still be surprising and influential?

Yes, because of the state of mind Bergman was in. The famed Swedish auteur did not really want to make a religious film. Bergman stated many times that he was afraid of death, and made this film in order to conquer it. Now, the film does not examine any idea of what the afterlife (if there is one) may be like. Rather, it is about the journey of those who are seeking meaning in their short lives, at a time when the dead and dying were on display everywhere. The knight Block (who has likely been killed in the Crusades he is returning from) finds his home country has been ravaged by the plague, and many people are trying to figure out why. After all, they have done God’s bidding, going to destroy the heathens in the south. Why have they been punished so? But no answer is forthcoming.

In fact, the title is a reference to this non answer. The opening of the film quotes from the Book of Revelation about how, after the “seventh seal” was opened, there was silence in heaven and space. At the moment this film takes place in, it must have seemed like the end of the world was truly coming, and there was nothing the religious caste could do to stop it. But that does not mean those same feelings about the “silence of God” were not present in Bergman’s own consciousness, given his strict religious upbringing. It is said that he drew much of his inspiration for the film from the murals of the churches that he visited as a child. Also, Bergman worked in a mortuary as a child. Being surrounded by both religion and the inevitable result of humanity must have planted the seed for this film very early on. It is that personal approach that saved the film

It seems unlikely that Bergman was ever an absurdist. Indeed, this film is not as lofty as some people have believed it to be. His later films attempt to try and make some sense about the human condition. But then, those films (like Fanny and Alexander and Scenes from a Marriage) used specific people and experiences as a starting point. This film is far broader in its approach. The presence of Death certainly makes that clear, but Death (the character, who is painted looking like a cleric with his hood and white, painted face) is not really onscreen for much time. Indeed, the chess game is almost forgotten for long stretches. Rather, the focus is on Block and his relationship with those he meets, who are looking for the exact same thing as him. Death almost becomes Block’s muse – he encourages Block, strangely, to keep living.

Also, it is interesting that there is at least one character that does appear to receive answers. It is not Block – it is the actor Jof, who himself suffers for what he believes in (note the scene in which his face is cut after he is forced to dance on a table). He is the one who sees the final journey and some meaning that is denied to block. Sadly, no one believes him. But the point is clear; if there is to be an answer, it will not be found by people like Block or by the ministers of Bergman’s childhood. It will be by the artists who are able to craft films like The Seventh Seal.

The best scene in the film is the confession scene. It is the one that explains the whole point of the film, and is the closest we come to understanding Block’s inner torment. At the confessional, Block talks about his faith and his strategy at winning the chess game. The trouble is, he is talking to Death. What is most interesting is the fact that Death avoids all of the questions as if he does not know the answers himself. “Perhaps there isn’t [any God]” is as close as Death comes to offering knowledge, but that answer seems quite bizarre coming from a supernatural being. What is all the more revealing is how much Block’s questions resemble the ones that Bergman asked throughout his entire career. “Why does he hide in a cloud of half promises and unseen miracles?” Block asks. Hearing it now, it is easy to imagine how that line is probably the one Bergman wrote first for this film and the last one that was one his mind at the time of his death.

Did You Know: Following the death of Bergman, the chess pieces used in this film were sold for approximately $145,000. To compare, Darth Vader’s helmet from The Empire Strikes Back is worth $115,000.

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