A trailblazing and entertaining road movie that profoundly explores life, death, and the existence of God
One often thinks of movies as fun popcorn-eating diversions, meant to entertain and then be forgotten. There are many film directors who have the skills to makes those types of films, and fewer who make films that beg to be looked at a second or third time. But there are only a handful who make groundbreaking, transcendent films that transform the medium into poetic experiences, leaving a lasting impression upon the viewer. Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman is one of those handful, and in his long line of cinematic masterpieces,"The Seventh Seal" is among his most celebrated. This incredibly powerful film changed cinema, proving films could successfully be made about philosophical questions while remaining entertaining. It opened the door to foreign films becoming popular in the United States, and officially launched arthouse cinema. “The Seventh Seal” won that year’s Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and has been listed on countless Greatest Films of All-Time lists, including those by the British Film Institute, The Village Voice, Entertainment Weekly, and many, many more. Two of its iconic scenes have been countlessly emulated, parodied, analyzed, honored, and copied, to a point that you would think this original work would now seem frivolous and clichéd. But no, this film is so beguiling it still packs an uncompromising punch as it explores unanswerable questions of life, death, faith, humanity, and God.
From its stunning opening, “The Seventh Seal” lets the viewer know this is no ordinary film. Choral music blares as we are shown blackness, a cloudy sky, and the silhouette of a hovering eagle. Narration from The Book of Revelation follows over images of a rocky shoreline. We then hear crashing waves and see a knight laying motionless by a chess set, and a squire face up on the rocks - both looking like corpses. They begin to move and suddenly a mysterious figure appears who turns out to be "Death". "Death" explains he is there to take the knight, who challenges "Death" to a game of chess - with the caveat that he remain alive so long as the game continues and should he win, "Death" will set him free. "Death" agrees and the stage is set for “The Seventh Seal”.
We learn the knight is “Antonius Block” and his squire is “Jöns”. The two have just returned from a fruitless ten years in the Crusades, only to find themselves back in a homeland riddled with the plague known as the Black Death. As they journey home towards “Antonius’” castle, they are joined by a small group of traveling performers consisting of "Jof”, his wife “Mia”, their infant son “Mikael, and fellow performer and troupe manager, “Jonas”. Also in tow are a blacksmith (“Plog”), his wife (“Lisa”), and a nameless girl who mostly remains silent. The film is filled with contrasts, beginning with “Antonius" and “Jöns”. Having lost his faith and feeling his life has been futile, “Antonius” strives to find proof that God exists, and wants to do one meaningful act before he dies. “Jöns” is a non-believing realist who is of the mindset to eat, drink, and be merry, for we are all going to die sometime. As they approach life in their opposing ways, the film explores many facets of humanity in what you could call a profound medieval buddy road trip movie. Though filled with somber, existential questions, “The Seventh Seal” has much humor, irony, wit, and beauty, and in the end becomes quite life-affirming.
Ingmar Bergman had just directed a couple of comedies, and his prior award-winning film, “Smiles of a Summer Night”, made him world-famous. Because of that success, Bergman was given carte blanche to make the kind of film he wanted. So after solid commercial films, he embarked on a highly personal and expressive film that dealt with his fears about death. Originally intending to create a film version of his play "Wood Painting", he made many revisions and it turned into "The Seventh Seal". Both the play and film were inspired by frescoes he’d seen as a boy in the the Härkeberga Church painted by medieval Swedish painter Albertus Pictor. The frescoes depicted scenes from the plague including flagellants, burning witches, a knight playing chess with death, and people dancing with death - all of which he wrote into the film. Pictor even appears in a scene (portrayed by actor Gunnar Olsson) conversing with “Jöns” about his frescoes. Bergman manages to render a truly believable medieval world, shot entirely on a studio backlot (except for the prologue, the ending, and a scene eating strawberries). "The Seventh Seal" marked a period in Bergman’s career in which he turned toward the metaphysical, using symbolism, metaphors, and later dreams to express thoughts, concepts, and emotions. In this film, his striking vision for "Death" was created by mixing a white clown face with a skull, dressing him in a black robe, and having him magnificently portrayed by Bengt Ekerot. "Death’s" face, and the scene of him playing chess with “Antonius” have both become iconic.
The encounters experienced by the knight and squire bring to the surface many questions and thoughts:
Does God exist or was He created by humans out of fear of being alone?
Is life meant to be enjoyed or lived to serve a purpose?
To what lengths will people go under the spell of religion?
Does fulfillment come from drinking in each moment or from making a difference?
