These questions are commonplace in a cinema of more informed modern perspectives and risks, but in the 1950s they were the stuff of heavy-handed thinkers who had little concept of their propensity in front of a movie camera. The imaginative scope of the motion picture industry had long been established by the likes of Fritz Lang and Victor Fleming, but the human element was seldom as piercing (or at least that was the perception). And then the gifted Ingmar Bergman, inspired by the obscure mortal undertones buried in Swedish cinema while haunted by the dark mysteries of his harsh childhood, found a footing for the thematically challenging concept in a brooding parable set in the era of the crusades and the Bubonic plague. His result, “The Seventh Seal,” was born at the crest of an age of inherent philosophy in cinematic artistry, and together with Akira Kurosawa and Federico Fellini, he emerged as an important figure in the cerebral development of the 20th century’s defining art form.
The movie is an unbending breakdown of the human soul, and perhaps one of the finest – and most confrontational – ever made. Seeing it once can be equated with the chilling blast of freezing water in one’s face; seeing it multiple times over the years, however, is more meaningful, and recalls a deep-seeded will in the mind to absorb, but not fight, the film’s convincing power in holding the mirror of mortality up to our fearful faces. This is in part due to the nature of the material, which is arguably heavier and more realistic than any kind that preceded it, but the stretch of influence hardly ends there. For a generation of filmgoers who reveled in the comfort of the cinema being its umbrella of escape from the piercing rains of reality, here was a foray of great mental dimension that spoke of a buried power in moving pictures: the power of a singular mind to question faith in the face of tragedy, and of the necessity to contemplate our momentary existence on the canvas of time.
My experience with the film began in 2002, during a course on great film directors that covered a great stretch of cinema’s visionary giants, including Francois Truffaut, Fellini, Hitchcock and the great Stanley Kubrick. The instructor’s strategy was clear: each week over the course of ten, one director was chosen and then the class as a whole would watch one of their films in its entirety before dissecting whole sequences out of another. The progression was nearly chronological, leading to the exposure of some brilliant works that had previously been untouched even by me. It was, as an example, the first time I had witnessed Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train,” and said course also provided my first uninterrupted viewing of the important “Seven Samurai.”
Others, like Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” had been seen previously but were enriched by the experience of technical analysis, done in a dark room of aspiring film buffs who offered perspectives that were indicative of the importance these movies carried across generation lines and cultures. Alas, Bergman became short-changed in the course because of time limits, utilized only once in a discussion on isolated frames of film that told stories all on their own. The striking image of Antonius and his spiritual jailer engaging in a game of chess inspired the room to great heights of oratorical banter, most of which I listened to only through muffled attention (I am not ashamed to admit, either, that it was my first exposure to Bergman in any capacity). What was absorbed in that moment cannot accurately be described by words, but the effect was startling, almost divine. Images have the potential to be gripping purely based on the way they are framed; here was one so distinctive in its presence, it reached far past the notion of transcendence.
It is no coincidence that the image is one of the most influential in the history of motion pictures, so widely known and seen that it has been lampooned by countless sources over the past fifty years. In truth, however, it was actually inspired by even older source material: that of the great Swedish artist Albertus Pictor, whose 15th century Fresco depicted the same game, and no doubt resonated with the director through most of his adult life. The story’s groundwork, furthermore, was also adapted directly from a one-act play that Bergman himself wrote years prior called “Wood Painting,” and its influence at a critical juncture in his career perhaps says more about the austerity of its themes rather than the pervasiveness of the central narrative.
It is, of course, a thoughtful narrative regardless. Set in the dark times of Europe’s religious upheavals, a knight returns home after years fighting in the crusades, only to find the countryside ravaged by the effects of a devastating plague. This fact is exemplified in one of countless key sequences early in the film, in which the knight’s squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) asks a lowly beggar on a beach cliffside for directions to Elsinore, and discovers that the figure is now a vacant shell of rotting flesh and bone (the camera shows us its lifeless face peering back with empty eye sockets, resulting in the squire’s most potent verbal observation: “he was quite eloquent”).
Cautiously treading through the countryside, the two pass through small villages gripped by the fear of this plague, and study with certain restraint the means to which their isolated societies deal with the threat, including one where an innocent woman is tied up and left to starve under the delusion that she, perhaps, is the original source of the epidemic. In another, a troupe of whimsical actors wanders into an establishment of drunken civilians, seeking to distract them from reality through absurd theater. This also yields characters that will provide a contrasting importance to the internal journey being made by the knight and his squire: notably, Mia and Jof (also known as Mary and Joseph, if you catch the reference), two easy-going sorts whose deepest discussions revolve around their infant child’s future in the troupe, or the taste and consistency of wild strawberries.
