A medieval Scandinavian plays chess with Death. You're probably familiar with that image (or at least its description), and film buffs know it comes from Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal. But what's the big deal with the Seal? Why has it become an icon among foreign films? Let us head to Nordic lands and investigate. Pack your umlauts!
The praise: The Seventh Seal won a Special Jury Prize and was nominated for the Palm D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1957. It didn't play in American theaters until almost 18 months later -- if you think it's hard to find foreign films in U.S. cinemas today, you should have seen what it was like in 1958 -- but when it did, it earned nearly universal acclaim from critics. Scan the Rotten Tomatoes page for the film and you'll find the words "masterpiece" and "greatest" thrown around a lot. Bergman is widely considered one of the world's best filmmakers, and The Seventh Seal is always cited as one of his best films. Among IMDb.com users, The Seventh Seal is ranked 115th among the best films ever made, 17th among foreign language films.
The context: Before World War II, foreign films were not exhibited much in the United States, largely because Hollywood was crankin' out enough product on its own and didn't need outside help, thank you very much. But in the 1950s, a new class of filmgoer arose who was college-educated and had some interest in foreign culture, including many veterans who'd spent time in Europe (albeit at war, not sightseeing) and had gone to school on the GI Bill. Basically, America began to expand its cultural horizons.
Meanwhile, U.S. distributors saw financial reasons to import foreign films. They were cheaper to book than Hollywood productions, so smaller theaters in big cities and college towns could stay afloat by showing subtitled flicks and targeting the local intelligentsia. Foreign films became a booming niche market. According to Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell's Film History: An Introduction, there were fewer than 100 so-called "art-house theaters" in America in 1950, but more than 600 of them a decade and a half later. Reflecting this trend, the Academy Awards added a permanent category for Best Foreign Language Film at the 1957 ceremony (honoring films from 1956); previously, special non-competitive awards had been given.
The Seventh Seal was eligible for the Oscar in the second year of the category's existence, though it didn't win, and in fact wasn't even nominated. It hadn't played in the United States yet, so the only Americans who'd seen it (apart from Cannes attendees) were the voters in the Academy's foreign language committee, who still have a reputation, 50 years later, for contradicting the tastes not just of the rest of the Academy but of moviegoers in general. (The film that won the category that year, Fellini's Nights of Cabiria, is essentially forgotten now.)
When The Seventh Seal opened in New York City, seven months after the Oscar ceremony, it was greeted with enthusiasm by New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, who had the sort of name you would make up if you were inventing a fictional movie critic. Crowther called the film "a piercing and powerful contemplation of the passage of man upon this earth. Essentially intellectual, yet emotionally stimulating, too, it is as tough -- and rewarding -- a screen challenge as the moviegoer has had to face this year."
Bergman's film is set in the midst of the Bubonic Plague that ravaged Europe in the 1300s, which is why (or partly why) the film is all about man's fear of death. Americans in 1958 were living under a different but just as fearsome threat: nuclear annihilation. The Cold War was in full swing. Perhaps the parallel worries in The Seventh Seal resonated with viewers.
The movie: A knight by the name of Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) returns from the Crusades with his cynical squire, Jöns (Nils Poppe), to his native Sweden, only to find things in a state of Plague-induced chaos. People are dying, and those who aren't dying are terrified of dying. Religious fanaticism has increased. The knight has just spent 10 years hanging out with death anyway -- that's sorta what the Crusades were all about -- so the subject weighs heavily on his mind. Then Death (Bengt Ekerot) shows up to claim the knight, and the knight offers to play a game of chess, his own soul as the stakes.
What it influenced: One thing The Seventh Seal greatly influenced was Bergman's own career. It was with this film -- his 18th -- that American audiences discovered him, and it led to a decade of tremendous international successes. This film didn't win the foreign language Oscar, but three of Bergman's subsequent efforts did. It's likely that Bergman would have become a household name sooner or later even if The Seventh Seal had slipped through the cracks, but the fact remains that this is the one that got the ball rolling. It was also the first Bergman film to examine the relationship between man and God, something that would preoccupy the director for most of his career.
Ingmar Bergman is, along with Federico Fellini, what many casual moviegoers think of when they hear the words "foreign film," and The Seventh Seal is Berman's most recognizable product. Therefore, the stereotypical foreign film looks a lot like this one: stark, black-and-white, ponderous, and mildly surreal. As with most stereotypes, there's plenty of truth in there -- a lot of foreign movies are like that -- but you'll note that none of those qualities are necessarily bad. It was European filmmakers' willingness to be offbeat and weird that gave Hollywood types like David Lynch the courage to do it, too. Woody Allen, Robert Altman, Stanley Kubrick, and Ang Lee are all on the record calling Bergman one of their major influences.
