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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

The Seventh Seal

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Country: Sweden
Year: 1957

“So gripping as to be entertaining in an enlightening way. Visually unforgettable.”
James Monaco, The Movie Guide

“Piercing and powerful. Mr. Bergman hits you with it right between the eyes.”
Bosley Crowther, The New York Times

“[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.”
Melvyn Bragg

“He (Bergman) was our tunnel man building the aqueducts of our cinematic collective unconscious.”
Todd Field

“(Bergman was) probably the greatest film artist, all things considered, since the invention of the motion picture camera.”
Woody Allen

“No form of art goes beyond ordinary consciousness as film does, straight to our emotions, deep into the twilight room of the soul.”
Ingmar Bergman

“When I was young, I was extremely scared of dying. But now I think it a very, very wise arrangement. It’s like a light that is extinguished. Not very much to make a fuss about.”
Ingmar Bergman

Background

THE DIRECTOR

Ingmar Bergman was born in 1918 in Uppsala, Sweden, son of a strict Lutheran minister (later the King’s Chaplain) who would lock him in the closet for wetting his bed. At the age of six, Ingmar helped carry corpses from the hospital (where crazy Dad was the chaplain) to the mortuary. Though fascinated with the iconography and architecture associated with his father’s religion, Ingmar later claimed to have lost his faith at the age of eight. Religious faith – and the loss of it – was a theme that he would explore repeatedly throughout his career, both in theater and film.

As a child, Ingmar’s grandmother often took him to films, which they kept a secret from his crazy, belt-wielding father.

At the age of 16, Ingmar was sent to stay with family friends in Germany. While there, he attended a Nazi rally, and found himself thrilled by Hitler’s fiery speech. “For many years,” he revealed in his autobiography, “I was on Hitler’s side, delighted by his success and saddened by his defeats.”

While enrolled in Stockholm University, Ingmar began writing and directing plays, and spent much of his free time at local movie houses. One of his scripts garnered the attention of a film producer, and, in 1941, he was hired by Svensk Filmindustri as a script doctor. His first big break was writing the script for a film titled Torment, Frenzy, or Hets, depending on where you saw it. Whatever its title, the film was directed by Alf Sjöberg, whom you may remember as the director of the scorched-earth battle-of-the-sexes melodrama Miss Julie. Remember? Just… nine weeks ago? Nobody?

Over the next decade, Bergman directed over a dozen films, but finally achieved worldwide fame with Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), Wild Strawberries (1957, and we’ll be watching it near the end of the year) and today’s film, The Seventh Seal (also 1957).

For the next two decades, Bergman directed at least one film per year. These included his much-renowned and Criterion-collected “faith trilogy,” of which he wrote: “These three films deal with reduction. Through a Glass Darkly – conquered certainty. Winter Light – penetrated certainty. The Silence – God’s silence – the negative imprint.” Sounds heavy.

Despite his avowed loss of faith, Bergman often signed his scripts “S.D.G” (Soli Deo Gloria), which roughly translates as: “To God Alone The Glory.”

In 1976, while rehearsing for a theatrical production of a Strindberg play (Strindberg wrote Miss Julie, remember? No?), Bergman was arrested by two plainclothes police officers and charged with tax evasion. Bergman did not take this well. After suffering a nervous breakdown, he was hospitalized with severe depression. As soon as he was able, he packed up his kit bag, canceled all pending film and theater productions, and moved to Germany, vowing that he would never return to filthy, greedy Sweden!

The charges were eventually dismissed, with the judge likening the case to “charging someone for stealing their own car.” The Swedish prime minister and other Swedish glitterati begged Bergman to return, but he was having none of it. I’m trying to work in a joke here referencing the Swedish Chef, but it’s a stretch. Maybe I’ll just include a picture.

Within two years, he softened and returned to Sweden on a part-time basis. He continued to direct plays and films, including the international hit Fanny and Alexander, up until 2003, when he retired. He died in his sleep on the same day as Michelangelo Antonioni: July 30, 2007.

When he died, Ingmar Bergman was 89 years old. He had been married five times, fathered at least nine children, and directed 63 films.

THE FILM

In 1953, Bergman wrote a play entitled Wood Painting (or: Painting on Wood, or: Wood for Painting Upon, or: Wooden Ships, or: For What It’s Worth) for the students at the Malmö City Theatre. Over the next two years, it was performed several times, most notably in Stockholm, where it was directed by Bengt Ekerot. When Wood Painting (or whatever) morphed into a screenplay, entitled The Seventh Seal, Ekerot took the plum role of Death.

