Det Sjunde Inseglet (The Seventh Seal) 1957

Script for The Seventh Seal

Ingmar Bergman made The Seventh Seal in Sweden in 1957.  It won a Cannes award, and has been a top rated film among serious cinemaphiles for 50 years.  But it's a 50 year old Swedish movie with subtitles, and it's all morbid stuff about the black plague.  It's quite serious and ponderous and thick.  One might reasonably dread Death.

But then you'd miss out on art of sublime beauty.  In fact, there was at least as much time spent on beautiful family interludes as death and morbidity.  Joseph is, per his professional part assigned him as an actor, the Human Soul.  With his beautiful and devoted young wife and mother of his year old son, Mary and Michael, they're the future of man.   Note also that Mary (Bibi Andersson) was officially the hottest chick in the world in 1957.  They're the pro-life message.  They are joy and hope.

 Bibi Andersson, Nils Poppe and Tommy Karlsson

For starters on that count, note Joseph's first scene.  He carefully climbs out of the wagon past the sleeping family - and immediately did a little celebratory handstand and stretch, just cause it's good to be alive.  Images of the couple cuddling and watching their son playing in the sun - that stuff is the payoff. 

Death never forgets

But even the death and despair in this film are incredibly, stunningly beautiful.  Study some of the images of the sexy witch, and of some of the female flagellants.  Even Death himself has a great and fascinating look, largely in the nuance of the acting of Bengt Ekerot. The images of Death standing amid the pulsing forces of nature at the seaside, that's gorgeous imagery.  Ekerot adds much with just small hints of expression, especially a gentle and knowing smile.  Almost every shot of this 90 minute film has some striking and memorable image.  A film this good is a testament and tonic to the human spirit, even if it's in harsh psychic territory.


The basic plotline is that a brave knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) is on his way home after 10 long years fighting in a religious crusade.  Only, he knows the whole land is being devastated by the black death.  In the first scene, Death shows up to collect him, and he challenges him to a chess game to delay and distract Death.  This chess game continues throughout the movie as the framing device. 

In his determined spiritualism, Antonius seems to be a step ahead of the game a couple of ways.  Note that he was already sitting on the beach with his chess board set up before Death introduced himself.  More significantly, what was the nature of the important mission that he imagined his game was buying time for?  He was just on his way home, and what, hoping to hold out long enough to see the wife before he died?  Or was he just holding out for his mission of seeking knowledge?  Those are nice things, but the really important meaningful point was that he managed to distract Death long enough for Joseph and Mary to get away.  But he hadn't met them yet as he started the game.

Bengt Ekerot as Death in The Seventh Seal, 1957

Then there is Death as a character.  Really, he was basically a benign or even beneficent fellow.  He had to take people away, but he was never hateful or gleeful about it.  He distinctly was giving Antonius a break by agreeing to the game.  And when Joseph and Mary got away, was Death really tricked or did he choose to let Antonius distract him?  Note the exchange soon after when he asked Antonius if he'd gained by the delay. "Yes," said Antonius.  "I'm glad," Death replied.

The movie looks at all kinds of ways philosophical and practical in which different people deal with the harsh existential reality of being surrounded and fearful of this awful death.  This naturally includes a lot of religious themes.  The knight is mostly haunted by a belief in God that he can't really believe or reject.  His squire Jons is the cynic and realist, an explicit atheist.  Where his lord Antonius Block is all higher 4th circuit moral and religious thought, Jons is the insistent 3rd circuit rationalist and cynic - and thus the comic.  He's not believing silly ghost stories, and finds that besides being more accurate this is seemingly also a more comforting outlook. 

Then there are all the baroque visions of other different kinds of desperate reactions.  A lot of this comes from variations of considering the plague as some kind of punishment from God.  Just the church painter's picture of the flagellants was pretty strong medicine.  But that was just a prelude for the actual parade of the flagellants.  I appreciate the direct cut from the life affirming whoredom of Skat and the blacksmith's slut wife to the ritualized self-abuse of these flagellants rebuking and beating one another trying to appease God.  There's an exquisite and ecstatic agony that glows from the screen ravishingly gorgeous. 

