Seven reasons to celebrate ‘The Seventh Seal’
Set in the time of the Black Death, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal centres on a pensive knight, Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), who returns to Sweden after fighting in the Crusades. Death (Bengt Ekerot) comes to claim him, but Block forestalls his demise by challenging Death to a game of chess – Block wishes to find answers to some of life’s big questions and perform at least one meaningful deed before he dies.
Since its release [over] 60 years ago, The Seventh Seal has become an acknowledged classic of world cinema. But just why has the film proved so popular?
1. Because it’s both timely and timeless
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.
2. Because, despite being a film about death, it’s life-affirming
During his journey through the plague-ravaged land, Block meets a band of travelling players – Skat (Erik Strandmark), Jof (Nils Poppe), Mia (Bibi Andersson) and Mikael (Tommy Karlsson), the infant son of Jof and Mia. Early on, Skat dons a stage mask of Death, but he soon throws it casually aside, for death is not on their minds. In fact, the players represent all that is good in life and, in an idyllic moment, Mia offers Block wild strawberries and milk – a moment that he promises never to forget. It is with Jof, Mia and Mikael that the film ends, proving that the lightness of life will always survive the blackest of days.
3. Because it’s full of great performances
Throughout much of the 1950s, Bergman served as the director of the Malmö City Theatre, where he established a troupe of actors to work with him across both stage and screen. Those featured in The Seventh Seal include Gunnar Björnstrand, Åke Fridell, Gunnel Lindblom, Anders Ek and Bibi Andersson. But it was Max von Sydow, in the leading role, who would rise to international stardom thanks to the success of the film: Hollywood came calling, and some of his most famous roles followed, including Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), Father Merrin in The Exorcist (1973) and Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon (1980).
4. Because it’s beautifully shot
While Bergman’s later partnership with Sven Nykvist might be more famous today, it was cinematographer Gunnar Fischer who created The Seventh Seal’s indelible images. Fischer’s collaboration with Bergman stretched from 1948’s Port of Call to 1960’s The Devil’s Eye, and can be identified by the sheer clarity of his highly composed images. Fischer had a unique understanding of lighting and contrast, which he claimed to have learned from the Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer (they collaborated together on 1945’s Two People). Perhaps the crowning visual achievement of the Bergman-Fischer period, The Seventh Seal’s stark black-and-white cinematography exemplifies the duo’s penchant for expressionist, chiaroscuro lighting – the perfect visual metaphor for a film about the clash between lightness and darkness.
5. Because it’s funnier than you might think
Unlike many arthouse directors, Bergman never forgot the need to make his films entertaining. He felt a great responsibility towards his audience, seeing them as the people who were ultimately paying his wages. Somehow, over the years, The Seventh Seal has acquired a reputation for being humourlessly bleak, but the truth is quite different, and the weightier scenes are balanced by scenes of comic relief. In fact, even the opening sequence, in which Block first meets Death, is littered with witty one-liners – as Death draws the black set of chess pieces, he quips: ‘Appropriate, don’t you think?’
6. Because it’s genuinely iconic
There are few films that enter the wider public consciousness to the extent that they become identifiable from a few simple signifiers, but The Seventh Seal’s images of Block playing chess with Death must surely be among the most recognisable in cinema history. In crafting the scene, Bergman drew upon a medieval church mural he saw as a child, in which a man played chess with Death. But even if Bergman wasn’t the originator of the concept, it was The Seventh Seal that made it iconic – and, like all iconic works, the film has been parodied many times, perhaps most notably in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991).
7. Because it helped launch the international arthouse film scene
Although films had been travelling overseas since the silent era, the widespread success of The Seventh Seal, especially in America, helped usher in a new period of international exposure for arthouse cinema. The film proved that cinema could be a serious means of philosophical expression and, what’s more, that such expression could be popular with audiences. Foreign films became a viable enterprise in America and, in 1957, the Academy even introduced an Oscar for best foreign language film (though The Seventh Seal wasn’t nominated). Bergman’s film has since become a staple of arthouse cinema and been admired by directors as diverse as Woody Allen, Eric Rohmer, Martin Scorsese, Guillermo del Toro, Paul Verhoeven and Krzysztof Zanussi.
Alex Barrett, bfi.org.uk, 16 February 2017
‘The Seventh Seal’: a contemporary review
The Seventh Seal is a revelation, both in its authentic strangeness and in the new light it throws upon its director, Ingmar Bergman. With this extraordinary film one can discard previous reservations – Bergman is a craftsman with a real vision, working within a commercial establishment, for whom filmmaking is and can be nothing less than a personal catharsis.
This is a wholly indigenous film, with something of Stiller’s sophistication and Sjöström’s sense of elemental worship – indigenous, that is, in its style. It is also a mature embodiment of childhood’s nightmare fears, still to be seen in all their perverted horror painted on the walls of those medieval country churches where Bergman’s father once performed funerals and baptisms and preached sermons. It is a period film in the sense that Ugetsu is a period film, but not in any way in the manner of Fritz Lang’s Destiny, where an almost identical subject was handled with heady, heavy, defeated romanticism. There is no implied retreat or pessimism in Bergman’s choice of subject, even though his main images are familiar from any number of medieval morality plays and Chaucerian comedies. These archetypal symbols have been appropriated to lend the film clarity in its quality of timelessness and also its contemporary relevance. The witch-hunters, the penitents and the pillagers are still among us; we are each of us of their breed, deaf, denying, stifled by insecurity, while a bird hovers and screams its warning above – an omen of the Age of the H-bomb.
