The Greatest films of all time: 48.The Seventh Seal (1957)(Sweden)

Introduction:

“The Seventh Seal” of Ingmar Bergman that won the Jury special prize at Cannes Film Festival in 1957 is a start of the Swedish filmmaker’s metaphorical, allegorical and poetic film style for the first time into the world of cinema. Although Surrealism in cinema starting in the silent era with “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” of Robert Wiene, then “Un Chien Andalou” of Luis Bunuel had brought an intellectual format and content to the art of film, it was not until Bergman when cinema started to become a medium of intellectual experiments and expressions. This started with “The Seventh Seal” and followed in the same year of 1957 with “Wild Strawberries” by Bergman himself again, until other filmmakers worldwide, such as Michealngelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini, and Jean Luc Goddard among others followed the suit in their own fashions.

 

But Ingmar Bergman’s prolific career, spanning from 1938 with a theatrical production at age 20 until 2003 with his last feature, Saraband and his last radio theatre show in 2004 at age 86, just three years before his death at age 89 is unmatched. With 45 feature films directing, with 50 screenplays, 24 documentaries, 11 television films, and more than 150 theatrical and radio shows, Bergman is the most active directors of all time. Not just for his extreme activities, producing more than one work every single year in different media, he is perhaps the only filmmakers who has had hands on any genres, from drama, to comedy, thriller, fantasy, action, and on different subject matters of philosophy, psychology, metaphorical, poetic, and more. He has created his own original styles and work such as in “The Seventh Seal”, but also has directed many adaptations of great classics on stage and radio from Shakespeare to Albert Camus, Verdi, Tennessee Williams, Cervantes, Edward Albee, Eugene O’Neil, and many more.

 

Bergman is also one of the very few filmmakers with more than a few masterpieces such as “The Seventh Seal”, “Wild Strawberries”, “The Virgin Spring”, “The Pleasure Garden”, “Persona”, “The Passion of Anna”, “Cries and Whispers”, “Scenes from a Marriage”, “The Magic Flute”, “Autumn Sonata”, “Fanny and Alexander”, and his last feature “Saraband” at age 84. He is also one of the few who deservedly won three times the best foreign films at the Academy Awards, one Golden Bear from Berlin Film Festival, one Cesar award, seven awards from Cannes Film Festival, six best foreign film awards from Golden Globe, and seven Guldbagge awards from the Swedish Film Festival. Bergman has also made several of great Swedish actors known to the world, such as Bibi Anderson, Max von Sydow, Liv Ullmann, Ingrid Tulin, Harriett Anderson, Jorgen Lindstrom, Victor Sjostrom, and more.         

Fear of Death or longing for the Truth:

It has been suggested by some critics that “The Seventh Seal” is an existential nihilistic perspective on life. But Bergman’s films such as this and “Wild Strawberries” that somewhat related, are not nihilistic in the philosophical sense of this school of thought to believe life void of any objective meaning, so to be skeptical and pessimistic like Kierkegaard. In fact as we read further into the story of the film, there have been feelings of deception and betrayal through the crusades by the papal rules, sending the knights to fight in the name or for the glory of God, while hiding the truth and the real intention of the religious wars in the medieval time. 

 

The knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) and his squire (Gunnar Bjornstrand) return home after long years of crusades in the 14thcentury to witness their homeland Sweden like many other parts of Europe has been ravaged by the Black Plague. With this opening text introduction, the film opens with a big black bird, symbol of doom, flying over in a cloudy sky in the black and white color, with another following text prologue:

“And when the lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in the heaven, about the space of half an hour. Then the seven angels prepared their seven trumpets to sound”. This passage from the book of “Revelation”, the last chapter of the New Testament, anticipating the end of the world or “Apocalypse”. 

 

Then on a beach, lying asleep we see Antonius Block with Jons, his squire. He wakes up, washes his face in the sea then briefly prays, before he notices a man in a black robe looking like a monk staring at him, who calls himself the “Dead” (Bengt Ekerot) coming to take his life. Antonius, a solo chess player, having a chessboard with him on the beach, invites the dead angel to a challenge game of chess and if he wins, not to take him away from the earth and let him live. The rest of the film revolves around the subject of death that has dominated the land and beyond by the plague, and the futility of the crusades, wasting 10 years of Antonius and other knights’ lives through the deception of religion to fight for the glory of God.

