The Seventh Seal (1957)

The Seventh Seal, known in Swedish as Det Sjunde inseglet, is probably the most famous of Ingmar Bergman's films, and therefore probably the most famous film in Swedish cinema history. It's the film that made Bergman a star of the European art house and began his most celebrated period as a film director.

The film is set in Sweden in the Medieval era. Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) is a knight, returning from the Crusades with his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand). But the land they are returning to is one ravaged by a plague, the Black Death. Death, decay, fear, suspicion and despair haunt the landscape.

Death in fact is literally present, in human form. Resting on a beach, Block sees a tall mysterious, pale skinned figure (played by Bengt Ekerot), clad in a black cloak. The figure reveals himself to be Death, come to claim him at last.

Bengt Ekerot as Death
Bengt Ekerot as Death

"Who are you?" Block asks.

"I am Death."

"Have you come to fetch me?"

"I have long walked at your side."

"That I know."

As Death prepares to take him, Block attempts to forestall him.

"Wait a moment" he says.

"You all say that", Death replies wryly, and no doubt truthfully.

But Block has an idea. He decides to distract Death with the offer of a game of chess. Is it not known from the folk songs and paintings that Death is a keen player of the game? So the two sit down to play. Block's condition is that if he wins the game, he should be allowed to live.

From this simple, if dramatic, beginning, the film expands to encompass more characters. In particular, a group of travelling players and a husband, Jof (Nils Poppe), his wife Mia (Bibi Andersson) and their small child, Mikael. The husband is alive to the world of the supernatural, but his stories are not believed by others. Early in the film, he has a vision of the Virgin Mary, but when he tells his wife, she thinks it's just another one of his fanciful stories.

Meanwhile, while his chess game with Death continues in the metaphysical realm, Antonius Block has a series of experiences of his own in the physical world, as he seeks to answer his doubts about God's existence. These include witnessing a parade of flagellating religious penitents, seeing a young woman being burned to death as a witch, and taking confession with a priest, who turns out to be Death himself in disguise. When Block learns that Death is also coming for the family of Jof, Mia and Mikael, he seizes the chance to perform one meaningful act before his life is over.

Antonius Block and Death playing chess
Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) and Death (Bengt Ekerot) continue their game

Although he had made more than a dozen films before this, Ingmar Bergman's reputation as one of the world's greatest film makers began with two films from 1957, the drama Smultronstället (Wild Strawberries) and The Seventh Seal.

Bergman originally trained as a theatre director, before moving into the film industry in Sweden as a writer in the 1940s. His first feature film as a director, Kris (Crisis), was released in 1946. By the early 1950s, Bergman was finding his stride as a film maker and attracting international attention with the dramas Gycklarnas afton (Sawdust and Tinsel) in 1953 and Sommarnattens leende (Smiles of a Summer Night) in 1955.

But it was The Seventh Seal that would make him one of the world's most celebrated film directors. The Seventh Seal is also a film that encapsulates what would come to be thought of as Bergmanesque - stark, black and white dramas of angst, doubt and existentialism, dealing with faith, God or his absence, and the relationship dynamics between men and women. Despite that, there are notable differences with his later work, with The Seventh Seal being significantly more flamboyant and theatrical than Bergman's subsequent films.

The film was based on Trämålning (Wood Painting), a short play Bergman had written for the theatre, and has its roots in medieval mystery and morality plays. Bergman was the son of a Lutheran priest, and The Seventh Seal's overpowering religious atmosphere and allegorical nature are probably partly the result of his Christian religious upbringing. According to the director, the film's chief inspiration was the religious murals he saw in church as a child:

"There was everything my imagination could desire - angels, saints, dragons, prophets, devils, humans. All this was surrounded by a heavenly, earthly, subterranean landscape of a strange yet familiar beauty." *

Death and Block in the confessional
Death and Antonius Block in the confessional

The film's title comes from the Book of Revelation, in a passage quoted at the beginning of the film:

"And when the lamb opened the seventh seal, there was in heaven a silence which lasted about the space of half an hour. And the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared themselves to sound"

The Seventh Seal is a fascinating allegory that repays repeated viewings. It is at once stark and austere, and yet rich and layered. It's dark and weighty, but also wry and playful. It's doom laden and sepulchral, and yet tinged with hope. It complements its earthy and convincing portrayal of life and belief in the Middle Ages with potent religious allegory and rich symbolism.

