Saturday, 8 April 2017

The Seventh Seal (1957)

Fig 1 - The Seventh Seal Poster
Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957) is an existential drama steeped in mysticism, set during the Black Death of the 14th century. Upon returning home from the Crusades, a troubled knight by the name of Antonius (Max von Sydow) is confronted by Death himself (Bengt Ekerot). Antonius reasons with him by bargaining that, should Death lose to him at a game of chess, his life would be spared. These terms are agreed upon, and so begins their game which is postponed and revisited throughout the film. Soon enough, Antonius and his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) pass by an acting troupe of three, being Mary (Bibi Andersson), Joseph (Nils Poppe) and Skat (Erik Strandmark). During a moment by himself, Joseph witnesses a vision of a young Jesus with the Virgin Mary, much to the disbelief of his wife. From here, the film plays out as an allegory for the internal quandary that comes with an existence void of God. Only in pursuit of truth does Antonius comes to realise that the one thing we know for certain is the existence and inevitability of death, making further discoveries all the more devastating by the film's climax...

Rather than a stick with which to beat the audience, the religious tone of the film feels more like a comment on the instillation of God as an elaborate fear-tactic, during a time in which rampant disease threatened the very foundations of society. With this, it is perhaps one of Bergman's more approachable features (of which I have only seen three), as the narrative follows characters in a way that is somewhat more concise and linear than the director is known for. The dialogue flows organically for the most part, even with interludes written for outright comedic effect, such as Jöns' 'banterful' mimicking of women with a blacksmith. However, the overall tone of the film is a melancholic one. It's central characters appear to struggle with their own morality in their uncertainty of faith and neglect of death, making The Seventh Seal a highly interpretive study of the human condition in our attempts to understand and control it.

Fig 2 - The Seventh Seal - Death and Antonius
I personally found Nils Poppe as Joseph to be the most fleshed-out and likable screen presence of the film. It's unclear whether or not he is a man of faith, even as infrequent visions of other-worldly figures pass him by. But it is his acceptance and nonchalance for these visions that makes him a compelling character, whom we are made to feel a great deal of sympathy for, particularly during an unfortunate confrontation in a tavern. Incidentally, Bengt Ekerot's performance as the embodiment of Death is as ominous and chilling as you would expect, with playful elements thrown in at his acceptance to determine the fate of others through age-old tactical gaming.

On the whole, I still regard Wild Strawberries (1957) to be my favourite of Bergman's works, which is widely comparable to this film in terms of it's existentialism and themes of redemption. However, The Seventh Seal has clearly had a notable influence on popular culture and stands up today as an ongoing examination of our collective doubt in a higher power, and ultimately the acceptance of death.


Fig. 1 The Seventh Seal Poster (1957) From: The Seventh Seal - Directed by: Ingmar Bergman

Fig. 2 The Seventh Seal Screenshot (1957) From: The Seventh Seal - Directed by: Ingmar Bergman

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