The Seventh Seal

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The Seventh Seal
Seventhsealposter.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byIngmar Bergman
Produced byAllan Ekelund
Written byIngmar Bergman
StarringGunnar Björnstrand
Bengt Ekerot
Nils Poppe
Max von Sydow
Bibi Andersson
Inga Landgré
Åke Fridell
Music byErik Nordgren
CinematographyGunnar Fischer
Editing byLennart Wallén
Distributed byAB Svensk Filmindustri
Release dates
  • 16 February 1957 (1957-02-16) (Sweden)
  • 13 August 1958 (1958-08-13) (United States)
Running time96 minutes[1]
CountrySweden
LanguageSwedish
Latin
BudgetUS$150,000 (estimated)
 
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The Seventh Seal
Seventhsealposter.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byIngmar Bergman
Produced byAllan Ekelund
Written byIngmar Bergman
StarringGunnar Björnstrand
Bengt Ekerot
Nils Poppe
Max von Sydow
Bibi Andersson
Inga Landgré
Åke Fridell
Music byErik Nordgren
CinematographyGunnar Fischer
Editing byLennart Wallén
Distributed byAB Svensk Filmindustri
Release dates
  • 16 February 1957 (1957-02-16) (Sweden)
  • 13 August 1958 (1958-08-13) (United States)
Running time96 minutes[1]
CountrySweden
LanguageSwedish
Latin
BudgetUS$150,000 (estimated)

The Seventh Seal (Swedish: Det sjunde inseglet) is a 1957 Swedish drama-fantasy film written and directed by Ingmar Bergman. Set in Sweden[2][3] during the Black Death, it tells of the journey of a medieval knight (Max von Sydow) and a game of chess he plays with the personification of Death (Bengt Ekerot), who has come to take his life. Bergman developed the film from his own play Wood Painting. The title refers to a passage from the Book of Revelation, 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.[4]

The film is considered a major classic of world cinema. It established Bergman as a world-renowned director and contains scenes which have become iconic through parodies and homages.

Synopsis[edit]

Disillusioned knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) and his nihilistic squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) return after fighting in the Crusades and find Sweden being ravaged by the plague. On the beach immediately after their arrival, Block encounters Death (Bengt Ekerot), personified as a pale, black-cowled figure resembling a monk. Block, in the middle of a chess game he has been playing alone, challenges Death to a chess match, believing that he can forestall his demise as long as the game continues. Death agrees, and they start a new game.

The other characters in the story do not see Death, and when the chess board comes out at various times in the story, they believe Block is continuing his habit of playing alone.

Death and Antonius Block choose sides for the chess game; Death gets the black pieces.

Block and Jöns head for Block's castle. Along the way, they pass some actors, Jof and his wife Mia, with their baby son, Mikael, and their actor-manager, Skat. Jof has visions, but Mia is skeptical.

The knight and the squire enter a church where a fresco of the Dance of Death is being painted. Jöns draws a small figure representing himself. Block goes to the confessional where he is joined by Death in the robe of a priest, to whom he admits that his life has been futile and without meaning, but that he wants to perform "one meaningful deed."[5] Upon revealing the chess strategy that will save his life, Block discovers that the priest is Death, who promises to remember the tactics. Leaving the church, Block speaks to a young woman who has been condemned to be burnt alive for supposedly consorting with the devil.

Shortly thereafter, Jöns searches an abandoned village for water. He saves a servant girl (Gunnel Lindblom) from being raped by a man robbing a corpse. He recognises the man as Raval, a theologian, who ten years prior had convinced Antonius to leave his wife and join a crusade to the Holy Land. Jöns promises to brand Raval on the face if they meet again. The girl joins Jöns. The trio ride into town, where the little acting troupe is performing. Skat introduces Jof and Mia to the crowd, then is enticed by Lisa, the blacksmith's wife, away for a tryst. They run off together. Jof and Mia's performance is interrupted by the arrival of a procession of flagellants.

At a public house, Jof comes across Raval. Raval forces Jof to dance on the tables like a bear. Jöns appears and, true to his word, slices Raval's face.[6] Block enjoys a country picnic of milk and wild strawberries gathered by Mia. Block says: "I'll carry this memory between my hands as if it were bowl filled to the brim with fresh milk...And it will be an adequate sign – it will be enough for me."[7] He invites the actors to his castle, where they will be safer from the plague.

Along the way, they come across Skat and Lisa in the forest. Lisa, dissatisfied with Skat, returns to her husband. After the others leave, Skat climbs a tree for the night. Death cuts down the tree, informing the actor that his time is up.

