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-[Film Reviews]-, European Cinema

‘The Seventh Seal’ (1957): Chess with Death


Directed by: Ingmar Bergman || Produced by: Allan Ekelund

Screenplay by: Ingmar Bergman || Starring: Max von Sydow, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Bengt Ekerot, Nils Poppe, Bibi Andersson, Inga Landgre, Ake Fridell

Music by: Erik Nordgren || Cinematography: Gunnar Fischer || Editing by: Lennart Wallen || Country: Sweden || Language: Swedish

Running Time: 96 minutes

Of all the European New Wave films I’ve seen so far, The Seventh Seal is one whose hype I totally agree with. I may hesitate to jump on board with the 99% of critics and film-buffs who are infatuated with Jean-Luc Godard and Federico Fellini, but when it comes to Ingmar Bergman’s most recognizable film, I am on board the hype train. Elegant in both its simplicity and yet intellectually stimulating with its surprising depth, The Seventh Seal (TSS) is a beautiful contemplation on God’s existence and the meaning of fate.

The film’s story takes artistic liberties with its setting, located in Medieval Sweden and merging the major events of the Crusades and the Black Death together into one meta-time period of Middle Age suffering. Bergman traces the journey of a knight (Bergman-favorite Max von Sydow) and his squire (Gunnar Bjornstrand) as they return from the Crusades and travel across the desolate, ravaged Swedish countryside. Over the course of their trip through the Black Death-infested landscape, they encounter a myriad of folk from different walks of life that imprint on the knight and squire in different ways. Along the way, Max von Sydow plays a game of chess with the personification of Death for possession of his soul.

Top: Death gets the black pieces. Bottom: The danse macabre, or dance of death.

The question that TSS asks is a purely philosophical one: If God exists, why does he remain silent in light of so much suffering? The characters the knight and squire meet during their travels and the conversations they have with them ask this question over and over while also raising various queries about morality and the inevitability of death. I liked the religious symbolism and thematic depth of the narrative because it’s not nearly as incoherent and muddled as many other lauded dramas from the same time period. Bergman somehow manages to instill this movie with narrative content that is both intricate and intelligent and yet still accessible.

TSS‘ visual symbolism strikes hard because of its straightforward nature, and yet its characters forgo the tiresome cynicism of the works of Goddard and Fellini. Sydow’s game with Death is sinister while also amusing. The way the game unfolds feel natural despite the concept having a strange, ethereal tone to it. The bulk of the story concerns Sydow’s and Bjornstrand’s development with a wide cast of characters from different walks of life, all struggling to survive the hard times in their own way. Sydow, Bjornstrand, and several other characters are likable despite them all having obvious flaws. Their imperfect nature and Sydow’s questions of faith in particular make this motley crew relatable. You can empathize with their struggles, and Sydow’s most of all.

In the end, The Seventh Seal’s strength is its directness, the blunt nature with which it asks hard questions. You don’t see this kind of frankness in movies nowadays, which is one of the reasons why Bergman’s most recognizable movie has more in common with silent film than the more modern movies that followed it. The most subtle thing about The Seventh Seal is the way in which the chess game ends — we never see the winning move, only the move before it and the implied victory to follow. What is accomplished by the losing player is a sort of answer to the film’s question, “Why does God seem so absent from the world?” This partial answer, paired with the film’s haunting final image, sums up the narrative’s thematic content better than any resounding climax ever could. It’s odd how this film influenced so many after it given its old-school structure, but given how how damned good it is, I’m glad it did.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: The Seventh Seal’s simple, direct personality tackles a complex question with unexpected results. The screenplay’s tone may feel old-fashioned, but its thematic depth is anything but feeble. The film is taught and efficient at its short length. Nothing unnecessary is added.

—> The Seventh Seal comes RECOMMENDED.

? My indifference has shut me out. I live in a world of ghosts, a prisoner of dreams. I want God to put out his hand, show his face, speak to me. I cry out to him in the dark, but there is no one there.

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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