The Seventh Seal, Bergman’s 17th film, was shot in 35 days, for a budget of $150,000. According to Bergman, the iconic closing shot was improvised: “Suddenly I saw a cloud, and Fischer (the cinematographer) swung his camera up. Several of the actors had already gone home, so at a moment’s notice, some of the grips had to stand in, get some costumes on, and dance along up there.”

The Seventh Seal was critically well-received, won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 1957, and established Bergman as Sweden’s first real cinematic auteur (Remember? The Auteur Theory? Truffaut? Cahiers du Cinema? No?). James Monaco, in his book How to Read a Film, discusses its appeal to audiences at the time: “(the film’s symbolism 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.”

A partial measure of The Seventh Seal‘s enduring legacy is the list of films, books, and television shows that have referenced it, either with reverence or irreverence. Among those taking it less seriously:

Woody Allen’s Love and Death

Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life

and, of course… Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey

Synopsis

“It is the middle of the 14th Century. Antonius Block and his squire, after long years as crusaders in the Holy Land, have at last returned to their native Sweden, a land ravaged by the Black Plague.”

“And when the Lamb opened the Seventh Seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour. And the seven angels which had the seven trumpets prepared themselves to sound.”

Antonius and his squire lie on a rocky, inhospitable-looking beach. Waves crash against the shoreline, ominous clouds looming above. Antonius prays. There is also, inexplicably, a chess board. Then Death appears, looking about as you’d expect: pale skin, black cloak, piercing eyes devoid of mercy.

Death has come for Antonius, but Antonius isn’t quite ready to go, so he challenges Death to a game of chess. Death accepts, and chooses black (natch).

Apparently, Antonius wins the first round (or whatever you call it in chess), because he and his squire soon mount their horses.

As they ride, the squire chatters. “There is talk of omens and other horrors,” he says, and recounts one such omen, albeit an unlikely one: “Two horses had devoured each other.”

They come across a peasant who appears to be sleeping, but it’s actually the HORRIFYING CORPSE OF A PLAGUE VICTIM! WITH ITS EYES PECKED OUT!

Now we are with a trio of destitute traveling performers (and one baby). They awaken in a small trailer.

The leader, washing his face, sees a vision in the morning sunlight: The Virgin Mary, walking with little baby Jesus.

The ragtag troupe is en route to Elsinore, where they will put on a sort of live Public Service Announcement at the behest of the local priests.

“The priests speculate in sudden death and bellyache,” says the director, trying on a shoddily-constructed Death mask.

Possibly Significant: The actor’s name is Joseph. His wife’s name is Mary. They have a baby, named Michael. Joseph sees visions of angels. Make Of That What You Will.

Antonius and his squire arrive at a small church. Inside, the priest (or perhaps just a local handyman) paints a lurid mural. “It’s called the Dance of Death,” he explains. “A skull is more interesting than a naked woman.” Debatable, that. There’s a nice section to the left of the door where he has depicted the horrors of the plague: “You should see the abscess, the limbs knotted in frenzy… They try to tear out the boils… they bite their hands, scratch open their veins, scream in agony…”

Antonius tries to give his final confession to the priest, but is having trouble: “My heart is a void. The void is a mirror. I see my face… and feel loathing and horror… Is it so hard to conceive God with one’s senses? Why must He hide in a midst of vague promises and invisible miracles?” All excellent questions, by the way.

I think this is the section that we sampled for the fifi classic, When I Was A Porcupine:

“I cry to Him in the dark,” Antonius continues, “but there seems to be no one there.”

“Perhaps there is no one there,” replies the priest, rather sensibly, except it isn’t the priest at all – it’s actually DEATH, just fucking with Antonius. Worse, Antonius has foolishly revealed his chess strategy!

Outside the church, a woman is in the stocks. “She has had carnal knowledge of the Evil One,” explains a guard. To keep Beelzebub at bay during the night before her execution, the guards are sprinkling her with Anti-Satan Sauce: blood and gall from a black dog. Seems to be working, because The Horn’d God, Lord of the Flies, is nowhere to be seen.