At the core of the film is the reminder that we are all destined to die and perhaps we can approach death without fear. This may all sound a bit morose, but again Bergman’s artistic flair keeps things entertainingly engaging. “The Seventh Seal” was a landmark in Bergman's career, and began a decade in which he produced the biggest cluster of his best known works of art, including “Wild Strawberries”, “Through a Glass Darkly”, “Winter Light”, “The Silence”, and “Persona”.
Bergman wrote virtually all of the films he directed (plus many screenplays directed by others) and as a result, his films are very personal. Like “The Seventh Seal”, they reflect his deep thoughts, often sharing recurring themes of mortality, loneliness, infidelity, religion, faith, love, art, isolation, and inner emptiness. His skill with actors consistently extracted brilliant performances which exposed the inner psychology of his characters - often by use of a lingering closeup (a Bergman trademark). His films are a window inward, uncovering raw aspects of humanity with which we all can identify. A courageous director and creative genius, he put his greatest fears, sins, angst, and pains into his films - always making them grippingly entertaining. Bergman’s childhood was marked by being the son of a domineering mother and a strict Lutheran minister. Losing his own faith as a young child, his visits to church became introspective thoughts, awakenings about architecture, statues, and awareness of how sunlight painted the church walls and floors. At sixteen he was sent to Germany to live with family friends, and with them attended a speech given by Adolf Hitler whom he found charismatic. He became infatuated with the “fun and youthful idealism" Nazism appeared to contain, until he saw footage of the concentration camps. In a 1999 BBC interview he said, "When the doors to the concentration camps were thrown open, at first I did not want to believe my eyes. When the truth came out it was a hideous shock for me. In a brutal and violent way I was suddenly ripped of my innocence”. These early childhood experiences, his self doubt as an artist, self-questioning nature, and failed marriages, all had a visible impact on Bergman's art.
Ingmar Bergman became infatuated with cinema and theater at a very young age. By eleven years old he was creating his own sophisticated puppet theater (referenced in some of his films). White studying literature and art at Stockholm University he veered off into theater, never earning a degree. He began directing plays by William Shakespeare and August Strindberg while writing his own, and in 1942, first directed one of his own plays, “Death of Punch”. His success at writing and directing theater was noticed by Sweden’s largest film studio, Svensk Filmindustri, who hired him in 1941 as a writer and assistant director. His first script to be made into a film was 1944’s “Torment”, directed by Alf Sjöberg, on which Bergman also acted as assistant director. That film’s success led to his directorial debut with the 1946 film, “Crisis”. Bergman continued to direct movies, having even more success with films such as “Sawdust and Tinsel” and “Summer with Monika”. After three successive international sensations (“Smiles of a Summer Night”, “The Seventh Seal”, and “Wild Strawberries”), Bergman was now firmly considered one of the world’s leading directors. While creating internationally recognized films, directing theater, radio shows, and writing, he also began directing television in 1957, and in his career directed seventy films and TV shows, and over 160 plays. His work was heavily honored and awarded worldwide, and in the US alone, three of his films earned a Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award ("The Virgin Spring", "Through a Glass Darkly", and "Fanny and Alexander”, with a fourth nomination for “Cries and Whispers”). Bergman was nominated for three Best Director and five Best Original Screenplay Oscars, and in 1971 was awarded the Academy’s honorary Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for his body of work. He is one of the few film directors you can unquestionably call an auteur, as his work, though varied, is distinct and clearly his own. Entertainment Weekly ranked him as the eighth greatest film director of all-time, and he has been cited as a favorite among many directors including Woody Allen, Andrei Tarkovsky, Francis Ford Coppola, Guillermo del Toro, Stanley Kubrick, Wim Wenders, and Steven Spielberg. He is certainly one of my absolute favorites. His not yet mentioned classics include "Face to Face", "Autumn Sonata", and "Scenes from a Marriage”. He was married five times (divorced four, widowed once), and was famous for his long term relationships with three of his actresses - Harriet Andersson, Bibi Andersson, and Liv Ullmann (with whom he had a child). Ingmar Bergman died in 2007 at the age of 89.
Exquisite to look at, “The Seventh Seal’s” crisp, gorgeously composed black and white images were shot by cinematographer Gunnar Fischer. The stark contrast he captures reinforces the conflict between light versus dark, and life versus death. Fischer photographed thirteen of Bergman’s films between 1948 and 1961, including "Summer Interlude", "Summer with Monika", "Smiles of a Summer Night" and "Wild Strawberries”. His expressionistic work in “The Seventh Seal” set a visual tone for many of Bergman’s later films.
