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SEVENTH SEAL, THE (Sjunde inseglet, Det) (director/writer: Ingmar Bergman; screenwriter: from Ingmar Bergman’s play Trämålning; cinematographer: Gunnar Fischer; editor: Lennart Wallen; music: Erik Nordgren; cast: Gunnar Bjornstrand (Jons), Bengt Ekerot (Death), Nils Poppe (Jof), Max von Sydow (Antonius Block), Bibi Andersson (Mia), Inga Gill (Lisa), Maud Hansson (Witch), Erik Strandmark (Jonas Skat), Bertil Anderberg (Raval), Ake Fridell (Blacksmith); Runtime: 97; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Allan Ekelund; Janus Films; 1957-Sweden-in Swedish with English subtitles)
“Though it dramatically never comes to life, it does give one a feel of the medieval times’ obscene nature, brutality and superstitions.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s (“Winter Light”/”The Virgin Spring”/”Wild Strawberries”) much parodied and imitated beautifully photographed black-and-white film with a modest budget was shot in thirty-five days. It stands as a morality play (using the film’s medieval Black Plague theme as a metaphor for a modern nuclear war), and earned Bergman his well-deserved international following and the Cannes Film Festival Special Jury Prize. The allegory about death, suffering and man’s relationship with God, is based on Bergman’s play from a few years before called Trämålning. It’s set in 14th-century Sweden. The title is lifted from the Book of Revelations.

After ten years in the Holy Land to fight in the Crusades a disillusioned knight named Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) and his squire servant Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand) return to Sweden to find a plague ripping through Sweden, that the warrior’s idealism was misplaced, that a religious frenzy exists that prevents him from finding God and keeping his faith, and that the Death and Judgment prophesied in the Bible is upon the land. While at the seashore (filmed at Hovs Hallar, on the southwest coast of Sweden), Block is confronted by the black cloaked grim reaper (Bengt Ekerot). To put off the inevitable and stall for time to clear up his religious doubt Block challenges Death to a game of chess, with victory meaning he will be set free. While playing, Block searches for answers about the human condition and destiny he never discovered. The game is temporarily stopped as Block and Jons return to the knight’s castle and continue exploring what has happened to their country. The story then follows a trio of traveling entertainers, the child-like impish juggler Jof (Nils Poppe), his gentle devoted wife Mia (Bibi Andersson), and the fickle rake Skat (Erik Strandmark), who are having difficulty getting work.

Through use of striking images such as some flagellants swinging smoking censers, Bergman depicts his gloom and doom tale with a tremendous visual impact. Death keeps popping up to play the game it can’t lose. Academic speeches come at the drop of a hat. To show the gloom Bergman uses shadowy and dark images, while with bright images he indicates the moments of joy. The film is laden with metaphysical and allegorical weight, that remain interesting in a simplistic way but if subject to analysis become suspect to cinematic trickery and dubious arcane religious scholarship. Though it dramatically never comes to life, it does give one a feel of the medieval times’ obscene nature, brutality and superstitions.

To explain the shot the film is best remembered for at the conclusion, Bergman said we quit shooting when suddenly a cloud appeared and Gunnar Fischer started shooting but some of the actors went home so we used the crew instead and they quickly dressed in costume and we shot it spontaneously in ten minutes with the actors in silhouette. This sequence was known as the “Dance of Death.”

The 27-year-old Von Sydow became an international star as a result of his strong, mature performance.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”