The Seventh Seal - Bergman’s Existential Masterpiece On The Battle Between Life & Death

By Murtaza Ali Khan. Posted on July 13, 2015

The Seventh Seal is a 1957 motion-picture written and directed by legendary Swedish filmmaker Ernst Ingmar Bergman. The movie is based on a play called ‘Wood Painting’ written by Bergman himself. ‘The Seven Seals’ is a phrase in the Book of Revelation that refers to seven symbolic seals that secure the book that John of Patmos saw in his Revelation of Jesus Christ. Upon the opening of each seal—by the only one worthy of opening it, who’s referred to as the “Lamb”—either a judgment is released or an apocalyptic event occurs. The Seventh Seal begins by quoting the following excerpt from the Book of Revelation: “And when the Lamb had opened the seventh seal there was silence in heaven about the space half of an hour. And the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared themselves to sound.” In ‘The Seventh Seal’, Ingmar Bergman portrays this silence, momentary but alarming, as a metaphor for the indifference of the Creator of mankind and the whole of cosmos towards His creation.

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The Seventh Seal: The Death rendezvouses The Knight

The Seventh Seal shakes the very foundations of organized religion by questioning the logic behind exalting an ‘Absentee God’ who’s oblivious to the needs and desires of his worshippers—something that Spanish maestro Luis Bunuel operatically depicts in his case study on Bourgeoisie plight, Viridiana (1961). The movie catapulted Bergman to the stature of an auteur par-excellence, thus marking the beginning of his tryst with cinematic brilliance that would continue for almost five decades. The Seventh Seal introduced Swedish cinema to the West in the same way as Rashomon had introduced Japanese cinema and Kurosawa to the Occident. The Seventh Seal and Rashomon together helped overcome the void that had been created in art cinema owing to the catastrophic occurrences of the Second World War, thereby paving the way for the subsequent success of Fellini, Antonioni, Truffaut, Godard and others.

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The Seventh Seal: The Knight Antonius Bloc

The Seventh Seal not only helped establish Bergman as one of the most influential filmmakers of the 20th century but, in the words of Bergman himself, it also helped him overcome his colossal fear of death. In an interview with Charles Thomas Samuels in 1971, Bergman says, “Say anything you want against The Seventh Seal. My fear of death—this infantile fixation of mine—was, at that moment, overwhelming. I felt myself in contact with death day and night, and my fear was tremendous. When I finished the picture, my fear went away. I have the feeling simply of having painted a canvas in an enormous hurry—with enormous pretension but without any arrogance.

The movie introduced to the world a new kind of existentialist cinema that helped draw parallels between the atrocities of the Medieval Era and the iniquities prevalent in the post-World War II phase with the threat of another war hovering over the world like the Sword of Damocles. Today, The Seventh Seal, having stood the test of time for over five decades, is touted as one of the most influential movies of all time that still continues to inspire movie-makers and movies worldwide.

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The Knight Antonius Block and The Squire Jons

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The Artist Paints the Fresco of Dance of Death

The plot of The Seventh Seal revolves around a disenchanted Swede knight Antonious Block , who returns home after years of relentless fighting in the Crusades, giving a metaphorical account of his epic game of chess with the Grim Reaper—the Personification of Death. Block is accompanied by his grumpy yet stalwart squire, Jons. Block, after having spent the better part of his youth fighting in the Holy Land, finally realizes the futility of the mission undertaken by him a decade back on the call of a theologian. On his arrival to his native Sweden, he comes to know that the country is ravaged by The Black Plague.

While playing a solo game of chess on a beach, Block encounters the Grim Reaper who, in his personified form, resembles a monk: pale-faced and dressed in a black hood. The Death tells Block that his time has come. Undeterred by the sudden revelation, Block challenges the Grim Reaper to a game of chess on the conditions that he should be allowed to live as long as he is able to keep the Grim Reaper at bay and that if Block wins, the Death should set him free. The Death accepts the offer gleefully and hence begins an epic battle of wits as the hunter and the hunted try to outfox each other. Owing to Death’s overwhelming schedule, the game of chess is played intermittently: on each encounter the game begins from the very point it was left in the previous one.