Antonius and his squire reach an inn, where they had planned to stay for the night, but it appears to be deserted. Investigating further, Jons the squire finds the proprietress dead and a defrocked priest stealing her jewelry. Coincidentally, this is the same priest who originally convinced Antonius to join the Crusades, ten years previous. Jons gives him a piece of his mind and also prevents him from raping a young woman. For a moment, Jons seems like a hero, until he basically makes the young woman his personal slave.

The traveling performers are putting on a truly awful show in a small village. “The Black One makes dung on the shore!” they sing joyously, while the director seduces a sexy local milkmaid out in the parking lot.

The performance is thankfully cut short by the appearance of a chanting, wailing troupe of marching penitents, whipping themselves bloody in hopes of appeasing their jealous and vengeful Judeo-Christian God. Good luck with that!

“Death is behind your back!” proclaims the ringleader of the penitents.

“His scythe flashes above your heads!” In the next section of his sermon, he personally insults each member of the audience: “You, with the ugly nose! Will you pollute the earth for one more year?” He’s like the Don Rickles of Fourteenth Century evangelists. As a closing argument, he simply shouts the word “Doomed!” over and over again. The crowd goes nuts – weeping, gnashing their teeth, whipping themselves, begging for God’s undeserved mercy, brandishing papier-mâché skulls.

“Do they really expect modern people to take that drivel seriously?” exclaims Jons after the freak show has passed. Zing!

In the local pub, a pig’s carcass crackles over an open fire as the townspeople gossip. “People are dying like flies,” says one. “A woman has given birth to a calf’s head,” responds another. “No one dares say it aloud, but this is The End.”

Joseph is in trouble; the milkmaid seduced by his director was married to a local bully, Plog the Smith. Soon enough, the townspeople have Joseph up on a table, imitating a bear. Jons saves him at the last second, and also slices up the (attempted-)rapist priest for good measure.

Antonius introduces himself to Mary, and they make small talk until Joseph returns, a bit worse for wear. The director has disappeared. Antonius and Jons share a meal with the actor family. Antonius offers them safe passage to his castle. Once he’s got some fresh berries in his belly, Antonius opens up a bit and talks about his dead wife.

“I shall remember this hour of peace,” he says happily. “The strawberries, the bowl of milk, your faces in the dusk, Michael asleep, Joseph with his lute… I shall remember our words, and shall bear this memory between my hands as carefully as a bowl of fresh milk.”

Antonius excuses himself from the dinner to continue his Chess Game with Death. “As I have given away my strategy, I beat a retreat,” he explains to the black-cowled Reaper of Souls. “Why so happy?” inquires Death. “None of your beeswax,” replies Antonius. Or words to that effect.

Antonius prepares to escort the actor family through the forest, but Death is close behind. The cuckolded blacksmith (whose wife ran off with the director) decides to join the traveling group, they run into the director and the milkmaid in the woods, a fight ensues…

…the director fakes his own death and then climbs a tree when the group of travelers moves on. Sadly, Death is lurking about below, and cuts down the tree, killing the director. Ta da!

The creepy silence of the forest at night is broken by the sound of a captured witch being transported to the execution site. “Why burn her at night, when people need a diversion?” asks Jons.

Antonius catches up with the caged witch, and asks her if she can put him in touch with the Devil. “I want to ask him about God,” he explains. “Surely he knows.”

“Why have you broken her hands?” Antonius demands of the attending monk, but the monk turns to reveal the face of Death! “Will you never stop asking questions?” marvels Death. “No. Never!” Antonius spits in reply.

Antonius gives the prisoner something to “still the pain,” (?) and she closes her eyes. The soldiers raise the rack on which she is tied into the fire, and the accused witch burns before the small crowd of onlookers.

“What does she see?” wonders Jons. “Look at her eyes. Her poor mind is making a discovery: Emptiness.”

“It cannot be!” cries Antonius, but he is wrong.

Pausing on the road through the forest, Mary sings to her child, Antonius plans his next chess move, and the rest ponder the eventful day. A plague victim appears and begs them for water. “Stay on the other side of the tree!” orders Jons. “Take pity on me!” pleads the sick man, and then dies, writhing in agony.

Death appears, ready to finish his game with Antonius. Apart from Antonius, only Joseph can see Death. Terrified, he flees into the forest with his wife and child. The chess game continues. There are only a few moves left.

“When next we meet, it will be the end for you and your friends,” Death intones in that creepy voice of his, and then disappears.

Joseph, Mary, and Michael hide in the forest. Death passes in the night, storm winds raging in his wake.