Death answers nothing. He remains a dispassionate, cultured, oft-mannered old gentleman, treading softly through a lonely world. Cowled and black-robed, Bengt Ekerot, in perhaps the best performance of a wonderfully well-acted film, makes him a macabre though never bizarre figure. In the film, questions are asked, facts accepted; the innocent and artist (the strolling player) sees visions and the future is his. Bergman answers what he can, though of course there remain mysteries in his film, locked doors over which he keeps jealous watch; and part of the quality of his film lies in what is not explained, in its obscure tensions and unsolved problems.
Peter John Dyer, Sight and Sound, Spring 1958
THE SEVENTH SEAL (DET SJUNDE INSEGLET)
A film by: Ingmar Bergman
Presented by: Svensk Filmindustri
Studio Manager: Carl-Henry Cagarp
Production Manager: Allan Ekelund
Assistant Director: Lennart Olsson
Script Girl: Katarina Faragó
Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman
Based on the play Trämålning by: Ingmar Bergman
Director of Photography: Gunnar Fischer
Assistant Photography: Åke Nilsson
Stills Photography: Louis Huch
Editor: Lennart Wallén
Art Director: P.A. Lundgren
Costumes: Manne Lindholm
Make-up: Nils Nittel
Music: Erik Nordgren
Music Director: Sixten Ehrling
Sound: Aaby Wedin
Assistant Sound: Lennart Wallin
Special Sound Effects: Evald Andersson
Max von Sydow (Antonius Block, the knight)
Inga Landgré (Karin, the knight’s wife)
Gunnar Björnstrand (Jons, the squire)
Nils Poppe (Jof, the jester)
Bibi Andersson (Mia, the jester’s wife)
Bengt Ekerot (Death)
Åke Fridell (Plog, the blacksmith)
Inga Gill (Lisa, the blacksmith’s wife)
Erik Strandmark (Jonas Skat)
Bertil Anderberg (Raval)
Gunnel Lindblom (mute girl)
Maud Hansson (the witch)
Gunnar Olsson (church painter)
Anders Ek (monk)
Lars Lind (young man outside church)
Bengt-Åke Benktsson (tavern keeper)
Tor Borong (peasant in tavern)
Gudrun Brost (woman in tavern)
Harry Asklund (merchant in tavern)
Ulf Johanson (leader of the soldiers)
Sten Ardenstam, Gordon Löwenadler (soldiers)
Karl Widh (disabled man)
Tommy Karlsson (Mikael, Jof and Mia’s son)
Siv Aleros, Bengt Gillberg, Lars Granberg, Gunlög Hagberg, Gun Hammargren,
Uno Larsson, Lennart Lilja, Monica Lindman, Helge Sjökvist, Georg Skarstedt,
Ragnar Sörman, Lennart Tollén, Caya Wickström (flagellants)
Owe Svensson (corpse on hillside)
BIG SCREEN CLASSICS
Mon 1 May 13:30; Sat 6 May 15:40; Sat 27 May 20:40; Tue 30 May 18:10
The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet)
Tue 2 May 20:40; Sat 6 May 12:30; Mon 22 May 20:45; Thu 25 May 14:30
The Magnificent Ambersons
Wed 3 May 18:10 (+ intro by Geoff Andrew, Programmer-at-Large); Mon 15 May 20:40
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie)
Thu 4 May 20:55; Tue 16 May 20:40; Wed 31 May 18:10 (+ intro)
Fri 5 May 20:45; Mon 8 May 13:20; Sat 13 May 18:10
The Wild Bunch
Sat 6 May 20:10; Sun 14 May 18:00; Mon 29 May 18:00
Sun 7 May 12:50; Sun 14 May 15:00
Le Jour se lève (Daybreak)
Tue 9 May 20:50; Thu 11 May 18:30; Sat 13 May 20:30; Wed 24 May 18:15 (+ intro)
Wed 10 May 18:15 (+ intro); Tue 23 May 18:20; Sat 27 May 18:10
The Big City (Mahanagar)
Fri 12 May 20:30; Sat 20 May 15:00; Sun 28 May 12:50
Still Walking (Aruitemo Aruitemo)
Mon 15 May 14:00 (+ intro); Thu 18 May 18:10; Sun 21 May 15:40; Fri 26 May 20:30
Dance, Girl, Dance
Tue 16 May 18:20; Sat 27 May 16:00
Wed 17 May 18:20 (+ intro by Geoff Andrew, Programmer-at-Large); Fri 19 May 20:30; Mon 29 May 13:40
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
Sat 20 May 19:50; Mon 29 May 13:00
SIGHT AND SOUND
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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
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