They pass the condemned young woman again. Block asks the woman again to summon Satan, so he can ask him about God. The girl claims already to have done so, but Block cannot see him, only her terror. He gives her herbs to take away her pain.[8]

Raval reappears. Dying of the plague, he pleads for water. The servant girl attempts to bring him some, but is stopped by Jöns. Jof tells Mia that he can see the knight playing chess with Death, and decides to flee with his family while Death is preoccupied.[9]

The final scene depicting the "danse macabre".

After hearing Death state "No one escapes me" Block knocks the chess pieces over, distracting Death while the family slips away. Death places the pieces back on the board, then wins the game on the next move. He announces that when they meet again, Block's time—and that of all those travelling with him—will be up. Before departing, Death asks if Block has accomplished his one "meaningful deed" yet; Block replies that he has.

The knight is reunited with his wife, the sole occupant of his castle, all the servants having fled. The party shares one "last supper" before Death comes for them. Block prays to God, "Have mercy on us, because we are small and frightened and ignorant."[10]

Meanwhile, the little family sits out a storm, which Jof interprets to be "the Angel of Death and he's very big." The next morning, Jof, with his second sight, sees the knight and his followers being led away over the hills in a solemn dance of death.

Cast[edit]

Production[edit]

Filming of The Seventh Seal at Filmstaden

Bergman originally wrote the play Trämålning (Wood Painting) in 1953/1954 for the acting students of Malmö City Theatre. The first time it was performed in public was in radio in 1954, directed by Bergman. He also directed it on stage in Malmö the next spring, and in the autumn it was staged in Stockholm, directed by Bengt Ekerot who would later play the character Death in the film version.[11]

In his autobiography, The Magic Lantern, Bergman wrote that "Wood Painting gradually became The Seventh Seal, an uneven film which lies close to my heart, because it was made under difficult circumstances in a surge of vitality and delight."[12] The script for the Seventh Seal was commenced while Bergman was in the Karolinska Hospital in Stockholm recovering from a stomach complaint.[13] It was at first rejected[who?] and Bergman was given the go-ahead for the project from Carl-Anders Dymling at Svensk Filmindustri only after the success at Cannes of Smiles of a Summer Night[14] Bergman rewrote the script five times and was given a schedule of only thirty-five days and a budget of $150,000.[15] It was to be the seventeenth film he had directed.[16]

All scenes except two were shot in or around the Filmstaden studios in Solna. The exceptions were the famous opening scene with Death and the Knight playing chess by the sea and the ending with the dance of death, which were both shot at Hovs Hallar, a rocky, precipitous beach area in north-western Scania.[17]

In the Magic Lantern autobiography Bergman writes of the film's iconic penultimate shot: "The image of the Dance of Death beneath the dark cloud was achieved at hectic speed because most of the actors had finished for the day. Assistants, electricians, and a make-up man and about two summer visitors, who never knew what it was all about, had to dress up in the costumes of those condemned to death. A camera with no sound was set up and the picture shot before the cloud dissolved."[18]

Portrait of the Middle Ages[edit]

Death playing chess, from Täby Church, fresco by Albertus Pictor

With regard to the relevancy of historical accuracy to a film that is heavily metaphorical and allegorical, John Aberth, writing in A Knight at the Movies, holds

the film only partially succeeds in conveying the period atmosphere and thought world of the fourteenth century. Bergman would probably counter that it was never his intention to make an historical or period film. As it was written in a program note that accompanied the movie's premier "It is a modern poem presented with medieval material that has been very freely handled...The script in particular—embodies a mid-twentieth century existentialist angst....Still, to be fair to Bergman, one must allow him his artistic license, and the script's modernisms may be justified as giving the movie's medieval theme a compelling and urgent contemporary relevance...Yet the film succeeds to a large degree because it is set in the Middle Ages, a time that can seem both very remote and very immediate to us living in the modern world....Ultimately The Seventh Seal should be judged as a historical film by how well it combines the medieval and the modern."[19]

Similarly defending it as an allegory, Aleksander Kwiatkowski in the book Swedish Film Classics, writes

The international response to the film which among other awards won the jury's special prize at Cannes in 1957 reconfirmed the author' high rank and proved that The Seventh Seal regardless of its degree of accuracy in reproducing medieval scenery may be considered as a universal, timeless allegory.[20]

