THE SEVENTH SEAL (Film Review)

The Seventh Seal is, without any Hollywood hyperbole, one of the most memorable and shocking films ever made. It was shot in black and white on a real shoestring budget (Bergman predictably could not find backers for his marvellous script), yet it managed to win the Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 1957 and has been acclaimed as a cinematic masterpiece ever since.

A knight, played to perfection by Max von Sydow, returns from the Crusades to find Death stalking the land. The opening scene of the film, dawn on a bare northern beach, reveals the knight and his squire sleeping on the pebbles while their horses wait patiently at the water’s edge. They do not appear to have been shipwrecked. Presumably they were put ashore there during the night. The knight wakes, washes his face in the sea, kneels and prays.

Then turns to see Death standing behind him. “Who are you?” “I am Death … I have walked long at your side.” “That I know.” The knight proposes a game of chess. Death accepts and the game proceeds, giving the knight a respite during which he can save at least some of the small group of helpless people who collect around him.

Bergman tells us he was inspired by the Carmina Burana, the songs of the wanderers, the homeless, the seekers, during the 13th and 14th centuries, the time of wars and famines and plague, of the Great Mortality and the Dance of Death. He was also certainly inspired by the passage in the Book of Revelations from which he took his title, Revelations chapter 8. Read it. The knight’s wife does so, aloud and at length, during supper when he arrives home towards the end of the film. She has been awaiting him all these years and now they are finally reunited in death.

It is a cross between a Morality Play, with allegorical figures and events, and a novel, with tragedy and humour intermingled, scenes memorable for their realism, their happiness and love (the dreamy and lovable wandering player, of and his beautiful wife and perfect baby, symbol of a future which looks in grave doubt), their horror (the procession of self-flagellating penitents stumbling through the villages, the girl burnt as a witch before our eyes), and their sheer timelessness (Death with his string of captives in silhouette dancing off on the horizon at the end of the film).

Bergman said of it that it was one of the films closest to his heart. It is now one of the films closest to mine.

 

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