THE SEVENTH SEAL

 (Det Sjunde inseglet)

Directed by Ingmar Bergman. Sweden. 1957.


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"Come lovely and soothing death, undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving, in the day, in the night, to all, to each, sooner or later, delicate death" - Walt Whitman, Ode to Death


In the magnificent 1957 classic The Seventh Seal by Ingmar Bergman, Antonius Block (Max Von Sydow), a knight returning home from the Crusades with his squire Jöns (Gunnar Bjönstrand) meets Death (Benkt Ekerot) on a lonely beach and challenges him to a game of chess. If he wins, he lives. While the game goes on, he gets a reprieve. It is the 14th century and suffering and pain abound. Penitents flog themselves, seminarians rob the dead, people go mad from fear, and witches are burned at the stake. It is the time of the Black Plague and Death has his hands full. As in the Greek legend of Kronos and medieval folklore, Bergman depicts Death as the Grim Reaper, a man clothed from head to foot in a black habit and hood. In The Seventh Seal, however, Death is not frightening or sinister, just an old man performing his job with a wry detachment.

The film opens and closes with the passage from Revelation from which it takes its title: “When he broke open the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour” (Rev 8:1). Bergman's message, however, is more about the silence of God on earth than in heaven. Block is tormented by the fact that God will not outwardly reveal himself. He says to a priest during confession, “I want God to stretch out his hand to me, reveal himself and speak to me. But he remains silent, I call out to Him in the dark but no one seems to be there". But Block still senses the God within him and is tormented. "Why can’t I kill God within me?" he asks. "Why does he live on inside me, mocking and tormenting me till I have no rest, even though I curse him and try to tear him from my heart” Block asks Death if he knows anything but he knows nothing. He even asks a woman being taken to the stake if he can see the Devil so that he can ask him about God but all she says is to look into her eyes. 

The Seventh Seal is not all heavy "significance", however. It has a good story with believable characters, wonderful performances, lots of comic relief and moves easily from drama to comedy as in the great Shakespearean plays. We meet an actor named Jof (Nils Poppe), his wife Mia (Bibi Andersson), and their infant son Mikael. Block looks with envy on the simple love of this family for their child. Both Jof and Block see visions of the spiritual world but Jof's visions are life affirming whereas Block sees only reflections of darkness. The film has unforgettable images such as a hawk floating in a cloudless sky, two horses standing in the surf, Jof's vision of the Virgin Mary caring for her child, and a frightening procession of plague-infected flagellants. 

Perhaps too melodramatic for modern viewers (it has been parodied), The Seventh Seal still touches the universal longing to see God. Some view the film as a complete denial of God, but it seems that God does show his face -- only Block and his squire cannot see it. It is there in the wild strawberries, the fun of watching a troupe of players perform, the innocence of the little boy, the eyes of the young lovers, and the haunting visions of Jof. The film ends on a note of affirmation including one of the most memorable scenes in the history of cinema, the Danse Macabre, the Totentanz -- a string of silhouetted figures dancing in a line with arms outstretched as they are about to enter the unknown. In the magnificence of his vision and the timeless beauty of his art, Bergman has answered the question about God's existence simply in the act of posing it.

Howard Schumann
 
 
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