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The Seventh Seal (1957)
The Seventh Seal (Swedish: Det sjunde inseglet) is a 1957 Swedish film written and directed by Ingmar Bergman. Set during the Black Death, it tells of the journey of a medieval knight (Max von Sydow) and a game of chess he plays with the personification of Death (Bengt Ekerot), who has come to take his life. Bergman developed the film from his own play Wood Painting. The title refers to a passage from the Book of Revelation, used both at the very start of the film, and again towards the end, beginning with the words "And when the Lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour" (Revelation 8:1). Here the motif of silence refers to the "silence of God" which is a major theme of the film. The film is considered a major classic of world cinema. It helped Bergman to establish himself as a world-renowned director and contains scenes which have become iconic through parodies and homages. Disillusioned knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) and his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) return after fighting in the Crusades and find Sweden being ravaged by the plague.
'Why must He hide amidst vague promises and invisible miracles?' the knight questions as he confesses to Death, who is incognito as a priest. The Seventh Seal thrives on these ironic contrasts in its religious investigation. The Christ imagery is inescapable -- from that of the holy monks to the 'witch,' who is credited with being the origin of the Black Plague -- but instead of being thematically overbearing, it is the glue holding together the earthly lost souls looking for answers. Soon after the chess game against Death begins, the knight and his squire get involved with a traveling band of merry makers. Be it the contrast between the happy-go-lucky players, one of whom has visions of the Virgin Mary, and the domineering monks parading the diseased through the streets, the dichotomy plagues the knight, as he attempts to give the actors safe passage through treacherous lands in a desperate, final good deed.
While the religious overtones are ever-present, they don't become suffocating either. The knight, played perfectly by the great Max von Sydow, constantly engages both the religious questions by continuing his game with Death and questioning him throughout. Of course, Death is far from literal in his speech. The only concrete truth we know is that Death is absolute -- you can't beat him; you can't avoid him; and, as the knight proves by 'accidentally' knocking over some chess pieces late in the game, you can't cheat him either.
True to form, Bergman provides no easy answers. As the chess game comes to an end, we, and the knight, are still left with questions, perhaps more than when we began. Like any clever filmmaker, Bergman uses the MacGuffin of a game against death to propel a story that is basically question-driven. While it might be the coolest MacGuffin in all of cinema, it doesn't make the last shot of the knight's entourage dancing hand in hand on a ridge with Death on their way over the horizon any easier to interpret. Yet there is a peace that surrounds the film -- whether it is the acceptance of life's futility or finding the answers to those questions we all ask at some point in our lives.
The Criterion DVD includes a 2003 introduction from Bergman, commentary from Peter Coyote, an interview with von Sydow, a 1999 tribute to Bergman from Woody Allen, and a feature-length documentary, Bergman Island, on a second disc. Also now on Blu-ray.
Aka Det Sjunde inseglet.
Why the long face?