DET SJUNDE INSEGLET (1957)

  • Director: Ingmar Bergman
  • Writers: Ingmar Bergman, based on his play Trämålning
  • Starring: Max von Sydow, Bibi Andersson, Gunnar Björnstrand, Bengt Ekerot, Inga Landgré, Åke Fridell, Inga Gill, Erik Strandmark, Bertil Anderberg, Gunnel Lindblom, Maud Hansson, and Gunnar Olsson
  • Accolades:  2012 Sight & Sound Top 100 list (#93), 1957 Cannes International Film Festival – Special Jury Prize
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming on Kanopy (library app), stream with subscription on HBO Max and The Criterion Channel, buy or rent on Amazon Video or YouTube

Somehow Det Sjunde Inseglet (The Seventh Seal) is the first movie we’ve covered here so far from the great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. I had seen it before, at some point, and I remember liking it fine. But I don’t think I actually remembered a lot of the actual parts of the movie, and I’m not sure why that is. I think I might just not have been depressed enough to actually get it before. Because watching it this time, I think it might be one of my seriously favorite movies? It’s generally about the emptiness of human existence and the human fear of death. If that doesn’t sound up your alley, well, it’s actually a lot more palatable and watchable than that sounds, without losing any of the impact.

Det Sjunde Inseglet is probably the Bergman movie with the most cultural staying power, in the sense that lots of people will recognize some images from it, but most of those people have probably never actually seen the movie. The most famous scenes are the first and the last. In the first scene, a Knight (Max von Sydow) meets Death (Bengt Ekerot) on the beach, and challenges him to a game of chess for his life. In the final scene, the family of actors we’ve been following through the movie sees Death in the distance, brandishing his scythe, forcing most of the other characters to dance behind him in a line.

The movie takes place in Sweden during the Black Death, though it uses the setting more as an excuse to do a big allegory than to do an actual period piece. The title refers to a line from the Book of Revelations that starts the movie: “And when the Lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for the space of half an hour.” The “silence of God” is a major theme in the film. The Knight actually talks to Death, but Death won’t actually tell him anything. “I don’t have any secrets!” Death insists, implying there’s nothing to tell. Meanwhile, his Squire (Gunnar Björnstrand, a Bergman favorite) insists there is no God or Devil or afterlife. In one key scene, they watch a supposed Witch (Maud Hansson) being burned at the stake, and the Squire tells the Knight that the look of horror on her face is that of someone realizing no one has come to meet her. “Life is a preposterous horror,” the Knight tells Death. “No man can live faced with death, knowing everything’s nothingness.” “Most men think neither of death nor nothingness,” Death remarks. But some of us are cursed to be the Knight.

Anyway, if that sounds like not your cup of tea, the whole thing is actually a lot lighter than that. There are even sort of jokes and sort of suspense at different times. And, in spite of reputation for unremitting darkness. It actually has kind of a happy ending. Yes, the Knight, the Squire, and the rest of their party are led away by Death, but at least they’re dancing, and the Knight has accomplished the one worthwhile thing he wanted to through delaying with the chess game. The family of actors survive, representing hope for the future, the Knight have successfully led death away from them.

Det Sjunde Inseglet was not Bergman’s first movie, or his first big hit internationally, but it’s probably the movie that established him at the very top of the international group of auteurs, a position he would occupy for the rest of his life. At least in critical communities, I’m not sure it’s any longer the definitive Bergman movie (as witnessed by the fact that it’s below Persona, Smultronstället (Wild Strawberries), and Fanny och Alexander on the most recent Sight & Sound Top 100 Films list. But I’m pretty sure it’s my favorite of his movies. It also introduced several of its actors, including Max von Sydow and Bibi Andersson, who players the mother of the actor family, to international audiences and started long careers. Andersson and Bergman became romantically involved for the next several years after meeting on the set of this movie. Bergman often used the same actors over and over in his movies over the years, especially Andersson, Björnstrand, von Sydow, and Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann. Det Sjunde Inseglet was the first of at least seven films he would make in the following years with the general theme of religious angst.

Of course, the image of von Sydow playing chess with the white-masked, black-cloaked Death has become a cultural touchstone all out of proportion to its use in this actual movie. Yet Bergman didn’t make up the idea. As the Knight states at the start of the movie, there is lots of folklore and stories about Death and chess. In fact, Bergman was directly inspired by a wall painting of Death playing chess on the wall of a Swedish medieval church. The painter of that fresco, Albertus Pictor, actually appears in the movie played by Gunnar Olsson, as the painter who discussed with the Squire why he chooses such depressing subjects during a time of Plague. Nor did he invent the danse macabre seen at the end, as witnessed by the fact that the famous classical music piece by Camille Saint-Saens predates this movie by decades, but he provided perhaps its definitive image.

If you are someone obsessed with historical accuracy, this may not be your jam. It is perhaps accurate to say it succeeds at reproducing the mindset of the Middle Ages better than it does as an accurate historical document. In general, mass witch hunts came later, and the parade of self-flagellators that makes an appearance partway through the movie was a real historical phenomenon, but not one that ever made it to Sweden. Yet I think that sequence in the middle of the movie is maybe the most memorable depiction I’ve seen of an important, specific period in history, and not one without its important evocations today. 

What I really mean about the period piece idea, however, is that for the most part Bergman’s characters don’t really feel Medieval, but more like modern day people dressed up in costumes. This could be a problem with the movie, but it really isn’t. Instead it connects us to the ideas Bergman is dealing with, instead of worrying about the details. If I had to say what is for me the definitive feature of a Bergman film, its that they are usually about “big ideas,” more than almost any other movies, but he also has the ability to really get inside the beings of his characters and present them as real-seeming people. His reputation is very deserved.

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