Much of the film's imagery is derived from medieval art. For example, Bergman has stated that the image of a man playing chess with a skeletal Death was inspired by a medieval church painting from the 1480s in Täby kyrka, Täby, north of Stockholm, painted by Albertus Pictor.[21]

However, the medieval Sweden portrayed in this movie includes creative anachronisms. The last Swedish crusade (the third) took place in 1293 and the Black Death hit Europe in 1348. In addition, the flagellant movement was foreign to Sweden, and large-scale witch persecutions only began in the 15th century.[22]

Generally speaking, historians Johan Huizinga, Friedrich Heer and Barbara Tuchman have all argued that the late Middle Ages of the 14th century was a period of "doom and gloom" similar to what is reflected in this film, characterized by a feeling of pessimism, an increase in a penitential style of piety that was slightly masochistic, all aggravated by various disasters such as the Black Plague, famine, the Hundred Years' War between France and England, and papal schism.[23] This is sometimes called the crisis of the Late Middle Ages and Barbara Tuchman regards the 14th century as "a distant mirror" of the 20th century in a way that echoes Bergman's sensibilities. Nonetheless, the period of the Crusades is well before this era; they took place in a more optimistic period.[23]

Major themes[edit]

The title refers to a passage about the end of the world from the Book of Revelation, 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" (Revelation 8:1). Thus, in the confessional scene the knight states: "Is it so cruelly inconceivable to grasp God with the senses? Why should He hide himself in a mist of half-spoken promises and unseen miracles?...What is going to happen to those of us who want to believe but aren't able to?"[24] Death, impersonating the confessional priest, refuses to reply. Similarly, later, as he eats the strawberries with the family of actors, Antonius Block says: "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."[7] Bragg notes that the concept of the "Silence of God" in the face of evil, or the pleas of believers or would-be-believers, may be influenced by the punishments of silence meted out by Bergman's father, a chaplain in the State Lutheran Church.[25] Interestingly, in Bergman's original radio play sometimes translated as A Painting on Wood, the figure of Death in a Dance of Death is represented not by an actor, but by silence, "mere nothingness, mere absence...terrifying...the void."[26]

Strong influences on the film were Bibi Andersson (with whom Bergman was in a relationship 1955–59) who played the juggler's wife Mia, Picasso's picture of the two acrobats, Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, Strindberg's Folk Sagas and To Damascus,[27] the frescoes at Haskeborga church and a painting by Albertus Pictor in Täby kyrka.[28] Just prior to shooting Bergman directed for radio the play Everyman by Hugo von Hofmannsthal.[28] By this time he had also directed plays by Shakespeare, Strindberg, Camus, Chesterton, Anouilh, Tennessee Williams, Pirandello, Lehár, Molière and Ostrovsky.[29]

Bergman grew up in a home infused with an intense Christianity, his father being a charismatic rector (this may have explained Bergman's adolescence infatuation with Hitler which later deeply tormented him).[30] As a six-year old child, Bergman used to help the gardener carry corpses from the Royal Hospital Sophiahemmet (where his father was chaplain) to the mortuary.[31] When, as a boy, he saw the film Black Beauty, the fire scene excited him so much he stayed in bed for three days with a temperature.[31] Despite living a Bohemian lifestyle in partial rebellion against his upbringing, Bergman often signed his scripts with the initials "S.D.G" (Soli Deo Gloria) — "To God Alone the Glory" —, just as J. S. Bach did at the end of every musical composition.[32]

Gerald Mast writes,

"Like the gravedigger in Hamlet, the Squire [...] treats death as a bitter and hopeless joke. Since we all play chess with death, and since we all must suffer through that hopeless joke, the only question about the game is how long it will last and how well we will play it. To play it well, to live, is to love and not to hate the body and the mortal as the Church urges in Bergman's metaphor."[33]

Melvyn Bragg writes,

"[I]t is constructed like an argument. It is a story told as a sermon might be delivered: an allegory...each scene is at once so simple and so charged and layered that it catches us again and again...Somehow all of Bergman's own past, that of his father, that of his reading and doing and seeing, that of his Swedish culture, of his political burning and religious melancholy, poured into a series of pictures which carry that swell of contributions and contradictions so effortlessly that you could tell the story to a child, publish it as a storybook of photographs and yet know that the deepest questions of religion and the most mysterious revelation of simply being alive are both addressed."[34]

The Jesuit publication America identifies it as having begun "a series of seven films that explored the possibility of faith in a post-Holocaust, nuclear age".[35] Likewise, film historians Thomas W. Bohn and Richard L. Stromgren identify this film as beginning "his cycle of films dealing with the conundrum of religious faith".[36]

