The Seventh Seal (Swedish: Det sjunde inseglet)
“All my films can be thought in black and white,…” so wrote Bergman in Images: My Life in Films. I cannot think of this film in color especially since I first came across the iconic still from the film, of Death in black and the knight in white playing chess under a lowering sky. It is a stark and allegorical medieval play made infinitely enjoyable by the way Bergman brings the viewer’s mind and emotions all into play at the same time. Unlike Wild Strawberries which was personal and centripetal in its direction,- of a man’s life coming to a point ( his dream sequence being symbolic), the present film is centrifugal and is symbolic all through. The Seventh Seal has the wide sweep of a Cosmic stage on which the seven angels appear in a processional bearing the Apocalyptical resolution from the Highest. The analogy is apt I think, as 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, “And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour” (Revelation 8:1). This film has been interpreted in so many ways but given the allusion to the verse in no uncertain fashion as stated above, we can safely treat the film as Bergman’s reassessment of his faith of the role of God of his fathers-his father was a clergyman- and he deals with it in cinematic terms for the world at large. Of the 50 and odd films he has done, this is one of Ingmar Bergman’s own rare favorites and we can see the reason why.
The knight’s faith is dented by war, and he is in a crisis. With such a moral dilemma hovering about he is returning to his castle and the land is in the grip of plague. He doubts whether God actually exists and how to deal it cinematically? Bergman does it in terms of images by inverting the accepted norm ( priests as men of God, for instance) on its head, naturally. Thus when he tells the priest how he challenged Death to a game of chess and reveals his strategy, the “priest” turns out to be none other than Death! In another powerful scene where a witch is to be burnt the same idea is reinforced by the knight asking the witch to see Satan. He wants her to ask from him whether God exists or not. When the witch summons Satan and she says ominously ‘the priests see him, the soldiers see him.’ Satan is not shown but we are to assume the Satan is personified by priests and soldiers.
Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal starred many of Bergman’s ‘stock actors from the 1950s: Max Von Sydow as Knight Antonius Block, Bibi Andersson as Mia, the wife of Jof the jester; and Gunnar Björnstrand as Block’s squire Jöns, a pragmatic Sancho Panza to Block’s spiritual Don Quixote. While Björnstrand is nominally the third lead in the film the most pithy and memorable lines of dialogue are given to him.
Bergman developed the film from his own play Wood Painting.
Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), a knight, returns with his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) from the Crusades and finds that his home country is ravaged by the plague. To his dismay, he discovers that Death (Bengt Ekerot) has come for him too. In order to reach his home and be reunited with his wife after ten years of war, he challenges Death. Since we are dwelling on medieval ideas of Cosmogony and moral certitudes, of a time when the Church had assigned specific meanings for colors( Blue of the sky stands for God’s love etc.,), let me point out that the knight is in white, representing the color of life and purity, whereas Death is black, the color of darkness, despair, and, ultimately, death.
The knight wants to play a game of chess. “It suits me well”, Death comments.
The knight realizes that he would rather be broken in faith, constantly suffering doubt, than recognize a life without meaning and they engage into an ongoing chess game.
Gerald Mast writes,
“Like the gravedigger in “Hamlet”, the Squire [...] treats death as a bitter and hopeless joke…”
Bergman contrasts the despairing unbelief of the knight and the bitterness of his squire with the simple spiritual faith of the acrobat player Jof (Nils Poppe) and his young wife Mia (Bibi Andersson), who, together with their infant son Mikael, may be symbolic of the Holy family. The squire (Gunnar Björnstrand), while forcefully atheistic and cynical, displays a sensitivity that drives him to protect and aid those he can, and to sympathize with those (like the witch) he cannot.( wikipedia)
Although the knight tells a “priest” (Death in disguise) that he is going to defeat Death by “a combination of the knight and the bishop”, he will eventually still lose. But the knight achieves one significant act that gives his life meaning: he allows the young couple and their child to escape. Ironically, while the young couple are seen fleeing in the background, Block tells death “Nothing escapes you.” Death bears a wide a grin and replies “Nothing escapes me. No one escapes me.” While the knight and his followers are led away over the hills in a medieval dance of death, seen by Jof as a vision, the young family live on and walk into the sunrise.