The film opens with self-consciously dramatic shots of the sun peeking through an overcast sky, set to emphatic music, almost like a classical religious scene of divine revelation. Then the film cuts to a shot of a bird of prey hovering symbolically and menacingly in the sky. These are just the first of the film's many instances of sinister, apocalyptic imagery. The bird in its way may represent death, or at least those that follow in its wake.

The Seventh Seal may put off casual viewers with its discursive narrative, but it's very forward about its themes and preoccupations. Those preoccupations are, in particular, death, faith, God, doubt and the search for meaning.

The film's intense Medieval and religious atmosphere is remarkable and Bergman conjures a very strong sense of the Middle Ages. This is aided by P. A. Lundgren's sets, by Manne Lindholm's costuming and by the richly textured photography of Gunnar Fischer.

Although Bergman would later come to be associated in particular with Sven Nykvist, Fischer was his regular cinematographer on his earlier films, and The Seventh Seal's visual power is due in no small part to his vivid, high contrast black and white photography.

The film's convincing portrayal of the Middle Ages is not simply visual though. It is also evident in the film's characters and the way that they see and understand the world. Although there is some artistic licence in the portrayal of the period, the film is often quite plausible and insightful as a portrait of the Medieval mind, with the world of the natural and the supernatural seen to co-exist.

This is a world where Death and Satan are literal figures, who might very well appear in your home or your village, or in one nearby. There isn't a clear separation between the physical world and the spiritual, and your next journey could just as easily be to the next village or to the next life.

The film is imbued with a very strong sense of ever-present death, accentuated by the fear of the plague. There is also intense religious fervour, the natural fear of death being accompanied by a corresponding fear of divine punishment. The celebration of life, love and life's joys are constantly mingled in the film with the fear of death and the possibility of judgement in the next life. Which is probably a reasonable guess at how people would have responded to the Black Death. In one scene the enthusiastic performance of the travelling players in one village is memorably interrupted by a parade of religious flagellants.

Block seeks answers from the alleged witch (Maud Hansson)
Block seeks answers from the alleged witch (Maud Hansson)

Reactions to the plague, and the fear of imminent death that it has brought, divide into two camps in The Seventh Seal. Two competing, but recognisable, human responses. One is to pursue pleasure and desire. To drink, play and enjoy life, because this day may be your last. The other is to reflect on our lives and fear judgement, to ask ourselves if we have been sufficiently worthy.

Block's squire Jöns embodies the first instinct. He is cheerfully sceptical of religion and looks for pleasure and enjoyment in this life, to make the most of a limited existence. The flagellants take the opposite approach, seeking to atone for their sins and to ensure that they please God. Instead of joy or pleasure, they look for peace, or at least freedom from torment, in the next life, by ensuring that they are sufficiently pious and penitent in this one.

Antonius Block is more closely aligned to the latter group, but he is seeking more than simply salvation. He is looking for meaning. Despite the film's convincing depiction of Medieval attitudes to life, death and religion, this is also a recognisably modern instinct, the need to find answers to the great questions and to search for meaning.

For the intensely religious like the parade of flagellants, their actions are seen to be driven by the fear of divine judgement and of eternal damnation. For Block it's a more existential question, because he lives in a world where Death definitely exists, and even has a physical presence, but God's existence is much more uncertain. The film explores the pain and despair of a world where death is inevitable and ever-present, but where there may be no afterlife, no salvation and no God.

