Classic Movie: The Seventh Seal (1957)

The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet)

Directed by Ingmar Bergman, 1957, Sweden

By D.G. McCabe

“This is my hand. I can turn it. The blood is still running in it. The sun is still in the sky and the wind is blowing. And I… I, Antonius Block, am playing chess with Death.”

The image of Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) playing chess with Death (Bengt Ekerot) on a medieval Swedish beach is one of the most iconic in of the canon of classic cinema.  The Seventh Seal wasn’t Ingmar Bergman’s first international breakthrough (1955’s Smiles of a Summer Night), and it isn’t his most influential film (1966’s Persona).  Instead, it is the quintessential gateway film, not only into the films of Bergman but into all of the European “art house” cinema of the 1950’s and 1960’s.

“Art house” cinema tends to join together several different movements that had profound influence on modern cinema.  The films of the French New Wave, the Italian Neorealist Movement, and the classical Japanese era broke the dominance of the romantic “Old Hollywood” style of filmmaking.  What is unique about Bergman is that his films stand apart from any particular movement, but exist as a compliment to all of them.

In some ways, The Seventh Seal itself is an outlier in Bergman’s intensely realistic catalog.  While it is grounded in the reality of medieval Sweden, it is outwardly fantastic.  All of this begs the question: why is such a unique film a great starter film for people interested in the beginnings of modern cinema?

First, the Seventh Seal’s framing device is common in familiar Hollywood cinema – it is after all a “road” movie.  Block and his squire, Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand) travel from the beach at the beginning of the film throughout a land devastated by the Black Plague.  Like most road movies, the main characters meet other travelers and witness both comic and tragic events.  Throughout this journey,  the fantastic elements are contained between Block and another character, Jof (Nils Poppe).  Jof sees visions that no one else sees, and Block plays chess with Death, but none of the other characters have these experiences.

The Seventh Seal is grounded in reality with limited fantasy, and its familiar framing device gives viewers unfamiliar with non-Hollywood cinema a certain comfort level.  This can’t be said of some other classic European films, like Federico Fellini’s “8 1/2.”

Once Bergman draws the viewer in, he uses religious symbolism to explore ambitious themes.  The Seventh Seal’s themes include the silence of God, the inevitability of death, and the insanity of a mob grappling with a world where God is silent and death is everywhere.

Lastly, the ending of the Seventh Seal offers a glimpse of hope, as Block’s reprieve from Death is not wasted.  The ending isn’t entirely “happy,” but it is not so bleak as to turn away film viewers who are used to positive resolutions.  The end, therefore, is another place where the Seventh Seal acts as a bridge between the romance of mainstream commercial cinema and the realism of artistic cinema.

You might like The Seventh Seal if: You are interested in art cinema but don’t know where to start.

You might not like The Seventh Seal if: You are looking for a purely escapist film.

(c) 2014 D.G. McCabe