Man…what can I say about this film? I haven’t seen very much swedish cinema outside of Let The Right One In and the Millennium trilogy (That’s ‘The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’ series for those who think Robbie Williams is somehow connected). But on an artistic level, The Seventh Seal certainly maintains its legacy. It could be borrowed from, but never truly remade.
Directed by Ingmar Bergman and set during the Crusades, our story follows several groups of characters who all meet by chance over the course of the film. What is it that connects these characters? It is a collection. A collection of perspectives on the main theme of the film – Death. The obsession, discussion, observation, fear and acceptance of death by these characters is so overwhelming, that views on the film could be 1 of 2 things…either this is 1 of the most depressing films ever made with 1 of the greatest commentaries about a universal topic, or it is a surprisingly amusing black comedy, which could go over your head if you’re not used to a certain sense of humour (I’m not saying it does).
While this film has several stories going on at once, the main 1 that everybody remembers involves the knight named Antonius Block (played by a very young Max von Sydow, who went on to be very successful in America and is best known as Father Lankester Merrin in The Exorcist). While lying on the beach, he meets Death (played by Bengt Ekerot) who has come to claim his soul. Not willing to go just yet, Antonius challenges Death to a game of chess, which endures on and off throughout the film. Other than them, you have Jons (Gunnar Björnstrand) the squire who travels with Antonius. He sticks out because he’s the only nihilist in the film, and also 1 of the relief characters (strange as it sounds) because he laughs at everything, including death. Jof (Nils Poppe), the travelling actor and acrobat who can see visions, but not death. Jof’s wife Mia (Bibi Andersson), who is skeptical of his visions. Raval, a thief and former theologian who 10 years ago told Antonius to go to war in the Holy Land (and leave his wife). Skat, a man who travelled with Jof and his wife, and decided to fool around with the Blacksmith’s wife Lisa. The Blacksmith himself Plog, the Mute girl from the ghost village, the woman accused of sleeping with the devil (is credited as The Witch), and of course Gunnar Olsson as the church painter Albertus Pictor (who actually existed). Then you have the Flagellants (People who believe God is punishing them, so they literally beat themselves up and suck the life and joy out of every place they go). Like Jof’s family, they’re a nomadic bunch, and unlike Jof’s family (Who are looking to lift the spirits of the villagers), they tell the villagers about the great judgement that has been brought upon them (in this story, the black death was taking place all over Europe). So many different perspectives going on at 1 time and within the context of the period (Protestantism didn’t form until the 1500s, so everyone’s Roman Catholic in this…except for Death and Jons). Now that I’ve mention these, lets break down the movie.
The Seventh Seal is a very unique film, in look, tone, storytelling, themes and approach. In a way it could even be seen as “Pulp Fiction, only it’s 37 years older and in Medieval Sweden…and everybody talks about death rather than pop culture”. The fact that it’s in black and white could even be seen as symbolic in itself when talking about Life and Death, the same with the chess pieces (and how ironic it is that Death chooses the black pieces). Much of the film feels like watching a play rather than a film (much, but not all), and 1 thing that it did do well was basically suggest the nitty-gritty of the time, rather than the glorious portrayals in most films about Knights and Castles. There isn’t too much music, resorting more to background noises, but when there is music, it fits the time and suits the scene. The acting is also very good, and the characters are surprisingly relatable, not only when they’re humorous, but down.
The Seventh Seal is 1 of those sorts of films that comes as a bit of a commercial shock to those who are seeing it for the 1st time. Some may not even like it because of how dark it is. But the more often you watch it, the funnier it gets – and because it gets funnier, it gets better. And the story also gets better.
In its own way, the borrowing from the book of revelations is used well – and I’ll tell you why. Because there has never really been “a better time” (unless we refer to the Garden Of Eden), just “Some places better than others during this time”. The End Of The World has been preached for centuries, with some great disappointments from those who were firm in their precise predictions (More recently from the late Harold Camping and the Mayan Calendar Scare). While we have tons of books, papers and websites about “The End” today, back in the medieval times, everybody was in the dark about it. Everybody had a different view on it, and I’m sure when the black plague spread, people assumed it was in fact the end of the world (at least, the world as they knew it). The film does a great job depicting that…and then you have characters who simply want to get on with their lives, and try to enjoy it…even laugh at it.
Would I recommend this film? Yes, but watch it with an open mind. There are tons of other sources that will go into more detail about the symbolism and choices that the film makes, but I’m not going to go into all of them. Underneath the dark, bleak, shadowy lighting and cinematography is both an interesting commentary among characters and a black comedy…and remember, if “The Critic” Jay Sherman borrowed the ending for his student film, then it probably didn’t stink.
Overall Rating: ***** out of 5