Block's later actions, attempting to alleviate the suffering of the woman condemned as a witch, and in particular his attempt to save the lives of Jof, Mia and Mikael, suggest that meaning is something that can be created, rather than simply provided by God or by religious devotion.

For others, their religious convictions are often revealed to be hollow or simply a matter of self interest, as with Raval (Bertil Anderberg), who is caught robbing a corpse. He is revealed to be a former theologian who had previously exhorted Block and Jöns to join the Crusades, but is now just a common thief, stealing from the dead.

Parade of medieval flagellants
The parade of flagellants

Although it has a pungent sense of the Middle Ages, the film's dark, doom laden sensibility is probably partly a result of post-war angst, following the horrors of the Holocaust and the Second World War. Added to that experience was the Cold War and the looming spectre of potential nuclear annihilation in a Third World War. How can mankind believe in God when such horrors are possible, and perhaps inevitable?

Antonius Block's crisis of faith reflects Bergman's own fears about a life without God or meaning. This theme would be explored in Bergman's later work, and probably reflects the fact that he was a man with a strict religious upbringing living in what was increasingly becoming one of the world's most secular, even atheist, countries.

The film is also quite strong in its content for the time, with its flagellants, witch-burning and attempted rape. In one scene, Jöns finds a man wearing a cloak, resting against a rock with his dog alongside him. The man turns out to be a corpse, as Jöns discovers when he grabs his shoulder. Bergman cuts to a close up of an eyeless, decomposing head, a shock moment that wouldn't have been out of place in a contemporary horror film.

The film also often blurs the line between the living and the dead. Most obviously by having a mortal man interact in this world with Death itself. But there are other juxtapositions of life and death, and ambiguous scenes.

These include the first sighting of Antonius Block and Jöns. As they lie on the beach, it's initially unclear if they are asleep, dead, merely resting or perhaps shipwrecked. Dead, alive, asleep, all seem much the same. After a few moments they stir, and we find that they are not dead, but merely at rest. But this does pose the question of whether all that follows their apparent waking is actually some kind of a dream.

Despite its often dark themes and serious subject matter, the film is not as heavy-going as you might imagine. The visuals are often dramatic and give a sense of a serious, austere experience. But in fact the film is at times oddly playful and humorous, tongue-in-cheek even. Bergman directs with an unexpectedly light touch and a keen sense of the absurd. Underlying all of this angst and introspection is the sense that life is a kind of cosmic comedy, or a tragi-comedy at least, and the film sometimes has a carnivalesque air.

Max von Sydow as a knight lying on a beach
Sleeping, resting or already dead? Block reclines on the beach

Themes of performance, play acting and game playing recur throughout the film, something accentuated by the fact that several of the principal characters are part of an acting troupe. When an unfaithful wife, Lisa (Inga Gill), runs off with one of the actors, Jonas (Erik Strandmark), they are replaying in real life elements from one of the troupe's earlier playlets.

When the woman's irate husband, the blacksmith Plog (Åke Fridell), confronts the other man, Jöns gives a running commentary on their dialogue and actions, as if they too are part of a play or a performance. Particularly wry comments are reserved for the unfaithful woman and the predictable part she plays in the proceedings, transferring her allegiance to her husband and egging him on to attack the other man, as if she is a blameless victim.

Eventually the other man, Jonas, stabs himself with a fake blade, pretending to commit suicide in contrition. Thus the confrontation ends satisfactorily for both sides. Honour appears to be satisfied, and neither man has had to fight or kill the other, reaffirming the sense that it was all just a performance, another piece of acting.

In a later scene, when Death comes for one of the travelling players, he finds him hiding in a tree. Death takes up a saw and starts to saw the tree down in order to claim him. Any film that has Death pick up a saw and start sawing down a tree in which a man is hiding obviously has a mischievous sense of humour. Or at least a highly developed sense of the absurd.