Bergman formed a sort of repertory group from which he repeatedly chose cast and crew for his films (the bulk of which he met while working in the theater) and Gunnar Björnstrand who plays the squire “Jöns”, is one of those people. Björnstrand gives a captivatingly colorful performance that has such personality you can’t help but feel this man is one of your chums. With a sarcastic sense of humor, “Jöns” is quite expressive - whether singing tunes while traveling to pass the time, uneasily looking at frescoes as he bluntly converses with the painter, or firmly threatening “Raval”, a thief who led him to the Crusades. This is a man who says what he thinks and takes life as it comes. Björnstrand gives a stellar performance and is a joy to watch.
Swedish born Gunnar Björnstrand began his career in the theater, and in 1933 he studied at the Royal Dramatic Theater’s acting school (along with actress Ingrid Bergman). At the school he met Lillie Björnstrand, who became his lifelong wife in 1935. While working in theater, he developed a reputation for comedy. At the same time, he began to appear in small uncredited film roles starting in 1931. He first worked with Ingmar Bergman in a 1941 production of Strindberg’s play, “Ghost Sonata”. His first major film roles were in 1943’s "Night in the Harbor”, and a small role in Bergman’s second film, "It Rains on Our Love" in 1946. Beginning with “Secrets of Women” in 1952, Björnstrand began appearing often in Bergman’s films through the early 1960s, which made him an internationally recognized actor. In the course of his film career he appeared in twenty Bergman films, which also include "Through a Glass Darkly", "Smiles of a Summer Night”, "Sawdust and Tinsel”, "Wild Strawberries", "Winter Light”, and Björnstrand’s final film, "Fanny and Alexander” in 1982. He worked in theater throughout his career and on television beginning in the mid 1960s. Gunnar Björnstrand died in 1986 at the age of 76.
Max von Sydow stars as “Antonius Block”, the disillusioned knight grappling with life and "Death". Von Sydow’s earnest nature adds depth and gravitas to the film, and his sensitivity makes everything dynamically arresting. When “Antonius” first encounters "Death", von Sydow shows more intrigue than fear, which only electrifies their game of chess. And when he shares wild strawberries and milk with “Mia”, he brings just the right balance of sorrow, joy, and nostalgia, making it one of the film’s most profoundly moving scenes. His fantastic dramatic skills and tall angular looks fit the role of a medieval knight perfectly, and this film made von Sydow internationally known, and on his way to becoming perhaps Sweden’s most famous male actor. Another of Bergman’s roster of actors, von Sydow appeared in a total of eleven Bergman films, and is best remembered for their work together, particularly “The Seventh Seal”.
Swedish born Max von Sydow decided to become an actor after seeing a theater production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night's Dream”. After serving in the military, he studied at the Royal Dramatic Theatre starting in 1948. He began appearing onstage around the same time he landed film roles, making his screen debut in “Only a Mother” in 1949. While appearing in the theater, Bergman saw him and asked him to join the Malmö City Theatre (where Bergman directed), and the two began working together in 1955. “The Seventh Seal” was von Sydow’s fifth film, his first major screen role, first film with Bergman, and his big break. He next appeared in Bergman's classic film "Wild Strawberries", and another major Bergman film shortly after, "The Virgin Spring” - all while continuing to appear in theater. After years of Hollywood trying to lure him, he finally appeared as “Jesus” in the American film epic, “The Greatest Story Ever Told”. He continued to work internationally, including more by Bergman (such as "Hour of the Wolf”, "The Passion of Anna”, and "Shame"), and in American films such as "Hawaii", "Three Days of the Condor", and most famously "The Exorcist" in 1973 (mostly typecast as a villain or religious figure in Hollywood films). He starred in the 1987 Danish/Swedish film “Pelle the Conqueror” for which he earned his first Academy Award nomination (Best Actor), and received a second Oscar nomination (Best Supporting Actor) for the 2012 film, “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”. He appeared in well over 150 films and TV shows, including the 1989 TV movie “Red King, White Knight” and the TV series “Game of Thrones” in which he played “The Three-Eyed Raven”, earning Emmy Award nominations for both. A few of his other classic films include "Never Say Never Again", "Hannah and Her Sisters", "Dune", "Conan the Barbarian", and "Minority Report”. Over the years he earned a reputation for being one of the world’s most gifted actors. He also directed the Danish/Swedish film “Katinka” in 1988. He was married twice. Max von Sydow died in 2020 at the age of 90.
