The Seventh Seal • Bergman and Faith on Film

Greenscreening Series #24

February 19, 2023

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The Seventh Seal (1957) directed by Ingmar Bergman


Returning exhausted from the Crusades to find medieval Sweden gripped by the Plague, a knight (Max von Sydow) suddenly comes face-to-face with the hooded figure of Death, and challenges him to a game of chess. As the fateful game progresses, and the knight and his squire encounter a gallery of outcasts from a society in despair, Ingmar Bergman mounts a profound inquiry into the nature of faith and the torment of mortality. One of the most influential films of its time, The Seventh Seal is a stunning allegory of man’s search for meaning and a work of stark visual poetry. - Criterion

Find The Seventh Seal via Reelgood

*The Seventh Seal*

Why The Seventh Seal?

Throughout this series, we’ve tried to balance looking at classic films the way audiences would have seen them in their day, while also understanding that we can’t ignore the historical legacy and hype that comes with viewing them. Very few films carry the historical weight of The Seventh Seal, for many years seen as the gold standard for art films.

The rise of the art film corresponded with the postwar boom in college attendance around the world. In the US alone, college attendance rose 50% from 1939 to 1946 and continued to increase into the 1950s. Urban centers exploded with educated young adults, who had been trained in how to analyze literature, art, theatre, and increasingly, film.

Additionally, these moviegoers were wrestling with more complicated ideas and philosophies. How were people supposed to make sense of the War and now the Cold War, and that seemed to be modernizing more rapidly than before?

Films like The Seventh Seal asked bigger questions and demonstrated an artistry on par with the best of literature, painting, and theater. The Seventh Seal was arguably as important as any other film in opening doors for more art films, and in promoting the development of world cinema.

The Seventh Seal tells the story of the knight Antonius Block, who upon returning home from a crusade with his squire, finds a country decimated by the Black Plague. The figure of Death approaches, and Block challenges Death to a game of chess, on the condition that while the game continues, he will be spared. This game gives Block a chance to look for one act of decency he can perform before he dies.

For audiences that experienced the Second World War and were now at the height of the Cold War, with the threat of nuclear annihilation, the story of a knight returning home from war to encounter the Plague resonated. But more than that, it's the knight's struggle to make sense of it all, his wrestling with God's nature and silence during such times, that resonated most, and makes the film timeless.

*The Seventh Seal*

Bergman was the son of a Lutheran minister who became chaplain to the King of Sweden. His father was a harsh disciplinarian, and while young Bergman was fascinated by the religious iconography surrounding him, he mostly sought escape in his active imagination, developing elaborate stories with his favorite toy, a magic lantern. He claimed he lost his faith around age eight, but that it was cemented later in life while directing the film, Winter Light (1963). At the same time, he signed his screenplays "S.D.G." (solo Deo gloria - to God be the glory), as Bach had signed his compositions.

Bergman made his way into filmmaking during college, alongside directing plays. He worked for over a decade before achieving international acclaim for the film, Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), which, as a comedy, is worth seeing as a counterpoint to The Seventh Seal. Smiles of a Summer Night competed for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, so Bergman was a known director among film critics. But nobody was prepared for his next film.

What’s so remarkable about The Seventh Seal?

We have to start with the story and its themes. The film's title comes from the Book of Revelation, referring to the author's vision of the beginning of the end - how Old Testament prophecies will ultimately be fulfilled and God's kingdom will be "on earth as it is in heaven." I highly recommend this video which gives a very approachable, high level overview of what the Book of Revelation is about and how it fits into the Biblical narrative. Essentially, the "Seventh Seal" refers to the final seal on a scroll that explains how God's kingdom will ultimately fully come about on earth. Christ opens the scroll, which begins the final judgment of evil and the destruction of the earth. Plagues are unleashed and a lot of frightening imagery follows, including swarms of locusts like horses. For Bergman, whose father had undoubtedly preached on Revelation, these images were formative, and fertile for exploring his questions of faith.

The film follows Block on his knight's quest to return home and perform one act of decency before Death. But he's on another quest, to find God in the midst of the suffering he sees all around. Block encounters various ways people are working out their faith, many of them destructive. First, there's his squire Jons, who reacts largely with hedonism and cynicism. Second, a painter who specializes in religious art, who finds purpose in reminding people of death. Third, there are several parties of witch hunters, attempting to purge evil to stop the plague. Fourth, there's a large group of flagellants and a fire-and-brimstone preacher aiming for conversion and absolution to stop the plague. And finally, there's the family of actors, Jof, Maria, and their son, Mikael. Jof sees visions of the Virgin Mary and believes his son is destined to be great. Their scenes are the most lively in the film.

What's Bergman up to here, with these contrasting expressions of faith? And where do we think he self-identifies? This film marked a new era of cinematic expression; this is a filmmaker using the totality of film language to go deep into his own faith and his doubts, creating something deeply personal and yet universal.