The notion that Death might enjoy chess, a game centring on the manipulation of pieces on a board representing kings, queens, knights and bishops, seems perfectly reasonable and appropriate in these circumstances. Especially as this is a representation of Death's power and influence over human lives. Perhaps he simply regards it as practice. As with the figures on the chess board, the characters in the film represent traditional medieval figures or archetypes - the knight, the squire, the jester, the blacksmith, the monk.

Antonius Block reveals that he hopes to beat Death in the chess game through a combination of bishop and knight. An obvious and perhaps inevitable choice for a crusader. But, whether he wins or loses, he knows that he is only delaying the inevitable.

Max von Sydow and Gunnar Björnstrand
Block with his squire, Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand)

There is also hope in the film, despite its dark themes. This comes in the form of Jof and his wife Mia and their young son Mikael. When Antonius Block meets them they invite him to join them for a simple meal of strawberries with milk. Nothing elaborate, but it's all they have. Block, though, is happy. In this small moment with a small family, he has found a brief feeling of contentment. Even if it has eluded him for much of his life, it is still to be found. The message then seems to be quite traditional. Happiness is found in simple pleasures. From love, family and from sharing life's joys with others.

In a film suffused with so much Christian religious meaning and symbolism, Jof and Mia and their young son seem to represent the Holy Family of Joseph, Mary and Jesus. The names Jof and Mia are Swedish equivalents of Joseph and Mary, making this a little more obvious in the original Swedish. The film seems to be suggesting that this is the surest way to discover meaning and even to experience the divine - through the union of a man and a woman and through the raising of a family. Or perhaps it is suggesting a spiritual return to the purity of the Holy Family and to the teachings of Christ.

While Mia regards Jof as something of a dreamer and his "visions" as flights of fancy, the film suggests that his visions are in fact real. The audience shares his vision of the Virgin Mary early in the film, Jof is able to see the line of people being led away by Death in the Danse Macabre at the end, and in an earlier scene, only Jof can see the chess game that Antonius Block and Death are playing, while his wife can see nothing. Jof has shades of the Holy Fool, a character whose innocence and naivete enable him to see the truth more clearly than any amount of introspection or intellectualising.

The film's portrayal of women is not entirely flattering. The female characters are often unfaithful and capricious, or else insane. Mia is sympathetically portrayed, but she lacks Jof's ability to perceive more than the mere physical world. Her fulfilment and happiness comes from her traditional role as a wife and mother.

In fairness, though, the portrayal of the male characters is not very flattering either. They are mostly foolish, untrustworthy, licentious or hypocritical. Other than Jof, Block is the most sympathetic, but that sympathy is undercut by the knowledge that he has spent his life killing for a God that he now suspects may not even exist.

Max von Sydow, Nils Poppe and Bibi Andersson
Meaning at last? Block with Jof (Nils Poppe), Mia (Bibi Andersson) and their son

The Seventh Seal was significant not only for Bergman's career but also for introducing English-speaking audiences to the 27 year old Max von Sydow. With his blond hair and stern, deeply etched features, von Sydow's knight is almost as distinctive as Bengt Ekerot's Death, making them a visually intriguing pairing.

Although von Sydow is the actor who went on to the most fame internationally, The Seventh Seal is very much an ensemble drama, and there are strong performances from the whole cast. Several of the cast were recruited from the group of actors that Bergman had established as a theatre director in Malmö. These include Gunnar Björnstrand, Bibi Andersson, Åke Fridell, Anders Ek and Gunnel Lindblom.

Particularly memorable is Bengt Ekerot who, with his singular appearance, is suitably otherworldly as Death. Ekerot brings an appropriate otherness to Death, while also imbuing him with an extremely dry sense of humour, something that makes him seem almost human at times. Death accepts his role in life's tapestry, realising that he has a part to play the same as every other character, without burdening himself with Block's philosophical questioning.

