Rewatching The Seventh Seal in a Pandemic

Jamie Linger

In the 6-furthermore many years since its unique release, the basic reception and crucial status of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal has ebbed and flowed like beating waves crashing in opposition to a rocky Swedish shore. While initially lambasted at house, the movie received the Particular Jury Prize at Cannes. […]

In the 6-furthermore many years since its unique release, the basic reception and crucial status of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal has ebbed and flowed like beating waves crashing in opposition to a rocky Swedish shore. While initially lambasted at house, the movie received the Particular Jury Prize at Cannes. Afterwards, Janus Films’ savvy marketing positioned Bergman at the centre of the intercontinental artwork-house phenomenon, and Bergman-the-auteur grew to become the brand of a world-wide motion. When Bergman’s art turned inward and the New Wave spread throughout many continents, The Seventh Seal became considerably less interesting to a generation of psychoanalytic and feminist critics. Nonetheless, it remained a staple of movie-college curricula, a supply of inspiration for a era of filmmakers, and a wealthy source of parody for hundreds of intelligent wags keen to lampoon its legendary imagery.

For a movie that has prolonged represented Bergman’s art—and arthouse cinema a lot more broadly—The Seventh Seal stands as a thing of an anomaly together with much of the director’s other operate. For 1 thing, it is way funnier even than most of his comedies, particularly for a movie that is largely marked by Loss of life. It is gentler, much too, even more-reaching and far more profound. It is also a little bit of a shape-shifter, with its elusive meanings evolving and mutating in excess of the decades. Rewatching in the course of our latest coronavirus pandemic lends fresh new new meanings to this primarily evergreen film, as The Seventh Seal asks viewers to ponder our faith, doubt, humility, and empathy in newly troubling situations.

Bergman designed The Seventh Seal from medieval artwork into a theatrical play, to start with carried out for radio broadcast and only afterwards reconceived for the cinema. Its plot is extremely very simple: a weary, disillusioned knight, Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) and his earthy squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) return from their 10 years-very long Holy War campaign to their native Sweden, where proof of the plague is omnipresent. Confronted on the shore by the literal personification of Death himself (Bengt Ekerot), the Knight famously worries him to a game of chess, hoping to get time: for as extensive as the game continues, Antonius will continue being alive and capable to request evidence of God’s existence.

Demise (Bengt Ekerot) confronts the weary Knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow).

As the Knight and Squire vacation, they come across a sweet young family—the eyesight-vulnerable juggler Jof (Nils Poppe), his spouse Mia (Bibi Andersson), and their infant son Mikael. Many others they meet contain their vainglorious actor good friend, a dullard blacksmith, his vixenish wife, a seminarist-turned-thief, a mute, an unnamed servant woman, and an imprisoned female suspected of witchcraft. The Knight’s desperation to affirm evidence of God’s existence coincides with his progressively determined place on the chessboard when Death’s victory appears specified, the Knight tries a rash act that he hopes will buy his buddies escape. As Demise statements Antonius and his mates, the youthful relatives is spared.

To describe the plot is to do The Seventh Seal a gentle injustice, of program. Its location may well be bleak and desolate, but the film is full of attraction and wit. Death’s portrayal as a black-garbed, chalk-confronted grim reaper may possibly have its root in historical legend, but Bergman and the actor Bengt Ekerot imbue the character with a morbid, trenchant wit. Demise harbors no ill will and usually takes to his fast paced operate with relish, regardless of whether parrying the Knight’s maneuvers or reducing down the actor Skat with a spate of perfectly-placed verbal jabs. When crossed, he rises to problem with a steely glare. Von Sydow’s Antonius Block may possibly be wracked with doubt, but his concerns are earnest. His squire Jöns receives off a number of excellent lines—and can be trustworthy in a dustup to consider motion, in distinction to the around-paralysis Antonius’ disaster of religion seems to engender in him.

In this image from The Seventh Seal, Jons (played by Gunnar Björnstrand) is depicted holding a plague victim's corpse.
The Black Demise is in all places, as the Squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) learns.

The film’s light grace and fantastic humor are shot with incredible dexterity by cinematographer Gunnar Fischer. Its imagery and compositions are remarkable, particularly given the film’s tiny budget and modest capturing agenda: all but two scenes were being shot at Råsunda Film Studios. Illustrations or photos of the cloudy sky, rocky seashore, chessboard at sunrise, or even a playful squirrel leaping atop a fallen tree stump—nearly every body of the movie feels prosperous and outstanding in its cinematography even today, and in particular in its most new remastering.

