In 1957 Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman merited worldwide acclaim with his feature film The Seventh Seal that follows a returning crusader’s struggle with the character of Death in the Middle Ages. At a time when auterism was just beginning to emerge in cinema, Bergman’s masterful balance of iconic images alongside prose-like dialogue has made The Seventh Seal endure in the pantheon of world cinema. Bergman’s original screenplay explores the hierarchal barriers and prejudices of the medieval feudal structure through the different characters crusader Antonius Block meets on his journey home. The Seventh Seal personifies Death as a foe wagering a game of chess with the crusader by both literally playing with pieces on a board and manipulating the circumstances in the world. The medieval backdrop the story unfolds under served as an apocalyptic allegory to nuclear tensions at the time of the film’s release as well as a poetic reflection of classic medieval literature. The spiritual context of The Seventh Seal taken from the passage in Revelations is meant to make a statement on the value of faith and innocence against disillusion and doubt. The multi-faceted connotation Bergman builds into the historical drama genre has influenced my own artistic aspirations to contemporary cinema as picturesque prose.
In his time, Bergman took the film medium to new heights through his creative storytelling. In his 2003 interview with Marie Nyrerod for the Criterion Collection DVD release, Bergman revealed he developed The Seventh Seal to address his own misgivings about death and that his visual inspirations came from the medieval frescos by Albertus Pictus. In particular one fresco featured a ghastly figure of death playing chess side by side with a knight. This iconic image is a central motif to The Seventh Seal as the returning crusader Antonius Block (played by Max von Sydow) is engaged in complex maneuvers with Death in the hopes of finding meaning to his existence and answers about the afterlife. Transcending time and space, Death is personified in human form (portrayed by Bergt Ekerot) in a billowing black cape. Throughout the film he replaces other characters when it suits him taking the roll of the priest in the confessional, and the monk escorting a witch to the stake. Bergman’s manipulation of dimension perhaps can be derived from his background in theater. The character of Jof a traveling performance artist is also gifted with second sight into the spiritual world. He alone apart from the knight perceives Death in his human manifestation. Jof encounters another vision early on in The Seventh Seal. He awakes from his caravan perched on a grassy knoll and while he is walking around their makeshift camp he catches sight of the Madonna holding the hands of a tottering holy child. Much like the image of the knight playing chess with death, the iconographic image of Jof’s vision is another reference to the medieval frescos. At the time of the film’s release Norman Hudson summed up the effect of Bergman’s technique in his analysis of the film: “Bergman shows us, as medieval artists did, an allegorical, iconic reality” (1959:266).
To compliment his powerful imagery Bergman uses elevated dialogue both as powerful prose and philosophical conjecture. The eloquent lines Bergman gives the knight echo from folklore and oral tradition while probing for answers of the existence of God, faith, and afterlife. Antonius Block is an intellectual disillusioned and searching for meaningful answers to keep his faith. Block is withdrawn from the world unable to relate to it without his purpose. During the church scene he unknowingly has an exchange with Death taking his confession from the other side of a grated screen. Block confesses: “My indifference to my fellow men has cut me off from their company. I live now in a world of phantoms a prisoner of my own dreams”. Block is searching for tangible proof of God’s existence and is tormented because he is loosing his faith. “What will become of us who want to believe but cannot? And what of those who neither will nor can believe?” he continues taking the defense of the other characters he will meet along the way. Block wants faith but cannot find the sincerity within himself. He later meets Tyan a woman scapegoated by the community and condemned to die as a witch. Her crazed body language and wailing babble suggest she is developmentally disabled and unable to believe. Later the knight crosses paths with Tyan as she is being tied to a stake and he takes the opportunity to investigate if she really is possessed by the devil. Tyan is convinced that the devil is in her eyes, but Block sees nothing more than “dumb terror” (Humbolt, 61). The knight reveals to death that he is playing chess not to win but in order to gain a “reprieve” long enough for him to contribute to one meaningful act. Block finds meaning with Mia, Jof’s wife and young mother to the infant Michel. The family of performers is Bergman’s equivalent to the holy family from the Bible; they are the innocents of the narrative. When Block speaks with Mia and Michel he is deeply moved and for the first time in the film he smiles. There he reconciles himself to a definition of belief and confides to Mia: “Faith is a heavy burden…it is like loving someone out in the darkness who never comes no matter how hard you call”. Bergman’s style of writing dialogue is justified by film critic Michael Roemer in his article The Surfaces of Reality: “Without this lengthy and explicit verbalization, one would have little insight into the feelings of Antonius Block. The situation itself does not communicate them and Bergman uses dialogue as a way of getting us to understand and feel something the film itself does not render” (1967:18). Between prose and philosophy Bergman’s dialogue in The Seventh Seal keeps to the narrative in the context of the scene while engaging the spectator on a deep intellectual level.