Antonius and the remainder of the party reach his castle. His wife is the only person to greet the band of weary travelers; the rest have fled from the plague.

“I am very tired,” Antonius tells his wife. She prepares a meal for the guests, and reads aloud the scariest passages from Revelations, after which Death arrives to consume them all.

Antonius prays for mercy, but Jons chides him: “There is no one to hear your lament.”

Jons is correct.

Joseph, Mary and Michael, however, have apparently escaped the clutches of Eternity. Pausing on the road, Joseph sees his former traveling companions line-dancing across the hillside with Death calling the tune.

“You and your visions!” chuckles his long-suffering wife.

What I Liked

Max Von Sydow as the knight Antonius was intense and riveting, as always.

Gunnar Björnstrand, the actor who played Jons the squire, had a great face, excellent comic timing, and was ultimately my favorite character in the film (even though he was occasionally despicable).

There were a number of undeniably powerful, resonant images that stuck with me: Death on the beach, the witch-girl’s agony in the fire, our luckless heroes dancing across the hill at the end.

What I Didn’t Like So Much

For me, the broad comedy of some scenes (for example, any scene that featured Plog the Smith) clashed with the existential brooding which comprised the bulk of the film. I suppose those scenes were there to make the bleak subject matter more palatable, but it didn’t work for me.

The essay in the Janus book has this to say: “Whether seen as a reflection of the era’s nuclear nightmares or its pop existentialism, Bergman’s grim tale of a knight returning from the Crusades to find his homeland ravaged by plague spoke directly to a questioning postwar generation.”

That may be so, but half a century on, The Seventh Seal seems self-parodically (fuck you, spell-check!) pretentious. Perhaps this is because the images have become so ubiquitous that it’s impossible to relate to them any longer in their original context. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t stop picturing Bill and Ted playing Battleship with Death (“Best two out of three?”).

More than that, the questions and ideas raised by the script are never given more than a superficial gloss – Does God exist? He must, says Bergman, or maybe not, but it’s probably better to imagine he does. Also, guess what? The world contains both transcendent love AND unimaginable horror! True enough, but you could have gotten the same insight by watching 96 minutes of CNN.

Should You See It?

It’s a beautiful-looking film, of a reasonable length (96 minutes), and it’s consistently interesting, if not particularly profound or engaging (in my opinion; YMMV). More importantly, it’s a touchstone of our modern culture. Yes, you should see it.

Next: The Spirit of the Beehive

One Comment

  1. I have only seen one Ingmar Bergman film. “Fanny and Alexander” which I watched on Showtime when I was a teenager. It was, I think, three hours long and boring as hell. Sadly…that’s about it for my Bergman repertoire…until… “The Seventh Seal.” And, no, it’s not about sea mammals the way “Sammy the Way-Out Seal” was.

    So, then, my opinion? Well, frankly, the jury is out and I don’t think they’re coming back. Let me get to my quick down-and-dirty description of the film and I think you’ll see what I mean.

    The film starts out with some voice-over from, I’m sure, the book of Revelations about seals and death, etc. Then we get up-to-speed on the story as we find two men (and their horses) lounging around the beach. Seems they’ve been kicking ass in the crusades and have returned to a Europe that is being blighted by the black plague. Bummer.

    As they’re about to begin their journey, Death shows up and the character Antoine (who I’ll now refer to as Tony and played by Max Von Sydow) challenges death to a chess match. Not an arm wrestle, not a cage fight, but a chess match. And just when I think this is going to be some Bobby Fischer wet dream – a journey starts (what of the chess match? Oh, we’ll get to that later).

    They start heading home and then the story cuts abruptly to a traveling theatre show. A clown (?) his lovely wife, their child, and the director (who’s a bit of a dick). Though the clown swears he sees visions and writes really bad songs they let their child wander off buck-nekkid through the grass. She’s smitten with clown/husband. He’s smitten with her.

    As the story progresses we come across a town ravaged (?) by the plague. Seems a witch has been tied to a whipping post (great Allman Brothers song by the way). Tony’s company/man servant has some grave issues with the way the church has been dealing with people who might be witches and the like and he has dismissed the church’s teachings as “ghost stories and fables” (something I’m sure Jason mentioned above). Still, Jons, I think is his name – saves a gal from potential killing by the very priest who had sent him and Tony on their journey to do the crusady type things. But then Jons puts the moves on her and then demands that she be his handmaiden (or something).