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Actors Jof and Wife Mia Perform to their Audience

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The Flagellants Imitate the Dance of Death

After the initial round, all of Block’s pieces remain intact as he, accompanied by the squire, continues his march towards his castle with the faint hope of reuniting with his wife, whom he had left behind on the call of the theologian. On their way, they pass a troupe of performers: Jof and his wife Mia, their baby boy Mikael, and their manager Skat. Subsequently, the knight and the squire enter a church where an artist seems busy painting the Dance of Death. When questioned by Jons about the apprehensions that a painting as macabre as the one being painted could give rise to, the artist replies, “Why make them happy? Why not scare them? A skull is more interesting than a naked woman!

In the meantime, the knight approaches the confessional booth and confesses to the priest that his life had been a meaningless pursuit: high on talk, but low on action. He also tells the priest about his game of chess with the Grim Reaper and asserts that he wants to use his reprieve to do one meaningful deed. The knight and squire proceed with their journey as the latter while trying to get some water for his master encounter Raval—the theologian who had convinced the knight to leave his wife and join the Crusades a decade back. Raval is no longer a theologian but has perverted to become a lowly thief who robs the dead and rapes the hapless women. Jons rescues a servant girl from his clutches and promises to brand him on the face if they ever meet again. The girl joins the squire as the trio ride into the town where Jof and Mia's performance is interrupted by the sudden arrival of a procession of flagellants imitating the Dance of Death.

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Antonius Block Savors a Bowl of Fresh Milk

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The Seventh Seal: Death on the Prowl

At an eating joint, Jof comes across Raval who humiliates Jof by making him hop and jump on the table repeatedly. Jons, on identifying Raval, comes to Jof’s rescue and fulfills his promise by slicing Raval’s forehead. On the next morning, Block comes across Mia who offers him some wild strawberries and warm milk. Moved by Mia’s hospitality, Block says, “I shall bear this memory between my hands as carefully as a bowl of fresh milk. And it will be a sign and a great contentment.” He courteously invites Mia, Jof and Mikael to his castle, where he feels they would be safer from the plague. However, the Grim Reaper soon starts to close in on Block, cornering him move by move, with a greater intensity as the Black Plague spreads far and wide. With the stench of death growing exponentially, the knight has his job cut out to do the “one meaningful deed”.

Any further revelation of the plot would reflect remissness on my part and so I would rather let my readers savor it with their own eyes for a consummate cinematic experience. The somber theme of The Seventh Seal can appear to be highly pessimistic to the less keen eye, for it’s never easy to fathom the latent optimism in Bergman’s oeuvre, which thrives on skepticism, iconoclasm and self-denial vis-à-vis belief, acceptance and gratification. But, a keener observer would knows better, for he would know that beneath this veneer of skepticism lies an overwhelming sense of optimism that has the power to inspire even the most pessimistic of the beings.

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Swedish Maestro Ingmar Bergman

One striking feature of Bergman’s earlier works is the undercurrent of dark, scurrilous humor that adds a whole new dimension to his cinema. However, as his works grew somber, this undercurrent of humor was replaced by a stark, seething sarcasm aimed to sear the indifference and ignorance of the ruck.

 

Bergman once said of his movies, “I don't want to produce a work of art that the public can sit and suck aesthetically… I want to give them a blow in the small of the back, to scorch their indifference, to startle them out of their complacency.” Bergman’s existential, multidimensional works succeeded in fathoming the hitherto unfathomable depths of the human psyche that not only refined cinema but also redefined it.

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The Seventh Seal: A Girl Being Condemned to Death

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The Knight and Squire Witness the Immolation

Renowned American movie-maker Michael said of Bergman, “Bergman was the epitome of a director's director—creating beautiful, complex and smart films that imprinted permanently into the psyche—inspiring filmmakers all over the world to create their own movies with similar passion and brio.” Bergman stood tall among the handful of auteurs whose avant-garde works seemed to possess a softer corner for the spirit of womanhood and it is for this reason he was often touted as a vanguard feminist: His female characters were intellectually driven, strong, patient and liberal, while his male characters were usually selfish, indifferent, dogmatic and self-indulgent.

Bergman’s films touched upon various facets of existence: be it social, personal, religious, spiritual, or ethical. Critic Peter Rainer wrote of Bergman, “He is undeniably one of the great directors, but he has always stood for more than the sum of his films. From the first, he was regarded as a visionary who grappled with the Big Questions of God and Man. His symbol-thick films were drenched in the night sweats of mortal torment. He was the kind of artist we had been brought up to believe was the real deal: He suffered for our souls.” Bergman passed away in July 2007, leaving behind arguably the richest oeuvre in the history of cinema.

