ILLUMINATIONS: The Seventh Seal
Is Ingmar Bergman's 1957 classic art film a musical zombie comedy?
The Seventh Seal (1957)
Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman
Review by Seth Rogovoy
Watching Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film The Seventh Seal for the first time in 2021, one cannot help but laugh along with it, especially early in the movie, when archetypal and iconic images come at the viewer so fast and furious that the film almost seems like an Ingmar Bergman parody.
But while the film is indeed informed by Bergman’s sly, subtle humor, it is anything but a parody. This is just testament to Bergman’s power and influence as a filmmaker, such that decades later his style, as expressed here and in other classic films such as Persona, is so recognizable, its images so familiar, as to be encoded in our cultural vocabulary – certainly in our filmic vocabulary – even if we have never seen the film before.
The movie takes place in medieval Sweden at the time of the Crusades and the Black Death, both of which are drivers of the plot. As it turns out, there are no seals in The Seventh Seal – the seal of the title refers not to the semiaquatic marine mammal but to one of the document closures referred to in the Book of Revelation. To wit: “And when the Lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.” (The film itself whizzes by in a mere 96 minutes.)
The film stars 28-year-old Max von Sydow (who only just died last year at the age of 90) as the 14th-century knight Antonius Block, a Crusader returning from the Holy Land after an absence of many years. His single goal is to be reunited with his wife, but many events and people get in the way of his return, most notably a nagging stalker who wears a shroud and calls himself Death. The latter is also a chess fanatic, and he’s good at it, too, enough to wager confidently with Block that he will beat him, for which in return Block must go with him. (Death is just toying with Block; he could easily kill him at any time but seems to enjoy the cat-and-mouse game the two of them play-act.)
So Block plays chess with Death in an austere Swedish art film that could well be considered a zombie flick (there are some creepy flagellants and plague victims exploding in boils), a musical (there are a handful of diegetic songs in the film), and, ultimately, a comedy -- especially if Kierkegaard makes you laugh. Which he should.
The Seventh Seal is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel.