The Seventh Seal’s effect on popular culture is vast; Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) takes its image of Death from The Seventh Seal. The Seventh Seal is easy shorthand for arthouse: in (500) Days of Summer (2009), Tom watches an abstract French film, closing with a game of chess with Cupid upon the beach. Muppets Most Wanted (2014) suggests The Seventh Seal as a possible existential sequel featuring the Swedish Chef.
Upon release, as Bergman describes in Images: My Life in Film, The Seventh Seal “swept like a forest fire across the world” (1990:242). As Garry Giddins writes, its release in New York’s Paris Theater by Janus Films was “transformative”, catapulting cinema “to the front line of a cultural advance guard” alongside “modern jazz, abstract painting, Beat writing [and] theater of the absurd”; Kurosawa and Bergman proved “cinema was a global pursuit of infinite promise”. The transformative effect is perhaps best encapsulated by Diner (1982), Barry Levinson’s portrait of young life in 1959 Baltimore. Billy and Eddie sit in an empty cinema, falling asleep.
“What am I watching? The movie just started and I don’t know what’s going on.”
Svensk Filmindustri initially turned Bergman’s screenplay down, an elaboration of a one-act piece, Wood Painting, developed in Bergman’s drama school and performed as a radio play. With the success of Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) at Cannes, Bergman was afforded greater power, shooting over 36 days between July and August 1956, largely confined to Råsunda Film Studios. As Bergman reflects, The Seventh Seal is “one of the few films really close to my heart.” (1990:235)
The Seventh Seal reveals another time. Antonious Block (Max von Sydow) returns from the Crusades, dealing with its aftermath. Writing in Cahiers du cinema in 1958, Jean-Luc Godard praised Bergman as a “film-maker of the instant”, using his heroes to reflect and meditate with a “dislocation of time”. As divinely sanctioned holy war, the Crusades open questions not only to the power of the Holy Roman Empire and papacy, but faith, penance and the bloodshed of forcefully converting the Islamic world to Christianity; The Seventh Seal is rife with questions to its idealism, honour and chivalry.
Following the morning routines of waking up, we witness entirely different subsistence from the modern Sweden of Summer with Monika (1953), centuries before industrialisation. Goats are farmed from the land; pigs and stew are cooked and boiled. In the troupe of travelling players, Bergman drew upon the 13th century manuscript of the Carmina Burana, medieval songs sung by homeless scholars, monks, priests and jesters who travelled “through the downfall of civilization and culture” (1990:231). Men and women follow rituals of love and courtship to get by; actor and juggler Jof (Nils Poppe) lives alongside wife Mia (Bibi Andersson) and son Mikael. Normality goes on through domestic disputes. Rituals conceal manipulation: Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) might seem himself as righteous and only committing good deeds, saving a young servant girl, but threatens her with the fact he could have raped her, taking her on as housekeeper with a sense of ownership.
As the impact of the plague hits, we sense the economic impact: merchants must deal with unsold stock; silver bracelets are traded on the black market. Omens of the Last Day seem all around. Unrelenting mortality might seem quaint: from our comfort, we can acknowledge how silly it might seem to hold onto this notion of the Last Day. But we must understand the perspectives and events forming these beliefs. Bergman draws upon comedy and humour in extreme contrast to darkness, finding a sense of humanity: in the depths of despair, people find life, drinking at the bar, Jof dancing on top of the table like a bear, eating wild strawberries at a picnic through seasons. As Giddins writes, to 1950s audiences, Bergman drew a “correlation between his vision of the Middle Ages and the midcentury fear of atomic devastation” in a cinematic climate dominated by “apocalypses, holocausts, plagues, eschatology, and resurrection” in B-movies, adventure films and biblical epics.
Bergman questioned religion and institutions from his earliest works: in Summer Interlude (1951), Marie feels anger and contempt at God for the death of her lover. But The Seventh Seal is the pinnacle of Bergman’s religious exploration in its notoriety. The Seventh Seal draws upon a passage from Revelation 8:12, recited in the opening monologue, speaking of seven angels and seven trumpets: “when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour”. As Bergman reflects in Images: My Life in Film, he was “still very much in a quandary over religious faith”, placing his “two opposing beliefs side by side” to create a “virtual cease-fire” between his “childhood piety” and “harsh rationalism” (1990:235).
Made in a secular Sweden and set in the Middle Ages, the world of The Seventh Seal is founded in religion. Upon horseback, crusaders recite verses about the Lord singing up high. Jof has a vision of the Virgin Mary in gleeful surprise, wiping his eyes in disbelief. Waking up Mia, smiling, she doesn’t believe him; they debate on different realms of reality, between truth and psychology. With Mia, Jof conceives a song of Jesus and rejoice in Heaven, turning to religion for his creative works. As Bergman writes in Images: My Life in Film, Jof and Mia represent a “holiness” that remains even when you “peel off the layers of various theologies” (1990:236).
The players’ song acts as a medieval morality play; Bergman uses a similar approach, using art and film to critically confront the values of religious faith. Some actors question their profession. Assembled together for the All Saints Festival in Elsinore, their comedic banter feeds an industry built by priests and the sickness of the Black Death; even in the darkest days, they must find ways to make a living. Handling a skull, one actor bemoans frightening “decent people out of their wits” with “nonsense”. Raval cannot see sanctity in the dead, stealing from corpses to save his own skin, as though God cannot hear him.
Our understanding of the medieval period rely upon tangible records: tapestries, documents, drawings and churches, before modernity offered digital approaches to discerning history and records of the past. These records are shaped through faith, wall paintings and murals as frightening reminders of death, enshrining characters like Jöns the squire in paint, dancing with girls and laughing at God, but without its context that surviving the passing decades and centuries. The existence of Jöns must be left to historical conjecture. The theatrical arrival of supplicants, whipping until they bleed, is prefigured by an elaborate church mural, constantly witnessed in the background. Marching with smoke and an effigy, they interrupt the joyous performance of travelling players with solemnness. They chant, bemoaning humanity as condemned and asking all to be wary, prepared for God’s punishment as they confront their “final hour”. In a long shot, Bergman follows mass crowds reacting in prayer to the carrying of the cross.
God’s name becomes used to justify women’s oppression: condemned as witches and guilty of spreading the plague. As a woman cries out in pain, her body motionless, Block seeks to provide comfort. Bathed in fluid, she feels a spiritual connection that protects her, trusting the fire won’t hurt her. But in her eyes and slow, weak voice, we see rigid fear; amid the nothingness, Block struggles to see God, allowing her to feel such pain. In close-up, we see the physical process of death: her body loses life as Bergman focuses upon the physicality. Wood and her body combusts, as we feel emptiness. As a man watches on, he reflects that “our fear and hers are the same”. Bergman’s fear of death had become “something unbearable” through his teens and twenties (1990:238); through his sickness and the production of The Seventh Seal, Bergman confronted his own feelings towards faith and death. As he reflects in Images: My Life in Film (1990:241):
Suddenly I realized, that is how it is. […] First you are, then you are not. This I find deeply satisfying. […] Everything is of this world. Everything exists and happens inside us, and we flow into and out of one another. It’s perfectly fine like that.
In the iconic opening, Death announces his presence as Block kneels upon the beach with his sword. Death, not Jesus, has “long walked” at Block’s side. Playing chess, spoken of in paintings and sung of by travelling performers, his presence is a symbolic contradiction: sitting upon a beach, whilst suggesting a metaphysical dimension beyond everyday perception. But Block often plays chess alone, only his horse for company.
Through the crosshatch, Block’s confession provides the film’s most powerful scene as he speaks to Death, feeling disgust, fear and emptiness. Block wants guarantees in his pursuit of knowledge, becoming a voice for Bergman’s insecurities and anxieties as he confronts his own shadow. A crucifix of Jesus looks down upon the confession, lifeless and empty. Like with Rodrigues in Silence (2016), we must ask ourselves what that silence actually is. Block gazes upon the assumptions of faith and sees life as “preposterous nothingness”, unable to accept a God who hides “in a cloud of half-promises and unseen miracles”, yet finds himself unable to kill God within his heart.
As they run through the forest, actions and conflicts become territorial, Lisa, manager Skat and blacksmith Plog throwing insults and innuendo. As Skat pleads, Death cuts the tree down with comedic playfulness. Bergman wanted to create an image of Death with the “features of a white clown”, acting as an “amalgamation of a clown mask and a skull”. (1990:236) Unlike Faust, there are no acquittals nor loopholes out of this; he must accept he will no longer care for his family and children and must accept fate, as much as Skat is unable to accept his performance his cancelled. As the tree falls, a squirrel rises upon the stump. The circle of life continues on, across all creatures.
Bergman creates a world defined by natural landscapes. The opening presents a cloudy sky and dramatic score, composed by Erik Nordgren: horses stand upon the beach beside Block as the sea grows more violent. Avoiding dialogue, we focus upon the sunset and the waves, the body rolling against the immensity of nature. Cinematographer Gunnar Fischer divides the frame into three parts, between land, the blackness of the sea and the sky above. In the forest, as Raval dies, Fischer creates distance, framing his death in long shot rather than in close-up as the sun begins to dawn. As Godard praised of Bergman, “he alone has not openly rejected those devices beloved of the avant-gardists of the thirties”, but embraces an aesthetic where his “lakes, forests, grass, clouds” are not “mere showing-off or technical trickery”, but “integrated into the psychology of the characters” to achieve a “precise feeling”.
During the film’s stunning final scene, set against a storm, Bergman offers some comfort: Block is reunited with wife Karin (Inga Landgré), embracing as they bid each other farewell into the eternal abyss. Setting the table for breakfast and praying for mercy, Bergman forms a tableau of a last supper like Luis Buñuel does in Viridiana (1961). As the camera slowly moves into Karin’s face, we see her tears. Our characters must bid welcome to Death, breaking the fourth wall as they introduce their identities in monologues, each with their own distinct responses. Bergman engulfs the screen in blackness, fading in the sounds of nature rising anew; a horse upon the beach in the morning light. Bergman and Fischer took advantage of an approaching storm, placing the camera back in place and improvising a scene with “a few grips and a couple of tourists”. In silhouette, Death invites them to dance, moving away from the dawn. Jof departs upon his horse, walking away with his back to us.