THE SEVENTH SEAL
(Det Sjunde Inseglet)
The question that The Seventh Seal poses is What meaning can God have amidst death, suffering and pain? Ingmar Bergmans meditation on such matters results in a profound work of nihilism. Bergman smashes away the notion of God and in so doing reduces all to a world of meaningless pain and insanity. The great religious war of The Crusades, the Black Death, the witch burnings all are seen as futile and pointless, pain in a world that has lost any sense of meaning. Death, in Bergmans eyes is inevitable; all that we try to do, the ways we have of worshiping Death or of driving it away the flagellants, the witch burnings, the attempts to laugh in its face are futile. Max Von Sydows knight finally gains his redemption although pointedly it is a redemption that only gives him a feeling of moral worth and does nothing to save him from Death. Although, it is perhaps here that Bergman does allow himself some of his own illusions his rhapsodies in favour of a simple life with the peasant Josef are perhaps one illusion that he proves unwilling to finally shatter. Mindedly, a life of bliss that seems untroubled by the great intellectual weight that the film carries might not seem too unwelcome in the circumstances.
Ingmar Bergman stated that his inspiration for The Seventh Seal were memories of a mural depicting Death (some likeness of which turns up being painted in the film) that haunted him from his childhood upbringing in the Lutheran church. The film is filled with strong and powerful images out of Mediaeval fresco. The very central image of Death and the knight sitting on a beach playing chess is a remarkable one in itself that resonates throughout cinema. Although surely the most haunting image is the one that closes the film, of Josefs vision of the Mediaeval Totentatz (the Dance of Death) with Death seen leading the films dead across a skyline in the distance dancing at the end of a rope. The scenes of the madness and despair of the Middle Ages seminarians robbing the dead; of witches pilloried in the street, pelted with animal excrement and then being burnt; the scene in an inn where the simple-minded Josef is made to dance like a bear at the end of a flaming brand; where the troubadours performance is interrupted by the plague-ridden flagellants swinging burning censers, whipping themselves and dragging crosses of burden radiate a haunting sobriety. Even the image that opens the film of a raven flying across a storm-ridden sky holds a powerful symbolic resonance.
Bergman is greatly aided by his cast. A young Max Von Sydow makes for fine physical casting his tall and bony features seem gaunt and drawn and his natural blonde hair becomes snow white under the black-and-white camerawork. There is also a fine performance from Gunnar Bjornstrand like Max Von Sydow, another frequent collaborator of Bergmans who moves through the film with a rough and cynical vulgarity, yet out of which he brings a strong nobility. Bengt Ekerots Death is good too. Bergman chose Bengt Ekerot it seems for a face that displays a remarkable placidity, even, it might seem, compassion yet this is something that Bergman plays against throughout, as the character of Death is wholly implacable, whose only straying from its single-minded purpose is to dally to play a very human game of chess.
The image of the chess-playing Death created here by Ingmar Bergman has become a vividly resonant one in cinema. The Seventh Seal and its image of a personified Death has been parodied a number of times in Woody Allens Love and Death (1975), Bill and Teds Bogus Journey (1991), Last Action Hero (1993) and Muppets Most Wanted (2014), even copied by tv commercials and made into an ongoing comic character in the books of Terry Pratchett.
Ingmar Bergmans other ventures into fantasy have been: The Magician/The Face (1958) about a troupe of performing magicians who may or may not have real supernatural powers; the revenge film The Virgin Spring (1959); The Devils Eye (1960), a comedy about The Devil sending Don Juan to tempt a vicars ; Hour of the Wolf (1968) about a tormented artistss hallucinations come to life; the acclaimed adaptation of Mozarts fantasy opera The Magic Flute (1975); and the family saga/ghost story Fanny and Alexander (1982). All are recommended with the highest praise.
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