At the center of these complexities is the revelatory performance by Max von Sydow, who at age 28 seemed much older and seasoned than most of his counterparts. His work with the Swedish filmmaker began in short films in the 50s and endured through most of his early career, ending with the poignant “The Passion of Anna” in 1969. If any one performance of Sydow’s earliest endeavors carries the distinction of fueling the prolific career that would follow, then “The Seventh Seal” shows him at his most pointed and vulnerable. Often in the Bergman films, it is less about what characters say and more about the looks they exchange, and whereas most actors might gaze up at the visage of Death with horror, here it is conveyed with an underlying sense of wonder, and the effect is perhaps numbed by the perception of Antonius already seeing so much death and decay through circumstance. It is clear that the experience of the crusades has shaken him so much that, once the chess game begins, he is already deadened by the idea of God hiding in a “fog of half spoken promises.”
Bergman was a complex moral character with an impeccable instinct in film, and his conviction was driven less by a need to entertain and more by a desire to find his own answers through the poetic irony of moving pictures. Because of this prospect, his characters in “The Seventh Seal” do not feel so much like actual identities as they do extensions of his own persona, each representing a facet within his conflicted psyche. Most movie historians would argue that the Jöns character is the most important, representing the director’s well-known knack for subtle humor in grave conflict; however, I am certain the most important projection comes from the Antonius character, whose internal strife is clearly representative of Bergman’s strict Lutheran upbringing, and an eventual causality to the notion of living in a “world of phantoms.” And as his career progressed, age and wisdom also dictated that his movies would see fewer squires but more conflicted knights searching for impossible answers in endless desolation.
The movie’s visual achievements contain subtle nuances of the technical standards that would become the norm for the directors that followed. The cinematographer Gunnar Fischer, who was hired by Bergman for several of his own films throughout the 50s, was an expert interpreter of the hypnotic nature of black and white, and when he shot characters in isolated frames he often chose to light them from behind rather than the front, exposing the rawness in their expressions through profiled shadows. The very haunting penance sequence, meanwhile, is filmed from overarching angles (a move that would inspire Shekhar Kapur in his “Elizabeth” films nearly forty years later), and the high contrast style was remarkably evocative in establishing shots – especially on the beach, where we see the figure of a crow set against a gloomy sky, and then two horses staring out to sea as the waves crash against them. Contrary to what most of the film might suggest, only three scenes were completed on location; the remainder of the outside filming actually took place on a studio lot directly behind a complex of apartment buildings, which were strategically shot around using a group of trees as a barrier.
Of the more than fifty films Bergman made, only ten or so he was truly proud of, “The Seventh Seal” being one of them. While incomparable in style and reach, the movie is really just the cornerstone to a career that seldom seemed transparent. “Wild Strawberries,” which tells the tale of a professor at the end of his life contemplating the legacy (if any) he will leave behind, follows a similar strand of contemplation but with less surrealism. “The Virgin Spring,” the most visually challenging of his early pictures, clouds such answers under the weighted influence of unrelenting vengeance. And in another of his finest, “Cries and Whispers,” sisters who gather at the bedside of their dying sister are whisked into a dream-like sphere saturated in tones that underscore their buried passions. The commonality in all of them, perhaps more present than Bergman might have ever realized, is the succinct presence of some hand of fate reaching from behind the curtain as if making some ravenous attempt at consuming the souls of those whose faith is shaken. In this film, the hand comes very directly in the form of Death himself; in others, it is more subtle but no less potent, weaving through the lives of others as if drawn to a conscious knowledge of their insecurity in the afterlife. There is no doubt he was plagued by this uncertainty, and he perhaps found comfort in projecting that through his protagonists. To absorb his filmography is to chronicle the spiritual evolution of a soul in constant resistance to the patterns of the universe, and “The Seventh Seal” is his most powerful cry to a God whose mysteries play like a maddening paradox.
Written by DAVID KEYES
"Lessons in Criterion" is a weekly series of essays devoted to exploring the films released within the Criterion Collection on Blu Ray and DVD. Noted for their notoriety or importance in their effect on the evolution of cinema, these films are not rated on the 4-star scale in order to preserve the intent of the work, which exist to promote discussion and inspire thought on their relevance in the medium. More information on this and other titles can be found at Criterion.com.
"The Seventh Seal" is the second article in this series.
"The Seventh Seal" is the second article in this series.