The Seventh Seal (Swedish: Det sjunde inseglet) is a 1957 Swedish drama film directed by Ingmar Bergman, about the journey of a medieval knight (Max von Sydow) across a plague-ridden landscape, and a monumental game of chess between himself and the personification of Death, 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" (Revelation 8:1). Here the motif of silence refers to the "silence of God" which is a major theme of the film. The film is considered a major classic of world cinema. It helped Bergman to establish himself as a world-renowned director and contains scenes which have become iconic through parodies and homages.
Albertus Pictor is the most famous late medieval Swedish painter, known for his wallpaintings surviving in numerous churches in southern and central Sweden.
Albertus Pictors illustration of Death playing chess from Täby kyrka inspired the famous scene from the movie in which the knight (Antonius Block) plays chess with personified Death. Albertus Pictor himself appears as a character in the film, in a dialog with Jöns, Antonius Block's squire, while working on a church mural.
To his dismay, Death (Bengt Ekerot) has come for him, as well. He challenges Death to a chess match. Death agrees to the terms: as long as Block resists, he lives. If he wins, he shall go free. Master and squire ride across a mossy heath beyond which the sea lies shimmering in the white glitter of the sun. Jöns seeks directions from a man who appears to be sleeping, but is actually dead. An actor, Jof, is shown sleeping with his family in a wagon. He wakes and claims to see a vision of the Virgin Mary amongst the wind in the trees. The knight and squire enter a grey stone church in a strange white mist where a fresco of the Dance of Death is being painted. Jöns discusses the plague with the painter, then draws a small figure to represent himself. "This is squire Jöns. He grins at Death, mocks the Lord, laughs at himself and leers at the girls. His world is a Jöns-world, believable only to himself, ridiculous to all including himself, meaningless to Heaven and of no interest to Hell." The knight Block approaches a priest in the confessional booth: "My life has been a futile pursuit, a wandering, a great deal of talk without meaning. I feel no bitterness or self-reproach because the lives of most people are very much like this. But I will use my reprieve for one meaningful deed." The knight tells the priest that he is playing chess with Death and reveals his strategy, only to find that the priest is Death, hidden in the shadows. Shortly thereafter, Jöns walks into an abandoned farm looking for water, where he saves a servant girl (Gunnel Lindblom) from being raped by a robber. He recognises the robber as Raval a theologian (Dr Mirabilis, Coelestis et Diabilis) who ten years ago had convinced the knight, his master, to leave the wife he loved and join "a better-class crusade to the Holy Land." Jöns threatens to brand Raval on the face if he catches him again. Shaken, the girl agrees to come along with Jöns as his house keeper. Later, at a public house, when Raval attempts to humiliate the innocent and mystic juggler Jof (forcing him to dance on the tables like a bear), Jöns appears and stays true to his word, dealing a rough justice by cutting Raval with a knife from forehead to cheek. The knight and Death continue their game, but Block sees the evening light move across a wagon to the actress Mia and her little child. He walks over. She tells him that the actor Skat has run off and left them and that they plan to visit the saint's feast at Elsinore. He warns them against this as "the plague has spread in that direction...people are dying by the tens of thousands." When Mia's husband Jof returns, the knight finds solace in a quiet, pleasant picnic
of milk and wild strawberries with the family. Antonius Block explains how much he loved his own wife before he left her for the Crusades. He also shares with Mia his ongoing burden, the burden of faith, which he describes as loving someone in the dark who never comes. However, it is the simple and harmonious moments like this in which he states he is able to find comfort and which he wishes to remember: "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." He invites them to his castle, where they will be safe from the plague.
They next come across a young girl who has been declared a witch by a monk and who is to be burned at the stake. The Knight demands of the monk: "what have you done with the child?" Jöns' conscience is sympathetic to the girl and he contemplates killing her executioners, but decides against it as she is almost dead. Block asks her, both at their first encounter in a village and as she is tied to the stake, to summon Satan for him; he wants to ask the Devil about God. When in what Block describes as her "terror" she claims to have done so, Block (and the audience) cannot see him, leaving his dilemma unanswered.
