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Classics Corner: The Seventh Seal (1957)

When you think of film recommendations, most of the time they are not Swedish films. But my contributions here are not only meant to focus on classics in general, but also to introduce films that are located outside of the known studios and production countries.

The seventh seal, or “Det sjunde inseglet” as it is called in the original, is such a film. It is a drama shot in black and white from the year 1957 and is a mystery play set in the late Middle Ages. Ingmar Bergman was, in addition to his role as director, also the screenwriter and his film won awards like at the Cannes International Film Festival.

The film is about the knight Antonius Block (played by Max von Sydow), who returns from the Holy Land after the crusade and finds his home devastated by the plague. Death (played by Bengt Ekerot) appears to him at sunrise with the message that his time has come. Block proposes a game of chess to Death, in which the decision about his life will be made. As long as the game is not decided, he is granted a respite, if he wins, he is to be spared. Block wants to use the time to find a meaning in his existence and to receive a sign for the existence of God. His squire Jöns (played by Gunnar Björnstrand), a rather pragmatic character, usually has nothing but mockery for his environment, who does not even stop at his master. During the course of the film, Block continues the journey to his estate, where, as he hopes, his wife (played by Inga Landgré), whom he has not seen for years, is waiting for him. In a chapel he confesses to a priest, to whom he tells about his chess game with death and his playing strategy. The priest turns out to be the Death, who arranges a reunion with Block to continue the game.

If this plot doesn’t make you want to watch the movie, there’s probably no helping it. The film was not only received very positively nationally and internationally at its release, but most people will surely still like it today. Especially the age of the film adds to its special charm in my opinion. The work of Bergman can’t be described by me as anything but brilliant. He makes the world drawn by the pestilence tangible for the viewer and generally depicts an authentic world.

It can be said that the acting performance is outstanding throughout. Nevertheless, the wonderful acting of the two protagonists Max von Sydow and Bengt Ekerot should be particularly emphasized at this point. To see the interplay of both characters is a pleasure to watch and is a pleasure that doesn’t work as well in many movies as in this one.

This excellent performance is supported by very fitting and well staged shots and cuts. It is no coincidence that the film as an overall concept has been so often described by contemporary critics as a work of art. The music also contributes to this, and the film is skilfully underlined.

In my opinion, there is so much more to the film than just its entertainment value. In his foreword to the script’s book publication, Bergman emphasized that the film is not an attempt to paint a realistic picture of Sweden in the Middle Ages, but “an attempt at modern poetry that translates the life experiences of a modern man into a form that deals very freely with medieval realities. And it is precisely this poetry with its symbolism, clever allusions and allusions that is a real joy and which, when watching the film several times, allows us to discover more and more of its depth. In my view, as an accurate historian, this also allows one to overlook the fact that some of the depictions have anachronisms. For all friends of the Middle Ages and historical films nothing is lost. On the contrary, it makes me long for new film adaptations from the time.

The film also resulted in some parodies, among which „Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey“ from 1991 is counted.

Overall, I would like to agree with the verdict of the US critic Andrew Sarris, who described the film “The Seventh Seal” as an “existentialist masterpiece”. It is a dark and profound film that fits perfectly to the winter time and works incredibly well until today.

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