"Say anything you want against The Seventh Seal. My fear of death—this infantile fixation of mine—was, at that moment, overwhelming. I felt myself in contact with death day and night, and my fear was tremendous. When I finished the picture, my fear went away. I have the feeling simply of having painted a canvas in an enormous hurry—with enormous pretension but without any arrogance. I said, 'Here is a painting; take it, please.'"
— Ingmar Bergman, (1971)
In The Seventh Seal, a knight, Antonius Block (Max von Sydow, in one of his earliest roles), and his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) return from the crusades to find medieval Sweden teetering on the brink of apocalypse. The plague ravages the land, the church scours the country with doomsday rhetoric and zealotry, and the common people live in squalor and fear. Block, like his country, faces the dark night of his soul as Death (eerily personified by Bengt Ekerot) comes to claim him. However, Block, though not surprised that Death should find him, is suffering a crisis of faith and so, wracked with doubts about life, death and God and seeking a stay of execution just long enough to find some answers, proposes to Death that they play a game of chess in order to delay the inevitable.
The Seventh Seal is a much more complex film than Smiles of a Summer Night; it is personal and yet mythic, harrowing and yet somehow cathartic. While neither Bergman nor the knight seem to really arrive at any of the answers that the Knight seeks, both of them seem to find some comfort along the way. While The Seventh Seal is not necessarily an atheistic or sacrilegious film, it does lean towards a a sense of frustrated agnosticism and, emerging out of this frustration, towards a sense of burgeoning humanism . The only real comfort Antonius Block ever finds during his journey is in the company of other people, such as the troupe of actors that eventually travel with him. These actors, Jof (Nils Poppe) and Mia (Bibi Andersson), along with their infant son Michael, seem to form Bergman's own version of the holy family, reconstituted in The Seventh Seal as common, earthy people, free from the vulgarities and pretenses of organized religion and politics. Like Petra and Frid in Smiles of a Summer Night, Jof and Mia seem to represent Bergman's ideal. The two films, in fact, end in similar fashions, with both happy young couples living freely and simply in nature while at the same time possessing a sobering insight into the condition of humanity.
Bergman is a master a human sympathy and he is able, seemingly out of the air, to conjure within his audience feelings of intense affection, startling terror, honour, anxiety, disgust and love. Max von Sydow, tormented by doubt, is at once both Bergman and the audience. However, almost every major character in Bergman's films are rich and human and so, depending upon the scene, audiences find themselves effortlessly identifying with each major character, now with the anxiety of Antonius Block, now with the cynicism and world-weary honour of Jöns, now with the the soft sensuality of Mia. In fact, the only major character unable to arouse sympathy at all is Death, a character without personality or temperament. He merely is and, like he himself says, is "unknowing." On top of all this, and enhancing the actors brilliant performances, is that fact that the film is utterly beautiful. Its stark and iconic images, its subtle and gentle camera moves, its steady and soft editing all combine to create a visually stunning experience. There are no extravagances here; the artifice is almost invisible, allowing the characters to simply be.
It is really quite possible to go on at great length about The Seventh Seal. Its tightly allegorical structure, its political and religious anxieties, its rich and metaphorical characters, all of these can inspire pages and pages of commentary. What resonates so timelessly, though, are the raw and basic questions that the film asks and, unlike most films, attempts to answer.
experto crede: an undeniable masterpiece