    But what about the “CHESS WITH DEATH THROWDOWN?!” I know you’re asking yourself. Well, Death keeps showing up saying things like: “Tonight…in the inn, it’s f*cking ON!” (okay, I’m paraphrasing here) When Tony – who I think is struggling with his faith, decides to confess his sins to the priest the priest is DEATH! What a twist there. And he stupidly tells death his plan to split his forces on the chessboard battle field. Bad, bad, move.

    Meanwhile, the acting troupe is having a good ol’ time putting on a show when a buxom young wench gives the “come hither and take me” look to the director of the show. While the clown and his lovely wife sing another pathetic song that makes no sense – the buxom wench and the director get it on in some bushes.

    In the middle of the show the local priest/monk/eunuch constituency decide to crash the party with some flogging and crucifix dragging and overall “we’re all gonna die and you’re gonna die and we’re all fixin’ to die” speechifying. This, as you can imagine, is a real bummer and they put them dang actors in their places.

    A little while later there’s some drinking going on and the clown actor dude gets picked on by the distraught husband of the buxom gal. He DEMANDS to know where his wife is (and we haven’t seen her since the running off into the bushes). Still, he’s a drunken pissed off man and he tortures the said actor/clown guy – making a fool of him: “I SAID, STAND ON YOUR HEAD. I SAID, DANCE LIKE A BEAR!” (note, this is more done by the slimy priest bastard who stole a silver bracelet from a dead woman, and was planning on killing the gal who now is Jon’s assistant AND sent Tony and Jons on the trip to wherever to do that whole crusade tour). When Jons shows up, he lets actor guy go and cuts the priest guy real bad.

    Now they’re all together on their journey – after some strawberries and cream and more buck-nekkied baby nudity.

    Just for grins, let’s recap:

    Tony playing chess with death (on occasion)
    Tony questioning his faith in God
    Jons now an atheist or agnostic or…
    Jons now with hot babe he saved from bad priest
    Bad priest cut up bad
    Clown and wife and naked baby are traveling
    Carpenter dude sad that wife is gone
    Dick director gone

    They travel through the forest when, lo-and-behold, the director shows up with the buxom wife. Carpenter dude goes after him and the wife encourages him to kill the director. The director being a smart guy (kinda) uses a trick knife to “kill” himself and then climbs a tree to hide while they all leave. Death then shows up and cuts down the tree. Seems the director’s time was up.

    The evil priest shows up and says he’s got the plague and they let him die, horribly (about time).

    As they all continue to travel they end up at a castle (note, early on there’s mention of castle Elsinore which, I think was the same name as the castle in “Strange Brew” another classic Max Von Sydow film). The castle contains Tony’s wife (I think) – the film story got a bit fuzzy at this point – and this is going on way too long.

    There’s a scene where the witch gets burned on a ladder and she looks in the eyes of Tony and he’s bothered by it – or something. Tony also plays chess (again with the chess) with Death and he knocks all the pieces off (CHEATER! DON’T YOU KNOW YOU CAN’T CHEAT DEATH?!) after Death has captured his queen. But, really, Tony is only doing this to distract Death from following the clown/actor and his lovely wife and baby.

    Note, at this point, the actor can see Death playing with Tony but the actor’s wife thinks that Tony is playing chess all by himself. Which, in Sweden, might very well be a national pastime.

    At the end of the film we see that the actor and his wife and child have found happiness while everyone else is lead away by Mr. Death himself. I’ll assume that Tony lost the game.

    WHAT I LIKED:

    Golly, this film is hard to categorize. I’m seriously right down the middle with it. I don’t really know if I liked it or disliked it. Why? Well there were numerous shifts of tone in the story. There were some moments where it was a bit of light comedy and other moments where I wanted to turn away. I overall liked the exploration of death and man’s relationship with God and the over-reaching questions we all have in regards to God and the existence of such a “being” (if you believe in that sort of thing). There were some challenging moments that I found very interesting.

    WHAT I DISLIKED:

    The shifts in tone were a bit jarring. Some of the acting was over the top and a bit of the misogynistic dialogue was hard to stomach.

    OVERALL:

    This film is like a strange dream that you wake up and you only remember bits and pieces and can’t recall if it was a dream or a nightmare. As I said…I’m right in the middle with this film. It’s certainly going to be one that I’ll think about for the next week or so (or until I watch something stupid). I honestly do not know if I could recommend this, or not.

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