Revisiting: The Seventh Seal
As part of their Ingmar Bergman season, Home in Manchester included 3 screenings of the 1957 masterpiece The Seventh Seal.
The themes running through The Seventh Seal have been dissected, discussed and even disputed with enough column inches to fill the National Library of Sweden. Having said that, rewatching this visually striking and deeply philosophical classic projected in a cinema gives new life to the phrase ‘the gift that keeps on giving’.
Bergman presents us images that stand alone as some of the most recognised and symbolic in film history. Challenging Death to a game of chess, for whatever intrinsic reason, feels like it should be a ubiquitous symbol for any existential struggle; it’s an image that could yet be discovered hiding out in a Hieronymus Bosch painting, or carved next to Albrecht Dürer’s Apocalypse.
Bergman’s inspiration was, however, found in a small church just north of Stockholm. Albertus Pictor’s painting, Death Playing Chess, was an instrumental starting point for Bergman’s script. He even included Albertus in the film: a squire discovers him painting dour images on a church wall. When challenged on the dark nature of his work, Albertus replies, ‘Why should I make people happy? I’m only painting things as they are.’ And this, of course, is what Bergman wants us to consider; he forces us to engage in the reality and finality of death.
As distinctive and fresh as his work still looks, it’s also strikingly clear to whom Bergman owes a debt. His admiration of Shakespeare is something that he made no bones about and The Seventh Seal is full of nods to the Bard. Our protagonist, Antonius Block (Max Von Sydow), could’ve walked straight off the set of Hamlet - his existential crisis and struggle swirling around a backdrop of death and hopelessness. The acting troupe provide more opportunities for us to muse about how cruelty and pain give no apparent consideration for well-meaning people. It’s also comforting to be reminded that, for an art house film with a reputation for seriousness - there’s a smattering of comedy, too.
Most profoundly, though, Bergman used The Seventh Seal as a biblical allegory. Taking the title from the book of Revelation, and setting it during the Black Death was just the tip of his metaphorical iceberg. Throughout the story, we find ourselves constantly encountering signs of a man who was clearly infatuated with faith: an infant named Mikael (after the Archangel who defeated Satan), the act of confession and a formidable scene involving self-flagellation to name a few.
The film ends with an image that’s representative of the film in its entirety - the dance with Death. It’s another iconic moment from a film that, after more than 60 years, still stands up as a classic of twentieth-century cinema. TS