Ingmar Bergman | The Seventh Seal

“Faith is a torment, did you know that? It is like loving someone who is out there in the darkness but never appears, no matter how loudly you call.”

The Seventh Seal is a 1957 Swedish historical fantasy film written and directed by Ingmar Bergman. It is considered a classic of world cinema, as well as one of the greatest movies of all time. It established Bergman as a world-renowned director, containing scenes which have become iconic through homages, critical analysis, and parodies.

Set in Sweden during the Black Death, it centres on a pensive knight, Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), who returns to Sweden after fighting in the Crusades. He finds a rude church still open in the midst of the Black Death, and goes to confession there. Speaking to a hooded figure half-seen through an iron grill, he pours out his heart: “My indifference has shut me out. I live in a world of ghosts, a prisoner of dreams. I want God to put out his hand, show his face, speak to me. I cry out to him in the dark but there is no one there.” The hooded figure turns, and is revealed as Death (Bengt Ekerot), who has been following the knight on his homeward journey and has come to claim him. Block forestalls his demise by challenging Death to a game of chess as he wishes to find answers to some of life’s big questions and perform at least one meaningful deed before he dies.Source

“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. I said, ‘Here is a painting; take it, please.” 

 Ingmar Bergman

Ingmar Bergman decided to make something completely different upon witnessing the success of his comedy Smiles of a Summer Night in Cannes, where the film had won the jury’s special reward. “I mustn’t let myself get scared off any more. It’s better to do this than a bad comedy. I don’t give a damn about the money.” It was the success of this particular comedy that enabled him to make The Seventh Seal, since his earlier efforts to make the movie found no support from the studio. Carl Anders Dymling, the head of Svensk Filmindustri, finally agreed to finance the picture.Source The film developed out of Bergman’s play called ‘Wood Painting’ written for the actors of the Malmo Municipal Theater and first performed as a radio play in 1954. Source

Made with a tiny crew on a modest budget, in a mere 35 days of shooting, The Seventh Seal breathes an extraordinary authenticity. We instantly believe in the medieval mood, and we accept the young Max von Sydow as a white haired, world-weary survivor of the Crusades. P.A. Lundgren’s set designs mirror the frescoes that as a boy Bergman used to gaze at when visiting local churches with his father. Erik Nordgren’s music score echoes the fierce, unsettling beauty of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. Above all, the cinematography of Gunnar Fischer (who worked on all the great early Bergman films) invests each image, each sequence, with a crystalline depth and detail. Apart from Gregg Toland and Bergman’s own subsequent collaborator Sven Nykvist, nobody has matched the luminous, almost hallucinatory brilliance of Fischer’s lighting on The Seventh Seal. Source

For more than forty years, the movie has been a benchmark by which all other great foreign films are judged. It launched the international career of its director (Bergman), and made a star of its 27-year-old leading actor, Max von Sydow. The Seventh Seal and the other Bergman masterpieces that soon followed it—Wild Strawberries, The Magician, and The Virgin Spring—were as important to the development of world cinema as the New Wave in France or the work of Fellini, Antonioni and Bertolucci in Italy. Bergman’s work proved that essential philosophical and human issues could be explored on film and still reach a wide audience. Source

philosophical allegory

The miracle is that Bergman’s genius enabled him to reflect the trepidation of the Cold War era and yet also transcend it, so that The Seventh Seal continues to enthrall each new generation with its complex investigation of love, self-sacrifice, and the problems of pain and death. Source When The Seventh Seal was released in 1957, the world was still recovering from the Second World War, the Cold War was underway and a well-founded fear of nuclear destruction was spreading far and wide. For contemporary audiences, Bergman’s tale of a knight returning from war to face the possibility of society being decimated by the bubonic plague clearly resonated. But by focusing on the wider issues of man’s relationships with death, life and God, Bergman was able to transcend simple metaphor and make the film a rich philosophical allegory that remains relevant even today.Source