In this image from The Seventh Seal, a squirrel perches on a freshly-sawed tree stump.
Virtually every single impression in The Seventh Seal is framed with very careful composition and lights.

Of program, The Seventh Seal has always been among the Bergman’s most sprightly, humorous narratives and the most handsomely shot. Had been it for those attributes alone, the film may well be known only as a quaint medieval time period piece, an experimental one-off for a director regarded initially for the sequence of thrillers, comedies, and romances he directed beforehand. The Seventh Seal, nevertheless, was equipped to pose some of the most abstract—and compelling—questions of any cinema. Its timing was canny. A decade following the conclusion of Earth War II, introduced about in component by the use of atomic weaponry that experienced the electric power to lay squander to civilization, The Seventh Seal asked its viewers how to cope with a planet that could stop, and close difficult. Would they reply with religion? Doubt? Grace? Treachery? Blame? Concern?

Not compared with how genre movies of the decade—films as numerous as Godzilla, Night time of the Hunter, The Conclusion of the Affair, and Kiss Me Deadly—read through as ruminations on the pretty serious outcomes of atomic devastation, The Seventh Seal too took on its this means as a consequence of the incredibly real worries its present-day viewers confronted in the wake of the Chilly War arms race of the 1960s and its apocalyptic assure of mutually assured destruction. For the hundreds of countless numbers of viewers of that decade who entered the cinema asking yourself how their globe would conclusion, Bergman’s film showed them a established of circumstances that, in spite of their transpiring some six centuries previously, informed their present-day situation.

The film’s depiction of the Black Loss of life, the plague that ravaged a great deal of Eurasia and Africa, offered fewer a rigorously historic research of a pandemic than an celebration for ruminating on the ways a present-day earth may possibly end. In an era of always-escalating nuclear armament, the fear of a 3rd Earth War, most likely a person brought about by religious persecution or international hostilities, could not assist but notify viewers of The Seventh Seal. Some years afterwards, the scourge of AIDS would escalate to choose the lives of hundreds of 1000’s, and that epidemic would instill anxiety in LGBTQ+ communities and provoke fearmongering from the spiritual suitable. Then far too, the church mostly held that that plague was despatched by God to punish these it condemned as sinners. With each individual nuclear threat or viral outbreak, The Seventh Seal took on new meanings.

I have rewatched The Seventh Seal many moments Above the earlier number of many years, and in no way has it seemed so related as it does right now. The entire world has battled the coronavirus pandemic for extra than a year, and as in Bergman’s tale, death once more is having its toll. As of this minute COVID-19 has brought on in excess of 4 million fatalities and counting, with the Delta variant spiking circumstance numbers, vaccination charges stalling, and public-wellbeing mandates challenged, rebuked, and disregarded. In The Seventh Seal, Bergman’s figures journey with trepidation, their grasp of their situation tenuous and partial, relying on lore and suspicion to secure them from what they comprehend to be God’s will—or, perhaps, his vengeance. Are we, nowadays, that diverse?

In this image from The Seventh Seal, the Albertus Pictor, the church painter (Gunnar Olsson) and the Squire Jons (Gunnar Björnstrand) observe a mural depicting the victims of the Black Death's victims.
Albertus Pictor, the church painter (Gunnar Olsson), recounts the ugly signs or symptoms of the Black Death’s victims as Jöns listens.

The Black Dying was the most fatal pandemic in human background, ensuing in in between 75 and 200 million fatalities, most in Europe in the center of the 14th century. Nevertheless debated currently, its suggests of transmission was not known at the time, generations right before early general public overall health professionals like John Snow taught the importance of straightforward preventive measures like handwashing. Bergman’s characters fear both its transmission and its signs and symptoms, depicted in portion by the church painter recounting victims’ pustulous abscesses, limbs knotting in frenzy, tearing at boils, scratching veins, and agonizing screams.

The Black Demise indeed was brutal. Victims suffered acral gangrene, inguinal buboes, serious pain, bloody tumors, and agonizing vomiting—and dying in times. Only many thanks to the get the job done of officers to quarantine new port arrivals, a first stage in what is today a frequent exercise to prevent contagion, did the plague eventually abate. In Bergman, people turn to prayer in the absence of science: Block petitions his lord for proof of existence, monks incarcerate and burn suspected witches, and parades of flagellants punish themselves searching for their god’s forgiveness.

