Monday, 4 April 2016

The Seventh Seal (Det Sjunde Inseglet) (1957)

Det syvende segl
When most people think of Ingmar Bergman they think of movies with deep existential questions and heavy, often dystrophic, moods. That is not the Bergman I have seen so far, but I realize that with “Det Sjunde Inseglet” I have finally arrived at that version of Bergman.

This is a period piece taking place in the fourteenth century during the rage of the monstrous plague known as The Black Death. The knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) and his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) have returned from a crusade disillusioned by ten years of fighting a pointless campaign. They are journeying across the land to Block’s castle meeting a host of people and witnessing the madness caused by the plague and peoples beliefs.

More than the actual journey this is the story of man’s search for answers and meaning.  The plague makes for an apocalyptic backdrop where existential questions become terribly important and urgent, but the questions may just as well be asked today.

Antonius Block craves insight from God about the meaning of it all. Not hint or murky deductions, but real, straight answers. When Death in the shape of an iconic ghoul-like character (Bengt Ekerot) comes to take him Block asks for respite in the form of a game of chess in order to obtain his answers. Death obliges, but cannot be outsmarted. The respite is used in full to question everybody and his mother about the meaning of life. The problem for Block is that nothing he has seen provides him with any answer, only disgust. He is not doubting the existence of God, but he is royally miffed that God is withholding the answers.

True enough of the crazy happenings on the journey looks pretty misguided or the acts of some lunatic God.  Flagellants whipping themselves to shreds, a condemned witch, and priests in a frenzy and so on and Death itself refuses any answers, but its own inevitability. Yet, Block also meets a troupe of actors, Joseph (Nils Poppe), Mia, his wife (Bibi Andersson) and their infant son. They spread joy, are harmless and hope for a future for their son. Among them Block finds peace and although it is not said outright I think Block finds some of his answers eating wild strawberries and milk with the little family.

Jöns is a different character. Travelling with Block he has seen the same atrocities and pointlessness, but for him this has led to a denial of divine meaning. Instead he finds meaning in people. Flagellants and preachers disgust him, but he has a real understanding for people themselves, that their needs, wishes and solutions are more mundane and practical. He is very much the good secular person, the ideal for modern man. He does not need a divine meaning because meaning is right here among people. To see Block and Jöns together is like watching two different worlds, the mystic and the practical.

The era of the Black Death was friggin’ scary. It has been used as backdrop in a number of novels I have read and usually the point of these novels is that same struggle to make sense of existence and the crashing of all the laws that used to define life. The period was a catharsis for European culture, in multiple directions, and in a way marked the end of the medieval period. In “Det sjunde inseglet” it is a dirty, disgusting period, dark and apocalyptic. Bergman has nailed that quite well. There is only one mistake as far as I can see: the women are far too pretty. I guess he could not help it, having all these gorgeous women available, but it is strange to see dirty, disgusting and broken men mixed in with modern healthy women in costumes. Ah, detail…

This movie is the first entry of legendary Max von Sydow. Wow, he looked old even back then! There is a guy with a remarkable career and a screen presence! I saw him in the cinema as late as January in the latest Star Wars movie and in 2016 he will be joining the cast on “Games of Thrones”!

However the most iconic character to come out of this movie must be Death itself. I think most people who has not seen this movie will still describe Death as character exactly as depicted in “Det sjunde inseglet”. That is staying power.

I would not say that “Det sjunde inseglet” is hugely entertaining, it is not a Sunday afternoon movie, but it is a movie with an impact and it does makes you think. First to figure out what on Earth you were watching, and then to consider the questions raised. It is a very relevant discussion on religion and the meaning of life and that never really goes out of fashion.



  1. This was the first Bergman movie I ever saw, and while I liked it, my reaction was along the lines of "That's it?" Here was the hugely celebrated movie that supposedly changed cinema and when I finally saw it I wasn't that impressed by it. Perhaps if I had seen it at the time it came out I would have been more impressed with it.

    1. That is the problem with high expectations. I had a similar reaction to Citizen Kane.
      Of course it is great when a movie suck you in, but for me the real test is if you cannot stop thinking of it after you saw it and The Seventh Seal did that for me.

  2. First, I should let you know that the picture you have at the top is my current PC wallpaper and has been for the past couple of months.

    I was surprised at how completely accessible this is. I expected to be intimitated by it and to be confused by it. How surprising that it was easy to follow and much more powerful because of it. I think it's rightly regarded as a classic.

    1. That was also my expectation and impression. It was not distancing itself from its audience as some particularly French movies do, but was yes, accessible. It is however when you start thinking about you get its true strength. There is so much food for thought here.
      Cool picture. I did not have to think twice to pick this one. Sadly for it it cannot compete with the darling picture I have of my son as wallpaper.

  3. I am always amazed at the amount of humor Bergman manages to get out of his bleak story. Jons gets out some very wry quips but my favorite part is the actor in the tree. This was one of the very first foreign language films I ever saw and it had a big impact on me. Just the cinematography alone is genius.

  4. Yes, this is surprisingly funny. That guy in the tree is hilarous and it is almost tilting the movie, yet the joy of the actors serves as counterpoint to the despair and horror of the plague and the devout.

  5. I really liked The Seventh Seal; I haven't yet watched a Bergman I didn't at least admire. This I enjoyed. As others have said, the humour is surprising, particularly when all you know of the film is the oft parodied chess game.

    A good companion piece to this The Virgin Spring, another medieval-set Bergman film, which though darker in tone, has a slightly different ending.

    1. Yes, there is a lot to like here. Not least the surprising humor. I have not seen The Virgin Spring, but have moved right on to another Bergman movie, Wild Strawberries, for which there is also a curious reference in The Seventh Seal.