Blast From the Past: Review of Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal”

Blast From the Past: Review of Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal”

The pages of The Amherst Student are often filled with reviews of the latest blockbusters or indie movies. But if you’re in the mood for something different this weekend, consider watching Ingmar Bergman’s classic 1957 film, “The Seventh Seal.”

“The Seventh Seal” is the summation of the auteur director’s inimitable style. Contrary to the popular opinion, it is not a complicated work. The film uses apprehensible symbolism, particularly through Bengt Ekerot’s obvious and enduring personification of Death. Death is among Bergman’s favorite themes, and he tackles the subject with the sobriety and tact in almost all of his work. However, none of Bergman’s movies quite confronts death as directly and accessibly as “The Seventh Seal,” and the movie has become legendary for its early boldness.

The movie begins as the Knight, who has returned from the Crusades, is greeted by the manifestation of Death. Understandably terrified, he challenges Death to a game of chess in his mind, with his survival as his wager. This game lasts throughout the entire film. Along the way, the Knight and his comedic Squire traverse through a plague-ridden Europe and meet various people: a mute girl the Squire saves from an unsavory former seminarian, a woman accused of witchcraft who is convinced that she has had contact with the Devil and a family of jesters struggling to survive the plague.

The film opens with a quotation from Revelations: “And when the Lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.” The entire film pivots upon this verse that relates to the silence that humans hear from God when they wonder what will happen after death. In Revelations, the breaking of the seventh seal calls forth the seven trumpets, signaling the violent climax of the apocalypse.

It is important to remember that there are two symbols of Death in the movie: the Death that plays chess with the Knight and the Black Death that spreads across all of Europe. Both serve the same purpose. They are the seven trumpets in crescendo, slowly eroding the silence of life. The Black Death is the death of society, of mortal institutions ranging from the Church to the family. Ekerot’s Death is the death of the individual, and this death reveals the weakness one possesses before his or her inevitable death. All in all, a pretty dour setting.

Bergman’s characters demonstrate the various human responses to the imminence of Death. The Knight desperately seeks faith but is trapped in doubt. His Squire wittily and cynically represses his fear of death at every turn. The Mute Girl desperately seeks rest and comfort in oblivion. The “witch” tries to convince herself that she can communicate with a higher power in an attempt to console herself during her unjust execution. Though these human reactions to death are common, Bergman’s characters remain authentic. Bergman effectively develops each character as the clock ticks toward Doomsday. In less capable hands, the movie would have collapsed under the weight of its ambition. However, Bergman is a master of his craft, and “The Seventh Seal” is an uncompromising movie.

Ingmar Bergman was always known for his quirkiness, and it is said that he kept up with Gossip Girls (put into perspective — that’s like Stanley Kubrick professing his love for “The Bachelor”). The movie oozes with dry wit, but its humor is purposeful. Every joke is carefully embedded into the movie’s thematic structure and serves to highlight life’s absurdity. Bergman is able to artfully demonstrate how comically unequipped humans are in the face of their demise.
“The Seventh Seal” is ultimately a movie of faith. Not the kind preached in recent sermons parading as cinema (e.g. “God’s Not Dead”), but one that grounds itself in the struggles of humanity. The faith portrayed in “The Seventh Seal” is not necessarily faith in god, but faith in the premise that life is still worth living despite the certainty of death. Throughout the chess game, Death fends off the Knight’s every maneuver, and the Knight despairs his inevitable defeat. But near the end of the match, having seen and felt so much, the Knight is able to pull off a move so ingenious in context of the film that I dare not spoil it here. Go and watch the movie. It evokes all the humor, passion, wit and sadness that one could want from a film. It is a true joy to see all of the film’s contradictory elements converge in the end to create an experience as transcendent and grounded as life itself.