Ranking: #16/111

Director: Ingmar Bergman (Sweden)       

Genre: Allegorical Fantasy/Period Drama

The Seventh Seal sets the benchmark for the genre of cinematic allegories. At the same time, it succeeds as a medieval period drama. It’s one of the most original films I’ve ever seen and its impact hasn’t diminished more than six decades after it was made. It was based on Bergman’s own play and you wouldn’t be far wrong if you saw the film in a theatrical light as similar to a Medieval morality play. I also believe Bergman invested some of the fears of the 1950s, concerning the post-war threat of atomic weapons of mass destruction, into his medieval allegory, finding a time in history when the threat of masses of deaths was on a similar scale. The atmosphere is one of fear and anxiety.

The film is set during the time of the Black Death in Europe. Two war-weary crusaders, Antonius Block and his squire, Jöns, have returned from the Crusades after ten years of battle only to find their country is in the midst of a terrible plague. The death and destruction they witnessed in war will be continued in peace time through disease. It hardly seems a surprise that the personification of Death appears early in the film to challenge Block to a game of chess.

The film’s stark black-and-white contrasting cinematography is like a chess board writ large, turning the game of life and death into an overwhelming mood in the movie. Like a medieval morality play, the film is about good and evil, about the absolute black and white choices people make in their lives to do good or evil. It’s an austere, almost Puritanical, film infused with modern Existentialism, a post-war European philosophy to which Bergman clearly subscribed. There is a hint of the nihilism we see in later Bergman works, such as in his faith trilogy, when Death says “I am unknowing”.

Towards the end of his life, when he was aged 80 and living alone on the Swedish island of Fårö, Bergman gave a revealing interview in which he looked back on his body of work. He stated that he always wanted to make “something living” through his art. One of his recurring nightmares was that what he would do would be “stone dead”.  I believe the greatness of The Seventh Seal lies in finding what is still living amidst so much death. Life is represented most vividly in the allegory by the young family who are part of a caravan of actors the Knights meet on their way home: Jof and his wife Mia, with their infant son Mikael. They seem to be cheerful, happy-go-lucky people of faith who will draw strength from the unity they form as a family.

The film’s title, drawing on Revelation 8:1 (“When he opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour”), sets the tone for a post-apocalyptic narrative in which death is a palpable presence.

The film keeps returning to the game of chess, suggesting the idea that humans might just be chess pieces in a game of destiny they don’t fully understand. The return journey of the two knights is also an agonising, existential quest to find a meaning to their lives after they have become thoroughly disillusioned during the Crusades.

They visit a church where a fresco of the Danse Macabre is being painted. Also known as the Dance of Death, this was a popular allegory in the Middle Ages, featuring a procession of living and dead figures, with the dead, usually represented by human skeletons, leading the living to the grave. Bergman is trying to convey how death became an obsession in these times, especially during the Black Death.

The game of chess and the procession are two main symbols in this superb allegorical film.

The knights meet a variety of characters along the way, providing a picture of a society in turmoil. At one point, a procession of flagellants passes by. Everyone is on a journey, part of one long procession. An Existentialist in his beliefs, Bergman provides little hope or meaning on the journey. And all the while, guilt from the Crusades continues to trouble the knights.

As the narrative unfolds, Death keeps claiming “victims” (“No one escapes me”). Block is determined to do a meaningful deed before it’s his turn to die, so that his life, largely wasted in the Crusades, will not have been in vain. In the end, Death wins the chess game against him. He is reunited at last with his wife and a group of friends, who share a “last supper” together. The party is interrupted by Death himself.

The narrative returns to Jof and his family who are sheltering from a storm in their caravan.  The Angel of Death has passed them by, but over on a nearby hillside a Dance of Death is enacted in a brilliant sequence.  This young, optimistic family of jesters, the film is suggesting, will continue life (and art) beyond the plague and beyond the disaster of the Crusades. As they go away with their child, leaving behind the Dance of Death, they become a symbol of the future and of life.