Directed by: Ingmar Bergman
Premise: A knight (Max von Sydow) returns to Europe after fighting in the Crusades. He encounters the Grim Reaper (Bengt Ekerot) and engages Death in a game of chess in a bid for more time. The knight and his squire (Gunnar Björnstrand) travel the countryside which has been ravaged by the plague and the knight questions the existence of god and the meaning of life.
What Works: Actor Max von Sydow had a long career and he worked on many great films with many distinguished directors but the collaboration that defined his career was his early work with fellow Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. They made eleven films together including Wild Strawberries, The Virgin Spring, Through a Glass Darkly, and The Passion of Anna. The first of their collaborations was also one of their best and most iconic: 1957’s The Seventh Seal. In this film, von Sydow plays a knight who has returned to Europe after fighting in the Crusades. He encounters the Grim Reaper (Bengt Ekerot) and engages Death in a game of chess in a bid for more time. The knight and his squire (Gunnar Björnstrand) travel the countryside which has been ravaged by the plague and the knight questions the existence of god and the meaning of life. If nothing else, The Seventh Seal is notable for the scenes of Max von Sydow’s character playing chess with Death which is one of the most iconic and most frequently referenced images in all of cinema. But the film has much more to offer than that. Von Sydow and Bergman collaborated so frequently in part because they were such a good fit. Bergman’s films were often about complex moral and existential questions and von Sydow had a way of physicalizing the internal struggles of the characters and humanizing the cerebral qualities of these films and making the stories accessible. The Seventh Seal is about spiritual turmoil and how people react when faced with mortality. Von Sydow’s knight has faced the horrors of war and returned home only to discover his mother country is besieged by disease. He’s looking for an explanation to all the misery and death in the world and the spiritual struggle is evident throughout von Sydow’s performance. Other characters experience their own difficulties and through them the movie offers a variety of human responses to pain and mortality; some characters wallow in their grief and others bury themselves in epicurean pleasures. But none of these responses actually leads to an answer and the movie is at least partially about making peace with the finiteness of our existence. The title refers to the apocalyptic Biblical prophecy and The Seventh Seal has an overwhelming atmosphere of doom. But as gloomy as the movie is, The Seventh Seal also has a dark sense of humor. The comedy is fleeting and mordant but it allows for some levity which makes the characters accessible. Like a lot of Bergman films, The Seventh Seal is staged and filmed in a style that resembles a folktale. Combined with the humor, this style gives The Seventh Seal a whimsical quality that makes its philosophical ambitions easier to take than they would be in a more realistically styled film.
What Doesn’t: The narrative of The Seventh Seal does not follow a conventional narrative structure. Stories, especially in contemporary Hollywood films, are generally organized in a deliberate way. They are rooted in characters who want something tangible and the drama is about whether or not the protagonist fulfills that desire. The Seventh Seal is a different kind of film. The narrative is much more loosely structured because the characters’ desires are more intellectual and abstract. There’s nothing wrong with that and the filmmakers create interesting characters and put them in scenarios that concretize the themes. But the film does require some patience from a contemporary audience.
DVD extras: The Criterion Collection edition of The Seventh Seal includes an introduction by Ingmar Bergman, a commentary track, an interview with Max von Sydow, documentaries, a trailer, and a booklet.
Bottom Line: The Seventh Seal is one of the great movies by one of the great directors. It’s also an important showcase of the working relationship between filmmaker Ingmar Bergman and actor Max von Sydow. But The Seventh Seal has endured because it is a well told story that scratches at the human need to reconcile our existence with the pain and suffering in the world and it does that in a way that is accessible, poetic, and even profound.
Episode: #793 (March 15, 2020)