Ekerot's appearance as Death, the famous motif of the chess game, and to a lesser extent the line of Death's victims being led away over the hillside in the Danse Macabre, are all visual elements of The Seventh Seal that have been parodied and homaged in the decades since its release, often turning up in the unlikeliest places.

Max von Sydow in The Seventh Seal
Block seeks answers in the confession. But that priest looks familiar ...

Inevitably, the parodies included one by Woody Allen in his 1975 film Love and Death. But there were also homages in the 1991 Bill and Ted sequel Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey, in which the two heroes play Battleship and Twister against William Sadler's Death, and the infamous Arnold Schwarzenegger flop Last Action Hero (1993) with Ian McKellen appearing in the role of Death. The short film The Dove, from 1968, is a parody of Bergman's films featuring a character playing a badminton match against Death.

Vincent Ward's The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (1988) seems to take particular visual inspiration from the film. Its black & white scenes, set in a Medieval English village during the Black Death, seem like an elaborate homage to Bergman's film.

As with many of Bergman's 1950s films, the initial critical reaction to The Seventh Seal in Sweden seems to have been mixed. But it was a major critical success overseas and won the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. The film is now seen as significant in helping to open up the US market in particular to foreign language films, probably because there was nothing else quite like it at the time. The Seventh Seal, and the films of Bergman more generally, became a central part of art house film culture, cinema clubs and academic film studies at this time.

In the decades since, The Seventh Seal has firmly established itself in the pantheon of classic cinema. Although not entirely representative of Bergman's work, it's still an excellent place for the uninitiated to begin. It's a fascinating and rewarding allegory that has lost none of its power. And its indelible imagery has succeeded in imprinting itself onto the cultural consciousness to a remarkable degree.

The Seventh Seal (Det Sjunde inseglet)

Year: 1957
Genre: Fantasy / Period Drama / Historical
Country: Sweden
Language: Swedish
Director: Ingmar Bergman

Cast Bengt Ekerot (Death), Max von Sydow (Antonius Block), Gunnar Björnstrand (Jöns, the squire), Nils Poppe (Jof, the jester), Bibi Andersson (Mia, Jof's wife), Inga Gill (Lisa, the blacksmith's wife), Maud Hansson (Witch), Inga Landgré (Karin, Block's wife), Gunnel Lindblom (Girl), Bertil Anderberg (Raval), Anders Ek (The monk), Åke Fridell (Plog, the blacksmith), Gunnar Olsson (Albertus Pictor, church painter), Erik Strandmark (Jonas Skat)

Screenplay Ingmar Bergman, based on his play Trämålning  Producer Allan Ekelund  Cinematography Gunnar Fischer  Art director  P. A. Lundgren  Editor Lennart Wallén  Music Erik Nordgren  Costume designer Manne Lindholm

Running time 96 mins (black & white)

Production company Svensk Filmindustri

* Quoted in The Passion of Ingmar Bergman, by Frank Gado


  1. One of your best reviews so far! Anyhow, you remind me that I need to re-watch (and rediscovered) some of Bergman's movies. BTW, happy to see that you mentioned The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey, a little gem!

    1. Yes, I really liked The Navigator, but it's not very well known which is a shame. I had high hopes for Vincent Ward, but I don't think he was ever the same after Alien 3! There are still a few Bergmans I need to see, particular his earlier ones.

    2. I liked Vincent Ward's Map of the Human Heart, but didn't care for What Dreams May Come. Yes, I thought he was going to be as famous as Peter Jackson...

      BTW, I think some of Bergman's 1950s movies are underrated. Loved "Sawdust and Tinsel" and "Summer with Monika." But yeah, I need to watch his early stuff (I did see Crisis, which I thought was just fine).

    3. You're probably right, they do tend to be overshadowed by the later films. I haven't seen Crisis or any of the 1940s ones. I assume they were not widely seen in English-speaking countries until much later, but I'm interested in seeing what they're like.


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