Reception[edit]

Upon its original Swedish release, The Seventh Seal was met by very positive reviews although not without reservations. Nils Beyer at Morgon-tidningen compared it to Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc and Day of Wrath. While finding Dreyer's films to be superior, he still noted that "it isn't just any director that you feel like comparing to the old Danish master." He also praised the usage of the cast, in particular Max von Sydow whose character he described as "a pale, serious Don Quixote character with a face as if sculpted in wood", and "Bibi Andersson, who appears as if painted in faded watercolours but still can emit small delicious glimpses of female warmth." Hanserik Hjertén for Arbetaren started his review by praising the cinematography, but soon went on to describe the film as "a horror film for children" and that beyond the superficial, it reminds a lot of Bergman's "sophomoric films from the 40s."[11]

Bosley Crowther had only positive things to say in his 1958 review for The New York Times, and praised how the themes were elevated by the cinematography and acting: "the profundities of the ideas are lightened and made flexible by glowing pictorial presentation of action that is interesting and strong. Mr. Bergman uses his camera and actors for sharp, realistic effects."[37]

The film has been regarded since its release as a masterpiece of cinematography.[38] It was Ranked #8 in Empire magazines "The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema" in 2010.[39] In a poll held by the same magazine, it was voted 335th 'Greatest Movie of All Time' from a list of 500.[40] In addition, on the 100th anniversary of cinema in 1995, the Vatican included The Seventh Seal in its list of its 45 "great films" for its thematic values.[41]

The film was selected as the Swedish entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 30th Academy Awards, but was not accepted as a nominee.[42]

Impact[edit]

The Seventh Seal significantly helped Bergman in gaining his position as a world-class director. When the film won the Special Jury Prize at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival,[43] the attention generated by it (along with the previous year's Smiles of a Summer Night) made Bergman and his stars Max von Sydow and Bibi Andersson well-known to the European film community, and the critics and readers of Cahiers du Cinéma, among others, discovered him with this movie. Within five years of this, he had established himself as the first real auteur of Swedish cinema. With its images and reflections upon death and the meaning of life, The Seventh Seal had a symbolism that was "immediately apprehensible to people trained in literary culture who were just beginning to discover the 'art' of film, and it quickly became a staple of high school and college literature courses... Unlike Hollywood 'movies,' The Seventh Seal clearly was aware of elite artistic culture and thus was readily appreciated by intellectual audiences."[44]

In popular culture[edit]

The representation of Death as a white-faced man who wears a dark cape and plays chess with mortals has been a popular object of parody in other films and television.

Several films and comedy sketches portray Death as playing games other than or in addition to chess. In the final scene of the 1968 film De Düva (mock Swedish for "The Dove"), a 15-minute pastiche of Bergman's work generally and his Wild Strawberries in particular, the protagonist plays badminton against Death and wins when the droppings of a passing dove strike Death in the eye. The photography imitates throughout the style of Bergman's cinematographers Sven Nykqvist and Gunnar Fischer.[45] The protagonists of the 1991 science-fiction comedy Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey return to life by defeating Death (played by William Sadler) at Battleship, Clue, electric football, and Twister. After each of the first three games, Death insists that the competition be extended to a "best-of-three," "-five," and then "-seven" series, but after being beaten in four games he concedes defeat.

In the film Last Action Hero, Death, played by Sir Ian McKellen, is transported to the real world from a showing of The Seventh Seal and tries to reap Jack Slater.[46]

In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a recurring scene depicting flagellants chanting lines from the "Dies Irae" is a parody of the scene in the film.[47] Also, in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, the appearance of death in Antonius' castle is recreated in an English country dinner party.[48]

