Weekly Classics: The Seventh Seal
“If I say I’ve made 10 good films, films I feel I can really stand behind, I think The Seventh Seal is among them,” Ingmar Bergman said. “I’m certain of it.”
This is how significant a role The Seventh Seal plays in the gloomy Swede’s film-making career.
The story starts with a knight, Antonius Block, played by Max von Sydow, returning home from the crusades during the Black Death era. On his journey, he is confronted by the covert figure of Death, who agrees to spare his life for as long as he can stave off the checkmate. He then tries to conclude his meaningless life on a meaningful note as he struggles with a spiritual quest to uncover God’s existence.
The idea of a chess game to delay an imminent death so that one can try to fulfill his last goodwill is by itself a chef-d’oeuvre, which is no wonder how this continues to be the subject of parodies even till now.
The Seventh Seal is termed a classic for many reasons. Many of the film’s images, including this game of chess, have become immortal in the language of cinema. The danse macabre, which represents an afterlife void of hope and purpose, was also a strong visual brainchild of the director.
Surprisingly, this dance of death was actually filmed spontaneously without any actors, and solely by stand-ins from the set, just because Bergman spotted a dark cloud in the sky and decided that it was perfect for the shot. The substitutes actually had no idea what was going on, and little would they expect this scene to become the classic of a classic.
The film also deals with a whole lot of intertextuality, where for instance the dance of death is actually an artistic genre of the late-medieval allegory on the universality of death.
Another notable intertextual reference is the film’s title, which interplayed with the biblical quotation used at the beginning of the film, both succinctly borrowed from the book of Revelation. Copious intertextuality is a technique that sparks off an instant connection with the audience. It began way before this film, but yet continues to influence films in modern days.
Having said that, The Seventh Seal also possesses rich themes, offering ample possibilities to intertextuality where other films profusely draw references from. Woody Allen, Bergman’s conspicuous fan-director, creates the prominent character of a grim reaper in his film Deconstructing Harry, and boldly questions the existence of God in Love and Death, sponging on the audience’s tenacious memories of The Seventh Seal.
Many believe that the personification of death is the greatest success of the movie. But it makes one wonder, if an illusory grim reaper can turn out to be a ghoul-looking life-form, why can’t his God be real? Block is closer to the truth than he can see. But like all humans, he wants reassurance, over and over again, displaying the fragility of humans that make us so susceptible to insecurities.
Bergman not only personified something as dark and abstract as death, he also created vivid characters that denote the brighter side of life, such as the ‘holy fool’ played by Nils Poppe and his kind wife, Mia, played by Bibi Andersson. They are the ones who offered the knight an “hour of peace” in his fruitless search for gratification. Eventually, the couple and their baby escaped Death, or rather they cheated Death, which indirectly showed Bergman’s fading, strained, skeptical yet extant optimism towards life.
Bergman does not want them to escape the darkness effortlessly, which is brilliant because the last thing the audience need is a motiveless decision to alienate them from the absorbing cycle of destruction established right from the start. So instead, he decided to let the helpless and desperate knight do one last momentous deed before he faces the inevitable death himself. Unexpected, but hardly inconceivable.
Beneath all those inspiring ideas of existentialism that enthralled many, is a crafty plot accompanied with shrewd lines. Even secondary characters like Jöns the squire, played by the matchless Gunnar Björnstrand, spill out remarkable knowledge on topics of faith, love and life. His discerning repartee with Blacksmith Plog played by Åke Fridell, another brilliant choice of cast, was both engaging and insightful. These lighter moments of the film, though paling in significance, displayed words of wisdom such as, “love is as contagious as a cold. It eats away at your strength, morale … If everything is imperfect in this world, love is perfect in its imperfection.”
Jöns also has a crude way of describing (or objectifying) woman using his sardonic humor like, “it’s hell with women and hell without women. No matter how you reason it seems like the logical thing to do is to kill them while it’s still fun” and “between a scarlet woman’s knees, a man like me can take his ease.”
Another outstanding addition to the cast would be Gunnel Lindblom, who plays a woman who speaks no lines in the film till the climatic scene where the ensemble finally sees the spectre, at last convinced that death is mere steps away.
Lindblom’s one liner acts like the theatrical drumming that throbs in the background of every melodrama. It ends the film on a dramatic and satisfactory note, allowing the audience to breathe again after the set-up of inescapable death was finally paid off.
It is believed that Bergman drew on his own religious upbringing in a Lutheran family when he made this film, of which he confronted his fear of death and what lies beyond, just like how he also questioned the notion of an indifferent God in this and his other works such as Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light and The Silence, a renowned trilogy focused on spiritual issues.
The director’s own experiences impacted the film in ways that made it personal yet sincere and relevant to every human being. It is a masterpiece carved out of the director’s memory and fantasy, which Bergman authenticated in Images: My Life in Film, “Like all churchgoers have at times, I let my mind wander as I contemplated the altarpieces, triptychs, crucifixes, stained glass-windows, and murals … the Knight playing chess with Death. Death sawing down the Tree of Life, a terrified wretch wringing his hands in the top of it.”
That is how the scene where Death sawed down the tree with Skat on it came about.
Erik Strandmark’s attempt as a sneaky and sly actor, Jonas Skat, portrayed a slaphappy way of life that stands out from most of the cynical and burdened characters. His witty remarks, especially those that he used on the simpleton Blacksmith Plog to avert his attack were ingenious. Once again, Bergman not only paid attention to the big concepts, he also made sure all his characters were uttering memorable lines, regardless of how insignificant their roles seem.
Likewise, the character of the devil-possessed woman, which seems trivial, actually plants a seed of doubt (can she really see the devil?) in both the protagonist and the audience. That the doubt remains unresolved and only deepens at her death is a neat move from Bergman. The perfect timing of her death is like a catalyst that pushed the story into a climax, plunging the knight into a deeper hole of desperation. We see the unpleasant side of faith and how belief or lack thereof, can blind a person, making him unsympathetic to himself and others.
Now to the widely discussed values in The Seventh Seal, and how they rendered this film a classic. We see faith, death, existentialism, not uncommon ideologies that have been played out by many early filmmakers. Yet, few succeed to paint beautiful pictures of these intangible values in such a universal way. One does not have to be religious to understand Bergman’s portrayal of a confused man in need of God’s affirmation. The universality of loneliness and sense of loss is rooted in every person, past or present. This is a film that points out man’s existential crisis, whether we admit to having one is another issue.
The Seventh Seal also hatches qualms and questions that we seldom ponder over. Is life worth anything if it is meaningless? What lies beyond the valley of death? Is there a God? Would there be any salvation for the living or dead? Can one believe in something he has never seen or experienced in his life?
This is a film that puts more questions in us than we can answer, which I believe is the elemental criteria of a true classic.
The author is an Intern at Dawn.com from Singapore who writes anything related to films, dramas, books and music.