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Theologian Raval Succumbs to The Black Plague

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Gunnar Bjornstrand as 'The Pastor' in The Winter Light

The Seventh Seal continues to enjoy its well-deserved apotheosis and is still widely regarded as Bergman’s most decorated work. It has been imitated on countless occasions, not only in form of parodies or lampoons but also in form of serious works: be it Monty Python series, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive or Woody Allen’s oeuvre. Like most great works of Art, it doesn't enjoy unqualified praise: while some exalt it as an exemplary specimen of Art others dismiss it with disdain. People, under the disenchanting influence of its endless imitations, often tend to underestimate its true power and Bergman’s astonishing achievement that’s yet to be paralleled, perhaps with the likely exception of Kurosawa’s Rashomon, in the whole of cinema. Only someone of Bergman’s stature could have succeeded in meticulously balancing so many contrasting acts: comedy with tragedy, aesthetics with concept, logic with linearity, and clarity with nebulosity.

The actors in the movie have given memorable performances with special mention of Max von Sydow as Antonius Block, Bibi Andersson as Mia, and Gunnar Bjornstrand as Jons. Bjornstrand as Jons is indeed mesmerizingly brilliant. His role of the Pastor in The Winter Light (1963) is in exact contrast to this role. Anyone who would have seen him first in role of the stern pastor in The Winter Light would find it difficult to comprehend his ease at levity as the witty yet contemplative squire, Jons.

ÒPersonaÓ and ÒBeing John MalkovichÓ will screen as a double feature of psychological explorations on film to be presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on Friday, July 20, at 7 p.m. at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. Ticketholders will also be able to take advantage of special evening hours for the ongoing exhibition

 

Bibi Anderson (Left) and Liv Ullman in Persona

On the other hand, Max von Sydow’s anguished caricature became the archetype of heroism in the new existential cinema of the 50s and the 60s. Bibi Anderson’s role of a happy-go-lucky wife also offers a great contrast to her complex portrayals in other Bergman masterpieces like Persona (1966). Like a quintessential Bergman movie, the synergy between breathtaking imagery and titillating music is omnipresent. Several scenes in the movie serve to be great moments of epiphany: be it the one that features the procession of flagellants imitating the Dance of Death, or the one that depicts the immolation of young girl condemned for supposedly consorting with the Devil, or the final scene that depicts the Grim reaper leading its newly claimed victims over the hills in a solemn Dance of Death.

The sequence that depicts the knight and his companions savoring the wild strawberries and warm milk amidst the incipient darkness epitomizes hope as the highest cinematic virtue; the scene that depicts the theologian Raval writhing in pain helplessly (before finally succumbing to Death) in his final few moments represents cinema as its most macabre.

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The Seventh Seal Finale: Dance of Death

Overall, The Seventh Seal demonstrates the true power and purpose of cinema by serving to be a quintessential work on existentialism. Here, Bergman is at his most imaginative and insightful in portraying the epic battle of life versus death. The Seventh Seal complements brilliantly the themes of melancholy and pessimism with those of euphoria and optimism. The movie also demonstrates the human ability to rise after a fall, the very ability that given him the power to snatch victory even from the jaws of defeat.

The questions that Bergman asks of his viewers in The Seventh Seal have the power to perplex a soothsayer and make an omniscient look doubtful, and perhaps it is the probing ability of 'The Seventh Seal' that makes its viewing challenging and nigh unbearable for the unscrupulous. The movie is highly recommended to all those who are not averse to savoring cinema that’s auteur-driven as well as thought-provoking. The Seventh Seal can also serve as an entry point of Bergman’s decorated oeuvre as its lays down the foundation of his more complex explorations as propagated through his subsequent works. Hence, it's is a great means to get acquainted with Bergman’s body of work before exploring his exceedingly challenging works like Persona, The Winter Light, Cries & Whispers (1972), etc. A must watch!


Murtaza Ali Khan is an independent film critic based out of New Delhi, India. The post first appeared on his movie blog "A Potpourri of Vestiges". Cinema is not only his passion but also his greatest obsession. His all-time favorite filmmakers are Akira Kurosawa, Stanley Kubrick, Luis Bunuel, Andrei Tarkovsky, Charles Chaplin, Orson Welles, Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Satyajit Ray, Fritz Lang, Jean-Pierre Melville, Sergio Leone, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Lars von Trier.


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