Nils Poppe play “Jof”, the acrobat/juggler/performer in the traveling troupe who can see and hear visions, and husband of “Mia”. Like everyone, Poppe is outstanding in his role, and he adds some levity to this seriously themed tale. Radiating a gentle kindness, we wholeheartedly believe the devout love he has for his family. Because he is so genuine, I find his humiliating scene in the tavern perhaps the film’s toughest to watch. A daring choice for the role, he was one of Sweden’s premiere comedians. Nils Poppe began in the theater in comedies, revues, and operettas, and eventually musicals. His film debut was in 1937, and by the 1940s he became Sweden's leading film comedian. Often partnered with actress/dancer Annalisa Ericson on stage and screen, they became Sweden’s answer to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. His role in “The Seventh Seal” became his most famous. Starting in the mid 1960s, he began a very successful theater run at Fredriksdalsteatern open-air theater, bringing new life to his career before turning to television in the 1980s. He was married twice - to actresses Inga Landgré and Gunilla Poppe. Nils Poppe died in 2000 at the age of 92.
Though I could easily go on, the last actor I’ll mention from “The Seventh Seal” is Bibi Andersson who plays “Mia” - “Jof's" wife and part of the performing troupe. Like her husband, “Mia” is uncomplicated and kind, and Andersson is wonderful at displaying young, motherly comfort. There’s a naturalness to her performance that is completely enchanting, whether lovingly playing with her one-year old son, cavorting with her husband, or repeatedly offering “Antonius” strawberries with the concern of a caring mother. “Mia” brings a fresh innocence and purity into the mix.
One of Sweden’s most famous actresses, Bibi Andersson is best known for her work and association with Bergman, who discovered her at fifteen years old when he cast her in a series of Bris Soap commercials starting in 1951. At the same time, she began appearing as an extra in Swedish films while studying acting (including studying at the Royal Dramatic Theater school and shorty after joining their theater). She had her first credited film role in 1953's "Dum-Bom" starring Nils Poppe, and that same year Bergman gave her a role in "Smiles of a Summer Night". She quickly became typecast as a “fresh-faced girl” and the picture of youthful Swedish beauty. Her breakthrough role came when Bergman cast her as the lead opposite Liv Ullman in “Persona” in 1966. As the complex “Nurse Alma”, she showed tremendous depth and skill, and it made her an internationally known and respected actress. Her first American film came the same year in the western “Duel at Diablo” co-starring James Garner and Sidney Poitier. She continued to work in film, theater and television, including work as a theater director in Stockholm in the 1990s. Andersson appeared in a total of ten film and three TV shows directed by Bergman, including “Wild Strawberries”, “The Passion of Anna”, “Scenes from a Marriage”, “The Devil's Eye”, and “The Magician”. Her other non-Bergman films include “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden”, “An Enemy of the People”, “Quintet”, “The Kremlin Letter”, and "Babette's Feast”. She was married three times and had a famous four year relationship with Bergman (which was going on during “The Seventh Seal”). Bibi Andersson died in 2019 at the age of 83.
This week’s film gives you a delicious taste of the universal reach of cinema, and how this medium can invigorate and affect an audience no matter what language, time period, or style it uses. Tantalizing, visually evocative, and surprisingly powerful, this is one amazing film. Enjoy “The Seventh Seal”!
And as I always do with foreign films, if possible, I highly recommend watching it in its original Swedish language with subtitles, rather than a dubbed version. After five minutes you won't even realize you are reading - I promise.
This blog is a weekly series on all types of classic films from the silent era through the 1970s. It is designed to entertain and inform movie novices and lovers through watching one recommended classic film a week. The intent is that a love and deepened knowledge of cinema will evolve, along with a familiarity of important stars, directors, writers, the studio system, and a deeper understanding of cinema. I highly recommend visiting (or revisiting) the HOME page, which explains it all and provides a place where you can subscribe and get email notifications each Tuesday of every subsequently recommended film. At the bottom of the Home page you can also find a list of all films currently on this site. Please leave comments, share this blog, and subscribe so you can see which classic films will be revealed each week. Thanks so much for reading!!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
The final shot of the dance with "Death" came about by chance. Having ended the day’s filming because of an approaching storm, Bergman suddenly noticed a dramatic cloud over a hill. He had Fischer set up the camera, quickly grabbed some of the crew and observers, put them in costumes, and had them improvise the dance with "Death". That shot (along with the one of “Antonius” and "Death" playing chess) became one of the most famous images in in all of cinema.
Religious overtones are sprinkled throughout the film, and one of the more obvious is the naming of “Jof” and “Mia” - which act as pseudonyms for “Joseph” and “Mary”. “Antonius” seeks to do one meaningful act before he dies, and he accomplishes it by distracting "Death", letting “Jof”, “Mia”, and their child escape "Death’s" clutches (at least for now). The film’s ending is one of hope, and though we all die in the end, their survival represents humankind's ability to survive the harshness and dangers of life.