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.