*The Seventh Seal*

The previous year, 1956, saw the release of one of the biggest box office hits of all time, The Ten Commandments, directed by Cecil B. DeMille. What a contrast between The Seventh Seal and The Ten Commandments, a straightforward adaptation of the Book of Exodus, with studio gloss and expensive special effects. To see The Seventh Seal in 1957 would have been to see film go somewhere completely new.

At the same time, Billy Graham was gaining prominence leading large-scale revivals around the world, preaching a fire-and-brimstone gospel. He called his large gatherings "crusades." It's possible to read the flagellants in The Seventh Seal as a reference to Graham and other new-age crusaders, reactionaries against contemporary culture.

The cinematography matches Bergman's theme. Bergman worked with cinematographer Gunnar Fischer for over a decade, and together created iconic images throughout. As we've seen in many cases throughout this series, Bergman and Fischer used expressionist, chiaroscuro lighting, here to portray the spiritual turmoil of the world and its characters.

The two gave cinema some of the most iconic images in film history. The most famous, of course, being the knight playing chess with Death. Bergman was inspired by a medieval mural he saw as a child, which featured a man playing chess with Death. Countless films have referenced this image - which we'll return to in a moment.

*The Seventh Seal*

Another of the film's important legacies was its acting. In addition to directing films, Bergman led a theater company, and so was well-acquainted with the top actors in Sweden. There are great performances throughout, but the star of the show is Max von Sydow, who launched a 50-year international career with this film. Sydow's performance is the most critical in this film; if we don't believe Block, or if Sydow makes a wrong choice, the film becomes laughable (see Monty Python and the Holy Grail's knights). One of Sydow's most famous roles involved a struggle between faith and doubt in the face of unspeakable evil: Father Merrin in The Exorcist (1973).

*The Seventh Seal*

The Seventh Seal was a tremendous critical hit upon release. The French film journal, Cahiers du Cinema, ranked it second in its top 10 films of the year. It helped launch the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars. And the film has enjoyed widespread critical appreciation for decades, appearing on most of the Sight and Sound Polls of the Greatest Films of All Time, although in 2022, the film fell to 136th.

How do we approach The Seventh Seal in the 21st Century? The film was so influential that it's been referenced or parodied countless times. Most viewers have seen references to or parodies of The Seventh Seal before seeing the film. This is partly what makes this film great: launching iconic images that would be endlessly referenced and parodied. Consider some of the references:

  • 500 Days of Summer (2009) Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character plays a game of chess with Cupid
  • Muppets Most Wanted (2014), in which the Swedish Chef plays a game of chess with Death
  • Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey (1991), in which Bill and Ted challenge Death to various 1980s board games, including Battleship.
  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974), in which the crusading knights bumble around their quests, and with the most absurd witch trials ever.
  • Even Max von Sydow couldn't appear without carrying the weight of this film. Consider Minority Report (2001), in which Steven Spielberg staged Max von Sydow as a hooded murderer.

*The Seventh Seal*

*The Seventh Seal*

Essentially, for at least two generations of filmmakers and audiences, The Seventh Seal has been a shorthand for the art film as well as how Death has been depicted on screen.

Can we take The Seventh Seal seriously today? Coming out of a pandemic, with a polarized political climate, rising authoritarianism, and with the increasing threat of global nuclear war, our climate is not too far removed from Bergman's. And certainly for those of us in the American Christian church, the past decade has been filled with crises, conflict, and a lot of pain. We've all had moments leading us to ask "where is God in all of this?" That's why a film like The Seventh Seal is timeless.

In his book, Movies are Prayers, Jonathan Larsen argues that films give expression to some of the filmmaker's and audience's deepest feelings, much as prayer invites deep relational communication between the offerant and the divine. Prayer serves many purposes: praise, lament, thanksgiving, request, confession, apology. Films also tap into to our fears, doubts, crises, joys, disappointments, anger at injustices, hope for good to prevail, and longing for life to be better. Few films pray as deeply and powerfully as The Seventh Seal.

It's worth noting that the film ends hopefully, just as the Book of Revelation does. Revelation, like Genesis, is a creation story, and concludes with the creation of a new heaven and new earth, with things as they are supposed to be. In The Seventh Seal, the film ends with the actors Jof and Maria with their young son. Throughout the film, this family represents the sweetness of life, an embrace of its pleasures, and the hope of a bright future for the next generation despite the spectre of death.

*The Seventh Seal*

Learn More About The Seventh Seal

A Short Video on the References to Bergman and The Seventh Seal in Pop Culture

Roger Ebert's Great Movies Essay on The Seventh Seal

Prof. Norman Holland with a look at The Seventh Seal as a medieval film. It's dense but one of his better essays.

Peter Cowie on The Seventh Seal for Criterion, way back in the Laserdisc days

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