The famous, final dance of death was spontaneously created: Bergman had finished the day’s shooting when he saw a beautiful cloud in the sky, and, unwilling to let the image go unfilmed, hurriedly got crew members to dress in the costumes of the already-departed actors and form the silhouetted procession. The scene was shot in just a few minutes, without rehearsal. How about that for inspiration?
Dance of death may be over many tongues of flame into which doubts and certainties of mankind are fuel merely.
Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Produced by Allan Ekelund
Written by Ingmar Bergman
Starring Max von Sydow
Cinematography Gunnar Fischer
Editing by Lennart Wallén
Running time 96 min.
Budget $150,000 (estimated)
Over the years THE SEVENTH SEAL, long hailed as a masterpiece of cinema, has suffered a decline in its reputation perhaps from certain quarters that find his theme of moral quests exaggerated at the cost of accepting life for what is. ‘However, there can be no doubt that the film’s imagery is among the most memorable ever put on screen—even if one questions the profundity of Bergman’s speculations on the nature of good and evil, God and the Devil, his image of Death wandering the countryside remains unforgettable”- Ack:faculty.goucher.edu
* Gunnar Björnstrand – Jöns, squire
* Bengt Ekerot – Death
* Nils Poppe – Jof
* Max von Sydow – Antonius Block, knight
* Bibi Andersson – Mia, Jof’s wife
* Inga Gill – Lisa, blacksmith’s wife
* Maud Hansson – Witch
* Inga Landgré – Karin, Block’s wife
* Gunnel Lindblom – Girl
* Bertil Anderberg – Raval
* Anders Ek – The Monk
* Åke Fridell – Blacksmith Plog
* Gunnar Olsson – Albertus Pictor, church painter
* Erik Strandmark – Jonas Skat
Antonius Block: I shall remember this moment: the silence, the twilight, the bowl of strawberries, the bowl of milk. Your faces in the evening light. Mikael asleep, Jof with his lyre. I shall try to remember our talk. I shall carry this memory carefully in my hands as if it were a bowl brimful of fresh milk. It will be a sign to me, and a great sufficiency.
Antonius Block: Nothing escapes you!
Death: Nothing escapes me. No one escapes me.
[In response to Death coming for him]
Jonas Skat: Is there no exemption for actors?
Antonius Block: I met Death today. We are playing chess.
Jöns: Love is the blackest of all plagues… if one could die of it, there would be some pleasure in love, but you don’t die of it.
Antonius Block: 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 men has shut me out. I live now in a world of ghosts, a prisoner in my dreams.
Antonius Block: Who are you?
Death: I am Death.
Antonius Block: Have you come for me?
Death: I have long walked by your side.
Antonius Block: So I have noticed.
Death: Are you ready?
Antonius Block: My body is ready, but I am not.
Antonius Block: Have you met the devil? I want to meet him too.
Witch: Why do you want to do that?
Antonius Block: I want to ask him about God. He must know. He, if anyone.
Jöns: Who will take care of that child. God, the devil, the nothingness? The nothingness, perhaps?
Antonius Block: It can’t be so!
Death: Don’t you ever stop asking?
Antonius Block: No. I never stop.
Death: But you’re not getting an answer.
[Death approaches Antonius Block]
Antonius Block: Wait a moment.
Death: You all say that. But I grant no reprieves.
[Antonius Block lets Death choose which chess pieces to play]
Antonius Block: You drew black.
Death: Appropriate, don’t you think?
[the church painter explains why he is painting a mural about death]
Church Painter: Why should one always make people happy? It might be a good idea to scare them once in a while.
Jöns: Then they’ll close their eyes and refuse to look.
Church Painter: They’ll look. A skull is more interesting than a naked woman.
