The Seventh Seal

The Seventh Seal ★★★★★

Danse Macabre and the philosophical questions of life at the verge of death. The Seventh Seal is the film that put Bergman on the map as a force to be reckon with in the world of cinema. Despite gaining much praise from his previous film Smiles of a Summer Night from the year before it was this film which won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes that set him on the path to iconic status among film critics. This is very much the truth with the film being Bergman's first of many masterpieces of filmmaking to come.

What makes The Seventh Seal on top of the elite is how Bergman works with such smaller scale production values, few locations and his brilliant ideas and philosophy to make an apocalyptic film of epic proportions. This film feels like it is on a grand scale yet it only contains a few characters and set pieces throughout. This is evidence of Bergman's genius at hand and how his writing can easily provide thought provoking material while his directorial prowess can transform a film of little means. The plot of the film is haunted by the recent Crusades yet they are never shown in the film, no large battles or brutal violence yet Bergman so easily manipulates the viewer that we believe with the utmost certainty we entered our story on the traces left behind of this horrid historical war. He does the same with the rumors of evil omens and apocalyptic forth comings that we again believe at any moment fire may reign down from the Heavens onto our cast of characters in their god forsaken land. The plague is another element never really shown and only talked about yet its deathly presence surrounds the film. These elements do not scream of a film set in a small area but yet it is and still it makes the story appear to be effected from worldwide perspective.

The aspect that first attracted me to this film (being not only the first Bergman I had ever experienced but among my first foreign language films as well) was the fantastical story. The idea of a knight playing chess with the Reaper for a wager worth life. However when you actually see the film all of your normal initial expectations become shattered (and for the best). This knight is not the kind we read about in fairy tales, this is a man who witnessed unspeakable atrocities and has almost lost faith in humanity. The only thing that is holding him back from death is the slim hope that the world's madness have a purpose and not everything done be out of sheer nothingness. With questioning the existence of God or some higher being that can answer for the mayhem of men that he has lived upon is the last dire knowledge that he needs before he can die. The Fear of not knowing, of the unknown itself, it becomes greater than any death.

As an Atheist I often find myself relating to the conflicted protagonists of Bergman's films. Antonius Block is one of Bergman's first creations to question God leading into his marvelous loss of faith trilogy of the 60's. Bergman himself was a man of conflict, battling back and forth between atheist and agnostic viewpoints all of his life. It was not until filming Winter Light that he admittedly came to grips on his absence of faith in the Christian religion. Max Von Sydow whom is a Bergman regular gives his best performance as Block in this film. While his screen time is not of a weighty length for being the lead role and sharing much of the film with his fellow cast members; it is his scenes that are the most intense and intriguing. His monologues and the pain and anguish through facial mannerisms is nearly akin to the hopelessness of Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc (Look at the morbid terror and contempt he has for his fellow man in the burning of the heretic scene and tell me that is not masterclass acting).

The Seventh Seal may not be Bergman's best film but it contains all of the qualities that make up what we now consider today to be essential Bergman. It has aesthetic photography of the highest order, unnerving sound and atmosphere, and intellectual thought played out through theatrics of its characters in angst. The movie is a lesser masterpiece in Bergman's expansive filmography but a masterpiece no less.