As an auteur Bergman handles The Seventh Seal as an apocalyptic narrative while seeding the semblance of allegory to world issues at the time of the film’s release. The first lines of the film are a voice over from the passage in Revelations and set a heavy tone of supernatural events. The apocalypse of The Seventh Seal is handled much more indirectly. The plague that is ravaging Europe is seen through the perspective of the knight and his squire. Jons stops to ask directions from a novice leaning against a rock and discovers that he is face to face with a disfigured corpse. Jons and Block later witness a religious procession in penance parading through a village. The dreary clergy lead a miserable ensemble of plague victims wailing and flagellating themselves with whips through clouds of smoke emanating from their incense chalices. Bergman heightens the tension through his sound design. At key moments shrill vocals from a chorus overpower the soundtrack. The vocals resemble the style of medieval music from the era the film is set in, while also conjuring up the emotional horror one might expect to hear in a thriller. The fear many of the characters feel is fear of infection from plague, something they have no control over that could wipe them out at any given time. The apocalypse of plague outbreak is an allegorical reflection to film’s original audience’s fear of nuclear holocaust at the onset of the Cold War.
Bergman’s original screenplay exhibits a cast of characters across the feudal system, to uphold the different worldviews of man. Block and his wife are from the noble class; they are withdrawn, disillusioned and resigned to their fate to die. Ravel, a mid-ranking clergyman is an instigator of evil. It was Ravel that Jons accuses of convincing his master Block to go on the fruitless crusade. Ravel’s hypocritical lifestyle as a holy preacher in contrast to his corrupt life-choices is Bergman’s subtle statement on the church both in the period and in the contemporary era. Ravel would have raped a mute girl, had Jons not come in at the right moment. Later Ravel targets the artist Jof for his own sadistic entertainment and again it is Jons who intervenes. Jof, Maria and Skat as a troupe of performing artists are on the lowest end of the totem pole. In the tavern, Jof discovers he has no friends and is completely at Ravel’s mercy. On stage the troupe is held in contempt if their performance does not strike up the right chord. Bergman casts the artists as naive idealists, who are unappreciated by most of the world but by their innocence they alone will survive it. Jof and Mia move Antonius Block to forfeit his game of chess with Death in order to allow them to escape Death. Jof, Mia and Michel the representation of the holy family have meaning in their lives from which the knight both admires and finds worthy of his devotion. The film closes on their family as the chosen ones who have survived the apocalypse and witness the dance of death of their companions from across the divide. The complex hierarchy of characters across the feudal system Bergman captures: "reality as signifying something beyond itself”, according to Hudson (1959:270).
Bergman recognized that every art has limitations. He concludes nothing can remain innovative forever. In his own reflection essay Each Film is My Last, Bergman conveys his own criticisms on the constrictions:
I experience art (not only film art) as insignificant in our time: art no longer has the power and the possibility to influence the development of our life. Literature, painting, music, film, and theatre beget and bring forth themselves. New mutations, new combinations arise and are annihilated; the movement seems-seen from the outside nervously vital. With magnificent zeal the artists project to them- selves and to a more and more distracted public pictures of a world that no longer cares what they like or think [1966:95].
Noted for his modesty in response to the critical acclaim, Bergman is shy to glory in his achievements.
The leaps Bergman made with The Seventh Seal impacted cinema in its time. The film endures as a classic in world cinema and a favorite in film study due to Bergman’s distinct craftsmanship as an auteur in spite of all the film that has followed after it. He balances his theatrical background, love of music, iconic imagery and distinct voice through dialogue to graft perhaps his most powerful film. Bergman’s unique ability to transcend dimension in visual and audible prose still inspires me to endeavor to produce such depth in my own form of filmmaking.
Bergman, Ingmar, P.E. Burke, Lennart Swahn, and Erika Munk. "Each Film is My Last." The Tulane Drama Review 11, no. 1 (1966): 94-100. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1125268 (accessed March 4, 2011).
Hudson, Norman N.. ""The Seventh Seal": The Film as Iconography." The Hudson Review 12, no. 2 (1959): 266-270. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3848112 (accessed March 4, 2011).
Humbolt, Charles. "The Art of Ingmar Bergman." The Massachussetts Review 4, no. 2 (1963): 352-377. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25079028 (accessed March 4, 2011).
Roemer, Michael. "The Surfaces of Reality." Film Quarterly 18, no. 1 (1964): 15-22. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1210145 . (accessed March 4, 2011).
The Seventh Seal (The Criterion Collection). Film. Directed by Ingmar Bergman. n/a: Criterion, 2009.