Det sjunde inseglet [The Seventh Seal]

A part of this view­ing list: Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion Spine #11: Ing­mar Bergman’s The Sev­enth Seal.

And when he had opened the sev­enth seal, there was silence in heav­en about the space of half an hour.
Rev. 8:1

There is lit­tle I can say about The Sev­enth Seal that has not been said before. I will say that I love the sound of Swedish and the way that I can almost under­stand it at times. I will say that I love the crys­tal cin­e­matog­ra­phy and the way the light­ing is near­ly its own char­ac­ter, so strong is its pres­ence on the screen. And I will talk a lit­tle about the motifs that I noticed this sec­ond time that I’ve watched the film.

Silence is the most notice­able theme, estab­lished quite ear­ly with the open­ing quo­ta­tion from the book of Rev­e­la­tion and then rein­forced when the appear­ance of Death mutes the sound of break­ers rolling onto the shore of Swe­den. It con­tin­ues, but is not present through the entire film. Bergman insists, at first at least, that silence says more than speech if you lis­ten cor­rect­ly. Wit­ness J?ns account of his inter­ac­tion with the corpse of a plague vic­tim:

Well, did he show you the way

Not exact­ly.

What did he say?


Was he a mute?

No, sir, I wouldn’t say that. As a mat­ter of fact, he was quite elo­quent.

The knight Anto­nius Block’s dis­re­gard for this silence or his squire’s smar­tass com­ments shows anoth­er sort of deaf­ness, to speak mixaphor­i­cal­ly, the inabil­i­ty to hear what is under one’s nose. J?ns is the truth-speak­er in the film, almost a Dos­to­evk­sian holy fool, except for the thick skin of cyn­i­cism that he has gained as a vet­er­an of ten years of cru­sad­ing. He has no illu­sions regard­ing the absur­di­ty of his exis­tence and thinks of reli­gion as noth­ing more than enter­tain­ing folk­lore.

But Block refus­es to give in to look into Nieztsche’s abyss. He seeks one sig­nif­i­cant act to make him feel as though his life has been worth some­thing. And even J?ns, for all his talk, doubts his own doubt. As this tur­moil builds with­in each char­ac­ter, the silence becomes less obvi­ous and sound takes a larg­er role. A storm is build­ing.

Enter Death! Even when Bengt Ekerot isn’t onscreen, the pres­ence and threat of death is nev­er far off. The moun­te­banks have a skull mask that is always hang­ing near­by, and shots are often framed so that the mask is look­ing over the shoul­der of the char­ac­ters. In Block’s most pas­toral scene, the din­ner of wild straw­ber­ries and milk at dusk, the mask of Death is at its liveli­est, the eyes seem alive as a sheet blows behind them.

A sim­i­lar pro­gres­sion as the one from silence to sound also takes place in terms of Death. Ear­ly in the film Death is to be respect­ed but feared, and the scenes where he is present are filled with a vivac­i­ty that even­tu­al­ly becomes Death’s province by the end of the film. The light­heart­ed scenes seem shal­low in the after­math of the plague-swept coun­try­side and the fear that dri­ves men to burn a girl for for­ni­ca­tion with the Dev­il. What Death offers becomes more and more appeal­ing, almost joy­ous to the per­ils of liv­ing.

Yet Block still seeks the one mer­i­to­rius act that will allow him to die at peace, even if his ques­tions remain unan­swered. He suc­ceeds, in a tran­scen­den­tal moment [fea­tur­ing my favorite shot, below] while play­ing chess with Death. He knows he has lost, but stalls long enough for the moun­te­bank fam­i­ly to escape. He has cheat­ed Death on oth­ers’ behalf, at the cost of his own life. Yet in some way, death is a reward involv­ing the sub­mis­sion of his own will to that of the inevitable.

In the final sequence, as Death makes them dance along the hill­side, it is inter­est­ing to see who is not in his train, J?ns girl and Block’s wife Karin are not includ­ed. I don’t know why, but I sus­pect it has some­thing to do with the fact that they were the most wel­com­ing of Death when he appeared.

This film is so ripe for exam­i­na­tion that I could go on for much longer, talk­ing about it as an alle­go­ry for the Cold War, as an exis­ten­tial­ist moral­i­ty play, as a film about deal­ing with reli­gious doubt and tons more. But I’ve writ­ten enough for today.

2 And I saw the sev­en angels which stood before God; and to them were giv­en sev­en trum­pets.

3 And anoth­er angel came and stood at the altar, hav­ing a gold­en censer; and there was giv­en unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all saints upon the gold­en altar which was before the throne.

4 And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascend­ed up before God out of the angel’s hand.

5 And the angel took the censer, and filled it with fire of the altar, and cast it into the earth: and there were voic­es, and thun­der­ings, and light­nings, and an earth­quake.
Rev. 8:2–5

Cri­te­ri­on Essay by Peter Cowie.
• Tons of good qual­i­ty stills here.
An undat­ed draft of the script at IMS­Db. The Cri­te­ri­on sub­ti­tling is supe­ri­or, in my opin­ion.
• Analy­sis of The Sev­enth Seal from Film & the Crit­i­cal Eye by Den­nis DeNit­to and William Her­man.
• YouTube film stu­dent reen­act­ment of a scene from the film. [I had to do one of these from a Steven Soder­bergh film]
The Cri­te­ri­on Contraption’s review.