Overt references to The Seventh Seal are most commonly found in the form of parody, and it's almost always one particular idea: playing chess with Death. You make a serious movie featuring a pasty-faced actor in a black robe and hood personifying Death, you're gonna get made fun of. Having your protagonist play a board game against the Grim Reaper only increases the chances. The title characters in Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey play several games with Death, and 500 Days of Summer has Joseph Gordon-Levitt imagining himself in the film. (See what I mean about this being your stereotypical "foreign film"?) Monty Python's Meaning of Life re-creates the scene where Death shows up at a homecoming dinner. The Last Action Hero has Death walking out of a theater where The Seventh Seal is playing. Countless jokes have been made about playing chess with death, and Stephen Colbert uses a Seventh Seal-referencing graphic for his "Cheating Death" segment.
But these parodies and jokes just go to show how potent the metaphor is. All of our lives are simply an ongoing chess match against Death ... and Death always wins in the end. Bergman didn't originate the metaphor -- he got it from a medieval painting by Swedish artist Albertus Pictor -- but he's certainly the one who made it iconic. In chess, it doesn't matter how many pieces you have on the board. You can win even if your king and one other piece are all you have left. In that sense, the game is not "fair." Brute strength plays no part. There is strategy involved, and we can only stave off Death for so long before he finally outsmarts us. Death is kind of a bastard that way.
What to look for: The chess game starts early in the film, but it continues throughout it, apparently the same game played over the course of the movie. Don't look for it to reflect reality. Death doesn't show up with the game board and the pieces and say, "Hey, wanna pick up where we left off?" He just materializes now and then, and he and the knight continue, as if it were the most normal thing in the world.
That should be a clue that this is an allegory. Nothing in the film should be taken literally, and certainly not as historically accurate. Europe was indeed hit with the Bubonic Plague in the mid-14th century, but a Crusader wouldn't have come home to find it ravaging his village unless he traveled very slowly: the last Crusade had ended some 70 years earlier. The business with the accused witch is a little anachronistic, too, as that sort of thing didn't really begin in earnest until the 15th century.
The title refers to a line in the biblical book of Revelation, chapter 8, verse 1, quoted twice in the film: "And when the Lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour." The movie's all about that "silence in heaven," i.e., the fact that we're supposed to have faith in a God who stubbornly refuses to prove that he exists. This was Bergman's lifelong struggle -- his father was a stern Lutheran minister -- and the theme of many of his films.
Bergman had a long career in the theater, so it's no surprise that there are Shakespearean undertones in The Seventh Seal, with plenty of cuckolds, fools, comic relief (even the tragedies have it), and soliloquies. A troupe of actors mention that they're heading for Elsinore, which is where Hamlet -- which also features a troupe of traveling actors -- is set. The knight is reminiscent of the Great Dane himself, what with his existential angst, and his questioning the meaning of life when it always ends in death anyway, and his to-be-or-not-to-be-ing.
Yet while the film is all about death, it's also about the things we do to divert ourselves from thinking about death, and as such has some pleasant lighter moments. The knight meets a young couple named Jof and Mia -- translated in English as Joseph and Mary -- who have a little boy. The family represents purity and innocence, complete freedom from worrying about the perils of mortality. The knight spends a happy afternoon with them on a picnic, temporarily distracted from his own doubts and fears.
What's the big deal: Plenty of movies have deaths in them, but how many are actually about death? Very few -- in fact, the films with the most deaths are usually the ones that treat the subject the most lightly. (Millions of people die in 2012, but no one is mourned.) The Seventh Seal talks about death in great detail, and also treads into even more taboo territory: the existence of God, and the burden of faith. It is uncommon for a movie to deal with any of this, and more uncommon still to do it eloquently and artfully.
Roger Ebert's "Great Movies" essay.
The Onion AV Club's Zack Handlen gives a frank appraisal of the film from the perspective of a young person who'd never seen it before.
A dissenting view of the film's merits from Eric Henderson at the oft-dissenting Slant Magazine.
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Eric D. Snider (website) gets The Seventh Seal mixed up with The Seventh Samurai and The Sixth Sense.