The Seventh Seal takes its title from the Book of Revelation and refers to a passage 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”.[Rev. 8:1] Here, the motif of silence refers to the “silence of God”, which is a major theme of the film. Source In 1956 the threat of Apocalypse seemed as palpable as it must have been in medieval Sweden. Yet Bergman refuses to succumb to the pessimism that pervades all those about him; he identifies now with the zealous knight, now with his cynical squire. His characters manage to overcome the fear of Death, rather than the fact of Death, and if, as the knight discovers, one can achieve even a single gesture of goodwill, then the long struggle of life will be justified. Source

Inspired by his own recollections of visiting old churches as a child petrified by the idea of death, observing church murals and frescoes, Bergman made an intimate, highly personal movie in which he directly dealt with his own fears, insecurities and demons the way no one had done it before: before the eyes of the public, which reacted very positively to the film’s audacity to ask the questions most didn’t dare to utter even among close friends. “The Seventh Seal is one of the few films really close to my heart,” said Bergman years later, for a long time unwilling to even discuss it. “I wrote this film to conjure up my own fear of dying.” An authentic, honest combination of Bergman, the God-trusting child and Bergman, the intelligent, rational skeptic, two poles of the same personality going hand-in-hand in a masterful, uncompromising exhibition of filmmaking vision and craft that would remain a film all foreign movies would be measured against for years to come.Source

“I want to confess as best I can, but my heart is void. The void is a mirror. I see my face and feel loathing and horror. My indifference to man has shut me out. I live now in a world of ghosts, a prisoner in my dreams.” 

The Seventh Seal
visual elements

Much of Bergman’s strength comes from his ability to dramatize his scenes in visual compositions that are striking and often shocking. In his black and white films, Bergman used high contrasts between dark shadows and brightly lit areas, a technique he had seen in the old, silent horror films of Germany and Scandinavia. For instance, Bergman’s character of Death in The Seventh Seal wears a black monk’s robe. He is usually shot against a dark background, but his face is highly made up in “white face,” and it is lit by small spotlights, often the only illuminated area in the frame. He also pares his scenes down to a few dominating visual elements; this tendency is helped by the fact that he does not locate many of his films in the urban centers of contemporary Sweden. (…) He goes most often to simple, almost elemental locales, the better to make clear his individual human dramas. The visual result is most often powerful starkness. Source

In many ways, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal has more in common with the silent film than with the modern films that followed it–including his own. Perhaps this is why it is out of fashion at the moment. Long considered one of the masterpieces of cinema, it is now a little embarrassing to some viewers, with its stark imagery and its uncompromising subject, which is no less than the absence of God. Films are no longer concerned with the silence of God but with the chattering of men. We are uneasy to find Bergman asking existential questions in an age of irony, and Bergman himself, starting with Persona (1967), found more subtle ways to ask the same questions. But the directness of The Seventh Seal is its strength: This is an uncompromising film, regarding good and evil with the same simplicity and faith as its hero. Source

All of Bergman’s mature films, except the comedies, are about his discontent with the ways that God has chosen to reveal himself. But when he made The Seventh Seal he was bold enough to approach his subject in a literal manner; to actually show the knight playing chess with Death, an image so perfect it has survived countless parodies. And he had the confidence to end his film, not with a statement or a climax, but with an image. “The strict lord Death bids them dance,” says the young actor, directing the attention of his wife to the horizon, against which Death leads his latest victims in a Danse Macabre. Source

The Seventh Seal throbs and reverberates with intelligence and emotion as perhaps no other European film has done in the intervening years. It remains Bergman’s great trailblazing masterpiece, his Hamlet, his Faust. Source It is a powerful, insightful, philosophical and beautifully designed film about which there really isn’t much more to be written besides what has already been said before. It definitely stands out as one of the symbols of European filmmaking, as influential as it is enthralling, a work of art available for the study of enjoyment of generations to come. Source

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