Seventh Seal, The (1957)

Bergman’s most famous and influential work captures the torment of existence and mortality as a weary knight seeks for the elusive assurance of God as Death comes for him.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Review #1,358

Dir. Ingmar Bergman
1957 | Sweden | Drama/Fantasy | 96 mins | 1.37:1 | Swedish

PG (passed clean) for some disturbing scenes

Cast: Max von Sydow, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Bengt Ekerot
Plot: A knight returning to Sweden after the Crusades seeks answers about life, death, and the existence of God as he plays chess against the Grim Reaper during the Black Plague.
Awards: Won Special Jury Prize (Cannes)
Source: AB Svensk Filmindustri

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Life & Death; Existence of God
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: General Arthouse

Viewed: Criterion Blu-ray
First Published: 9 Nov 2011
Spoilers: No

Together with Wild Strawberries (1957), released in the same year, The Seventh Seal cemented director Ingmar Bergman’s reputation as the leading filmmaker from the Nordic region.  

Winning the Special Jury Prize at Cannes, Bergman’s film has no real plot, except for a series of interactions between a knight, named Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) and Death (Bengt Ekerot) that are intercut with sequences of ordinary folks living in the time of the devastating Black Plague.  

Drawing from Kurosawa’s period films as inspiration, Bergman paid attention to period detail in both art direction and set design, and attempted to capture the creative spirit of films such as Rashomon (1950) and Seven Samurai (1954).  

Although the jovial moments in The Seventh Seal come across as fleeting, such as the sequence in which a trio of performers acts out a song-and-dance on a makeshift stage, only to be interrupted by a brutal procession of flagellants (which, in my opinion, is the film’s most hypnotic sequence).

“We must make an idol of our fear, and call it God.”

Much has been said about the religious symbolism in The Seventh Seal.  The iconic chess scenes that are played by Antonius and Death, which have survived numerous parodies in popular entertainment, remain unforgettable.  

Themes such as the existence of God, the fate of human existence, hope and death are explored not only in literal terms but expressed through rich black-and-white cinematography that plays with light and shadow.

Religious and existential issues are synonymous with Bergman’s works, and in The Seventh Seal, the director presents his most literal response to the question: is there a God?  Or is there only emptiness, where only Death pervades?  

While tonally pessimistic and bleak, Bergman’s film manages to be surprisingly, or should I say, defiantly fervent in its expression of assurance – the assurance that the human spirit, for all it is worth against fate, is determined to fight on to the very end.

Grade: A



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