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18th November 2015

Classic Review: The Seventh Seal

Despite being the subject of endless parodies, Ingmar Bergman’s early masterpiece, The Seventh Seal, remains a bleak and thought-provoking work of cinema

Returning from the crusades, a Swedish knight finds his home country ravaged by plague, and enters into a game of chess with Death himself, in order to delay his inevitable fate long enough to at least discover answers about life.

With a plot description like that, it’s easy to see why The Seventh Seal, and so much of Bergman’s work, has been so susceptible to mockery. Everyone from Woody Allen, to Bill and Ted, to French and Saunders, has taken a swing at aping the Swedish auteur’s unmistakable style. Whilst a lot of these parodies appear to stem from places of love, many use hallmarks of Bergman’s work as a shorthand for unnecessarily esoteric arthouse cinema. With all of its heavy-handed symbolism, bleak imagery and big questions, at times, there appears to be little to distinguish The Seventh Seal from these send-ups.

Yet, what comes as a surprise about The Seventh Seal is the abiding sense of optimism that lies at its heart. By no means do Bergman’s interests lie in creating a feel-good film, and certainly, a strong element of despair hangs over the film. A combination of disease and the impotence of faith appears to have driven half of Sweden to the brink of madness by the time Max Von Sydow’s knight and his squire wash up on its shores. Certain scenes, such as the burning of a young woman accused of witchcraft, go beyond the rest of the film’s palpable existential dread and venture into the realm of intense psychological horror—more akin to Polanski or Lynch.

But despite all of this, The Seventh Seal appears to urge audiences to not search for solace in a mute, unresponsive manner, but instead to find comfort in the joys of family and companionship. In one notable scene, the Knight is invited to share in a meal of wild strawberries and fresh milk with a couple of actors and their infant son. The Knight looks out over the beautiful scenery, and explains how he will always treasure this memory. Although Death still lingers out of the frame for a brief moment, the manifest concept remains invisible.

Even in the film’s haunting climax, Death might have emerged victorious, but we have come to understand that Death is not a malicious force, rather an inescapable truth—perhaps the only thing worth putting your faith in. If that all sounds a bit heavy, Bergman is on hand to neatly undercut it with an image of a young family, bathed in sunlight, walking in each other’s arms. For them, Death is something to worry about on another day.

Bergman also finds other ways to balance his intense subject matter, weaving a surprising amount of comedy into the film. Admittedly, the farcical scenes involving a blacksmith and his unfaithful wife add little. But, a strong sense of gallows humour, best exemplified by a man waking into a tree to find Death nonchalantly sawing it down suggest a Fellini-esque appreciation for the absurdity of life, rather than a morbid preoccupation with death.


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