Death finds the missing actor Skat hiding up a tree and begins sawing it down. Skat protests but Death insists his time is up. "No, I have my performance," says Skat. "Then it's been cancelled because of death," is the reply. "Aren't there any special rules for actors?" "No, not in this case." The robber Raval that Jöns branded later appears dying of the plague, pleading for water. The mute servant girl attempts to bring him some, but is stopped by Jöns who exclaims, "It's meaningless. Can't you hear that I'm consoling you?". The robber then dies. Jof, the actor tells his wife Mia that he can see the Knight playing chess with Death and decides to immediately escape with his family.
Antonius Block pretends to be clumsy and knocks the chess pieces over, distracting Death long enough for the family of actors he's befriended to slip away. Death declares that the knight will be check-mated next move and announces that when they meet again Block's time will be up. The knight is reunited with his wife at his castle, she having waited there alone for him. The party shares one "last supper" before Death comes for them through the twilight of the "large, murky room where the burning torches throw uneasy shadows over the ceiling and walls."
At the final moment, Block pleads to God: "Have mercy on us, because we are small and frightened and ignorant." Jöns's girl, on her knees, smiles and announces, "It is finished." Meanwhile, the little family of actors and jugglers have endured a strange light and roar in the forest which the father, Jof, interprets to be "the Angel of Death and he's very big." They now awaken listening to the rain tapping on the wagon canvas and crawl out, noticing "the dark retreating sky where summer lightning glitters like silver needles" over the ridges, forests, wide plains and sea. Jof, with his second sight, sees a vision of the knight and
his followers being led away over the hills in a solemn dance of death. "They dance away from the dawn and it's a solemn dance towards the dark lands, while the rain washes...and cleans the salt of their tears from their cheeks." His wife, Mia, turns to him and says "you with your visions and dreams."
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." The script for the Seventh Seal was commenced while Bergman was in the Karolinska Hospital in Stockholm recovering from a stomach complaint. It was at first rejected 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 Bergman rewrote the script five times and was given a schedule of only thirty-five days and a budget of $150,000. It was to be the seventeenth film he had directed.
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.
In the Magic Lantern autobiography Bergman writes of the film's iconic concluding 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."
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."
Even less equivocally 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.
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. However, the medieval Sweden portrayed in this movie includes creative anachronisms. The last crusade (the Ninth) ended in 1271, and the Black Death hit Europe in 1348. In addition, the flagellant movement was foreign to Sweden; large-scale witch persecutions only began in the 1400s.
Generally speaking, historians Johan Huizinga and 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. 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.
Strong influences on the film were Bibi Andersson who played the juggler's wife Mia (and with whom Bergman was in love), Picasso's picture of the two acrobats, Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, Strindberg's Folk Sagas and To Denmark, the frescoes at Haskeborga church and a painting by Albertus Pictor in Täby kyrka. Just prior to shooting Bergman directed for radio the Play of Everyman by Hugo von Hofmannstahl. By this time he had also directed plays by Shakespeare, Strindberg, Camus, Chesterton, Anouilh, Tennessee Williams, Pirandello, Lehar, Moliere and Ostrovsky.
Bergman grew up in a home infused with an intense Christianity, his father being a charismatic preacher (this may have explained Bergman's childhood infatuation with Hitler which later deeply tormented him). As a six-year old child, Bergman used to help the gardener carry corpses from the Royal Hospital Sofia Lemmet (where his father was chaplain) to the mortuary. 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. 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 JS Bach did at the end of every musical composition.
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.”
Melvyn Bragg writes,
“It 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."
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." The film has been regarded since its release as a masterpiece of cinematography.
Also of note is Woody Allen's Love and Death, a film which broadly parodies 19th-century Russian novels with a closing "Dance of Death" scene imitating Bergman. Woody Allen is an enormous fan of Ingmar Bergman and references his work in his serious dramas as well as his comedies. The film was parodied by French and Saunders, who played it as a domestic sitcom, albeit a dark one, with the main characters unaware of the depth of the drama.
Notable parodies of Bergman's Death also occur in:
The chess pieces were just one of 337 items, including film prizes and awards, that belonged to Bergman and were auctioned in 2009 in Stockholm for a total of 18 million Swedish crowns (€ 1,787,7136; $ 2,604,519).
The pieces are modelled after medieval pieces found in scandinavia. Therefore the rook which was made on a lathe does not fit in with the other pieces, which were carved.