Therefore the film while an existential philosophical perspective of life with the fear and anticipation of death, is also social and political in a poetic style in disclosing the deception of religion and crusades in the medieval times. Antonius exhausted from the war and disgusted with all the lies in the name of God, is in the search for the truth. While reaching a church, he confesses to a priest, begging him to grant him the power of knowledge so to know the truth, not just a sheer undoubted belief. In his confession, he is wishing God to come out of the darkness and reveal himself and the truth, to end this life surrounded by nothingness and lies. He calls the God an idol that humans made out of their fears:

 

“Is it so cruelly inconceivable to grasp God with the senses? Why should He hide himself in a mist of half-spoken promises and unseen miracles?…What is going to happen to those of us who want to believe but aren’t able to?”

 At the end of his confession, Antonius notices to be tricked by the death angel pretending to be a priest listening to him who has also revealed to him, his strategy to win him in final move of their chess game.

 

Outside the church when he steps out, a young girl as a witch and devil messenger has been tied to a post by priests, waiting to be burnt the next day. Antonius approaches her to learn if she has met the devil in person, again in the search for the truth about the real existence of devil. But a priest reading anti-devil prayer from the holy book, prohibits him to talk to her “as she is the cause of the plague”! Riding back on again on their journey back home, Antonius and his squire reach a village, where Jons, the squire enters a barn, notices the dead body of a woman on the floor, then a thief, Raval (Bertil Anderberg)who is plundering the place and taking off a bracelet of her wrist. Jons  notices and confronts him the he is the seminarist who persuaded him and his master to go on the crusades, wasted 10 years of their lives to fight in the holy land and for the glory of God, while the messenger is a thief and a liar. 

Later on in the church of the village, Jons runs to a painter, Albertus (Gunnar Olsson)who is painting a fresco of the “Dance of Death” on the wall of the church, we are in advance prompted to final scene of the film. The dance of death, is an allegory and propaganda of the middle ages crusades that death is universal and connects everyone no matter of their living states, for the promotion of the religious wars. But the squire who has already lost his faith and doubts everything, does not even care what the truth is, lest to search for it like Antonius. Jons gets drunk with the painter and both immerse themselves in the pond of moment. 

 

The next scene in the village center, the stage players entertain people, when a march of priests and prayers, carrying crosses, incents, and whipping some believers or sinners, breaks their performance. The main priest starts his preach by attacking all the silent common bystanders as sinners and idiots that the black plague is their fault and sin and soon the death will be at their doorsteps.

 Soon Antonius meets the actors family, Jof (Nils Poppe), his wife Mia (Bibi Anderson) with their infant son Mikael, and their actor-manager Jonas Skat (Erik Strandmark). He is offered by the wife some wild strawberries, and while they’re befriending, Antonius who finds Mia a sincere woman, expresses himself and experience by saying “Faith is a torment – did you know that? It is like loving someone who is out there in the darkness but never appears, no matter how loudly you call.”

At the end Antonius loses the chess game to the Death who will announce to him, the next time they will meet, when he will be taking him and his friends. At night when they all arrive at the castle of Antonius, his wife who appears like a stranger after 10 years and perhaps had lost her faith in the marriage, welcome the guests to dinning. At the dinner, she is reading them from the book of “Revelation” of the seven angels that the film introduced to us in the opening. At this point, the death appears to them all for the first time, as until then he was only visible to Antonius. The final scene in the next day, Jof the actor with his wife and son, are in their wagon by the beach. The actor suddenly notices the Dead up on the hill, is carrying Antonius with the rest of his friends, all tied to a rope walking behind him, like in the Dance of Death.

 

Conclusion:

In closing remarks “The Seventh Seal” one more time will be redefined based on the following criteria:  

  1. Originality:“The Seventh Seal” is original as the first major feature film to make the screen as an intellectual medium for enlightenment and elevation of thoughts. This prompted the future cinematic movements to depict and discuss different philosophical issues of life on the screen and engaging the intellectual circles in discussion of such films like literary works.  
  2. Technicality:The technicality of “The Seventh Seal” is in bringing a new language to cinema for presentation of intellectual ideas, while still in a cinematographic background. The film while pertaining to the medieval time, it is metaphorical and allegorical in a poetic style to apply to all ages and even our modern time. This importance has done artfully so the film not to appear as a dry ideological discussion that some of the future alike films came across.
  3. Impact Factor:The influence of “The Seventh Seal” has been on giving birth to the application of cinema for reflection and expression of ideological and philosophical issues by many future filmmakers.
  4. Survival:“The Seventh Seal” has survived well as it is still engaging, enlightening, thought provoking and fresh for an intellectual dialogue.

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