Jöns: If you do scare them…
Church Painter: Then they think.
Jöns: And then?
Church Painter: They’ll become more scared.
Jöns: Do you have any brandy? I’ve had nothing but water. It’s made me as thirsty as a camel in the desert.
Jöns: Our crusade was such madness that only a real idealist could have thought it up.
Mia: You don’t look so happy.
Antonius Block: No.
Mia: Are you tired?
Antonius Block: Yes. I have boring company.
Mia: You mean your squire?
Antonius Block: No, not him.
Mia: Who do you mean, then?
Antonius Block: Myself.
Antonius Block: Faith is a torment. It is like loving someone who is out there in the darkness but never appears, no matter how loudly you call.
Jöns: Love is as contagious as a cold. It eats away at your strength, morale… If everything is imperfect in this world, love is perfect in its imperfection.
Blacksmith Plog: You’re happy, you with your oily words. You believe your own drivel.
Jöns: Believe it? Who said? But I love to give pieces of advice.
Jonas Skat: Kill me. I’ll thank you afterwards.
Blacksmith Plog: Jons, between you and me, isn’t life a dirty mess?
Jöns: Yes, but don’t think of that now.
Blacksmith Plog: It’s what you make it.
[Jonas Skat is in a tree which Death is cutting down]
Jonas Skat: Hey, you scurvy knave, what are you doing with my tree? You might at least answer. Who are you?
Death: I’m felling your tree. Your time is up.
Jonas Skat: You can’t. I haven’t time.
Death: So you haven’t time?
Jonas Skat: No. My performance…
Death: Cancelled… because of Death.
Jof: And the strict lord Death bids them to dance.
Antonius Block: We must make an idol of our fear, and call it god.
Jöns: It’s hell with women, and hell without. Best to kill them all while the fun lasts.
Jöns: Love is nothing but lust and cheating and lies.
Jöns: Only fools die of love.
Jöns: But feel, to the very end, the triumph of being alive!
Girl: It is finished.
Blacksmith Plog: I’m going to pinch them in the nose with my pliers. I’m going to pound them on the chest with my little hammer. I’m going to crack them lightly on the head with my sledgehammer.
Antonius Block: 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, play chess with Death.
Antonius Block: Is it so terribly inconceivable to comprehend God with one’s senses? Why does he hide in a cloud of half-promises and unseen miracles? How can we believe in the faithful when we lack faith? What will happen to us who want to believe, but can not? What about those who neither want to nor can believe? Why can’t I kill God in me? Why does He live on in me in a humiliating way – despite my wanting to evict Him from my heart? Why is He, despite all, a mocking reality I can’t be rid of?
Antonius Block: I want knowledge! Not faith, not assumptions, but knowledge. I want God to stretch out His hand, uncover His face and speak to me.
Death: But He remains silent.
Antonius Block: I call out to Him in the darkness. But it’s as if no one was there.
Death: Perhaps there isn’t anyone.
Antonius Block: Then life is a preposterous horror. No man can live faced with Death, knowing everything’s nothingness.
Death: Most people think neither of death nor nothingness.
Antonius Block: But one day you stand at the edge of life and face darkness.
Death: That day.
Antonius Block: I understand what you mean.
* The church which Jöns and Antonius Block arrives at 15 minutes into the film is actually a model hung in the dead tree in the foreground.
* Ingmar Bergman based the entire iconography of the movie on murals in a church where his clergyman father used to preach.
* The name of the character played by Gunnel Lindblom is never given and she speaks no lines in the film until the penultimate scene where she has the final line of the group being taken by Death: “It is finished.”
* The procession of flagellants chant the Dies Irae, a famous thirteenth century Latin hymn thought to be written by Thomas of Celano. Before stopping in the village they chant stanzas 1-4 and the Lacrimosa, stanza 18. These are repeated as the procession departs.
* The inspiration for this film was said to be drawn from the period films of Akira Kurosawa, of which Ingmar Bergman was a big fan.
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