That goes double for Maud Hansson, the 19 year old actress burned here   Seems she had carnal relations with the Evil One, or so some soldiers have figured.  Thus, she's naturally thought to be the cause of the plague.  This leads to baroque and grotesque rituals in this attempt to appease a presumed angry God.  With her young mind warped by the stockades, the stench of the blood and gall of a black dog, and the vivid descriptions of her deviltry - she's finally thinking that she really does have Satan in her. 

Maud Hansson, a witch being burned at the stake

There's also a theme of different ways in which the fear and horror get translated into cruelty against one another.  There's the more purposeful cruelty of the witch being burned and the ritualized abuses of the flagellants.  On a lower and more animalistic scale, there's the cruelty to Joseph at the tavern.  After all the sick talk about horrible omens and painful death, they were ready and eager to seek distraction in humiliating and terrifying Joseph.  He'd likely have been killed on the spot but for the intervention of Jons.

I'm awed by the perfect economy and construction of the plot.  All the parts go together, no loose ends, no waste or meandering.  When Jons warns Raval of what will happen when next they meet, you can count it that there will be a meeting.  It's a small point, but I was pleased with how the silver bracelet stolen from the dead woman ended up on Mary's wrist.  It's noteworthy how in this moment of desperate fear, Joseph's thoughts are with his Mary to the extent of grabbing that damned bracelet.

I've been trying to describe this mostly in visual terms, because there are so many sumptuous images.  But Ingmar Bergman as a writer was one smooth lyrical sumbitch.  I'm not sure what this would be like in the original Swedish, but even the translated text of English subtitles is pure poetry. 

Besides pictures, Bergman's words are of Shakespearean quality.  I'll take the character of Antonius Block head to head with Hamlet.  Antonius waxes considerably more substantive and thought worthy philosophical questions than Hamlet.  Antonius struggles with a God in the dark that he can neither believe in nor abandon.  His issues are worth pondering on at least as much as those of the gloomy Dane.

In the theory, characters should be a weak point.  These characters are conceived to represent various reactions and viewpoints to death.  They seem to have been generated thus as philosophical viewpoints more than as natural, organic  characters.  Yet with often but a few sentences apiece, many of even the more minor actors make a pretty strong impression as vivid personalities.  It's just genius writing how much Bergman put recognizable human character and spirit into these philosophical precepts - and with such economy.

Ake Fridell and Gunnar Björnstrand in The Seventh Seal

Some of this vivid characterization comes from the actors.  Where did Bergman find people who looked like this? Åke Fridell as Plog, the cuckolded blacksmith, gets not much more than a couple of dozen lines - but between the poetry of Bergman and Fridell's perfect blunt but sensitive physicality he breathes life into this poor schmuck.  Just look at this dude, and his street poetry - helpfully assisted by Jons. 

Bergman and his actors created a vision where the intense intellectual, religious, philosophical and allegorical elements and put them into such living and breathing characters and viscerally compelling poetry and vision that the movie ends up wearing all the heavy stuff surprisingly lightly.  For all the ponderous intellectual crisis of faith and Death as a character, the movie really is not at all nihilistic.  It's about living and rejoicing in the face of all that. Note how the young family persevere in their hope and joy, walking away into the bright morning sun in the last seconds of the film.

You should really own a copy of this movie so you can watch it again and again.  The closer your study it, the more impressive it will be both as a philosophical and technical achievement, and as a sensually pleasing testament to life, beauty and the human soul. 


Images of The Seventh Seal  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16  17  18  19  20  21  22  23  24  25  26  27  28  29  30  31  32  33  34  35  36  37  38  39  40  41  42  43  44  45  46  47  48  49  50  51  52  53  54  55  56  57  58  59  60  61  62  63  64  65  66  67  68  69  70  71  72  73  74  75  76  77


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