Woody Allen's one-act play entitled Death Knocks, part of his anthology Getting Even, depicts a man playing gin rummy against Death. Allen, an enormous fan of Ingmar Bergman,[49] references Bergman's work in his serious dramas as well as his comedies;[50] his Love and Death, a broad parody of 19th-century Russian novels, closes with a "Dance of Death" scene imitating Bergman's.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "THE SEVENTH SEAL (X)". British Board of Film Classification. 25 October 1957. Retrieved 29 June 2013. 
  2. ^ Laurence Raw (2009). The Ridley Scott Encyclopedia. The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc. p. 284. 
  3. ^ Mary M. Litch (2010). Philosophy Through Film. Routledge. p. 193. 
  4. ^ Melvyn Bragg (1998). The Seventh Seal (Det Sjunde Inseglet). BFI Publishing. p. 45. 
  5. ^ Ingmar Bergman (1960). The Seventh Seal. Touchstone. p. 147. 
  6. ^ Bergman, 1960 p. 164-165
  7. ^ a b Bergman, 1960 p.172.
  8. ^ Bergman, 1960 p.135
  9. ^ Bergman, 1960 p. 191.
  10. ^ Bergman, 1960 p. 195.
  11. ^ a b Det sjunde inseglet – Pressreaktion & Kommentar Svensk Filmografi (in Swedish). Swedish Film Institute. Retrieved on 17 August 2009.
  12. ^ Ingmar Bergman (1988). The Magic Lantern. Penguin Books. London. p. 274.
  13. ^ Bragg, 1998 p. 27.
  14. ^ Bragg, 1998 p. 48.
  15. ^ Bragg, 1998 p. 49.
  16. ^ Bragg, 1998 p. 46
  17. ^ Ingmar Bergman Face to Face – Shooting the film The Seventh Seal
  18. ^ Ingmar Bergman (1988). The Magic Lantern. Penguin Books. London. pp. 274–275.
  19. ^ John Aberth (2003). A Knight at the Movies. Routledge. pp. 217–218.
  20. ^ Swedish Film Classics by Aleksander Kwiatkowski, Svenska filminstitutet p. 93
  21. ^ Stated in Marie Nyreröd's interview series (the first part named Bergman och filmen) aired on Sveriges Television Easter 2004.
  22. ^ Said by Swedish historian Dick Harrison in an introduction to the movie on Sveriges Television, 2005. Reiterated in his book Gud vill det! ISBN 91-7037-119-9
  23. ^ a b Barbara Tuchman (1978). A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 0-394-40026-7
  24. ^ Bergman, 1960 pp. 145–146.
  25. ^ Bragg, 1998 pp. 40, 45.
  26. ^ Martin Esslin. Mediations: Essays on Brecht, Beckett and the Media. Abacus. London. 1980. p. 181.
  27. ^ Egil Törnqvist (2003). Bergman's Muses: Æsthetic Versatility in Film, Theatre, Television and Radio. McFarland & Company, Inc. p. 218. 
  28. ^ a b Bragg, 1998 p. 49
  29. ^ Bragg, 1998 p. 29.
  30. ^ Bragg, 1998 p. 44.
  31. ^ a b Bragg, 1998 p. 43
  32. ^ Bragg, 1998 p. 28.
  33. ^ Gerald Mast A Short History of the Movies. p. 405.
  34. ^ Bragg, 1998 pp. 64–65
  35. ^ Richard A. Blake (August 27, 2007). "Ingmar Bergman, Theologian?". America magazine. Retrieved 14 December 2010. 
  36. ^ Bohn, Thomas; Richard L. Stromgren (1987). Light and shadows: a history of motion pictures. Mayfield Pub. Co. p. 269. ISBN 0-87484-702-8. 
  37. ^ Crowther, Bosley (1958-10-14) "Seventh Seal'; Swedish Allegory Has Premiere at Paris." The New York Times. Retrieved on 17 August 2009.
  38. ^ Ebert, Roger (16 April 2000). "Great Movies — The Seventh Seal". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 18 August 2007. 
  39. ^ "The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema - 8. The Seventh Seal". Empire. 
  40. ^ http://www.empireonline.com/500/31.asp
  41. ^ "Vatican Best Films List". Catholic News Service Media Review Office. Retrieved December 18, 2012. 
  42. ^ Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
  43. ^ "Festival de Cannes: The Seventh Seal". festival-cannes.com. Retrieved 8 February 2009. 
  44. ^ Monaco, James (2000). How To Read a Film. Oxford University Press. pp. 311–312. ISBN 0-19-513981-X. 
  45. ^ Remembering De Düva (The Dove), a 30 July 2007 Slate article
  46. ^ "The Seventh Seal. Connections". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 20 September 2013. 
  47. ^ "Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Connections. Spoofs". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 20 September 2013. 
  48. ^ "The Meaning of Life. Connections. Spoofs". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 20 September 2013. 
  49. ^ Corliss, Richard (1 August 2007). "Woody Allen on Ingmar Bergman". Time. 
  50. ^ See Girgus, Sam (2002). The Films of Woody Allen. Cambridge University Press. p. 132. ISBN 0-521-81091-4. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Awards
Preceded by
The Mystery of Picasso
Special Jury Prize, Cannes
1956
tied with Kanał
Succeeded by
Mon Oncle