In this image from The Seventh Seal, a suspected witch (Maud Hansson) is depicted being burned on a pyre.
Keen to blame others for the plague, monks burn off a suspected witch (Maud Hansson) on a pyre.

It might be pleasant to feel that in the 7 hundreds of years amongst Bergman’s location and our have times, humanity has progressed. All through the pandemic, each and every workday, errand, and interaction results in being an workout in risk administration, a virtual chess video game of types. Some have been in a position to physical exercise free of charge will in that selection-producing, other people compelled to do the job even in parts and times of high transmission. Others not only flout straightforward public health and fitness measures but hector these with the temerity to stick to them. Unlike a lot of now, Bergman’s Knight at the very least understands that his actions might have outcomes that influence other folks past himself for all his inward, isolating self-doubt, Antonius Block is nonetheless a person who hopes his lifetime and get the job done have indicating, who arrives to find out his possess desires might be of fewer importance than the welfare of other people.

Even though scientists, scientists, and governing administration entities raced to produce a established of remarkably successful vaccines, the hesitancy of a portion of the populace has permitted variants to escalate and stop herd immunity. Politicians and activists have sowed question above the efficacy of the easiest of general public-wellness steps, and some pastors have misled their congregations. If in The Seventh Seal any rational viewer can register the futility of burning an accused witch at the stake for her supposed unfold of the illness, it’s disheartening to see a up to date frozen-meals heir turned television temperament declare to his an audience of over 50 percent a million viewers that the U.S. government’s top community wellness authority pretty much “aided develop COVID.”

That form of rhetoric isn’t also much from Bergman’s vile monk spewing hatred at those people not in his thrall. Whilst it is a specifically egregious illustration, it is barely the only instance of individuals who would abuse their influence, blame other people, or even willfully distribute the disorder by virtue (or absence thereof) of their behaviors.

In this image from The Seventh Seal, a monk (played by Anders Ek) addresses an audience as Jof and MIa listen in costume from their stage alongside an effigy of Christ on the cross.
A sanctimonious monk (Anders Ek) assails his viewers of nonbelievers.

Apart from Bergman’s principal characters—the Knight, his Squire, Jof and his loved ones, and the literal and enigmatic personification of Demise who follows them—his humanity is largely a sorry large amount. Skat the actor cares only about his gastric and sexual success. Raval the seminarian led countless numbers astray in a futile trigger and now scavenges others’ prosperity. Lisa is swift to abandon her husband for a couple times of pleasure, though her husband Plog is also uninteresting to system her duplicity. Their spiritual leaders can only threaten and vilify nonbelievers with the scourge of the plague. The nameless flagellants have nothing at all to offer you other than their personal misguided penitence just before Lennart Wallén’s edit dissolves them into dust. In the 21st century, blessed with the development of science, has humanity figured out to aspire to something better than basic gratification of urges? To resist the rhetoric of people twisting the real truth for their very own acquire? To serve their religion with out the condemnation and vilification of other people?

In this image from The Seventh Seal, a procession of flagellants is depicted in a long shot from a high angle.
The procession of penitent flagellants dissolves into dust.

It’s outstanding that in his 14th-century location, Bergman makes what to me is in the long run a mostly affirmative movie. Just after the failure of his main strategy—a mix of the bishop and knight, as if his prolonged and unsuccessful experience in the Crusades had not still illustrated the folly of marrying faith and military—Block’s is a desperate gambit to reset the chessboard. That ploy might not alter the training course of his recreation with Death, but it is just achievable that carrying out so buys Jof and Mia the time they have to have to escape. The act might not be the tangible evidence of God’s existence he at first sought, but in the family’s uncomplicated communion The Knight noticed a appreciate and faith well worth preserving. Even in a movie where by loss of life (Loss of life) is everywhere you go and omnipresent, the place the great deal of humanity may not appear to be well worth battling for, lifetime is continue to value living and faith value searching for.

Mine is admittedly a charitable interpretation of the events of The Seventh Seal. It is by no usually means universally held. Bergman’s placing is a bleak one—its plague unyielding, Dying relentless, and even the most virtuous of figures powerless. But then, I confess I’ve constantly been charmed by its gentle humor, amazing cinematography, and participating performances. At the very least twice a year for about three many years, I have discovered in The Seventh Seal not just the apotheosis of international arthouse cinema the film seemed in cultural circles to ossify as, but alternatively a perpetually astonishing, intellectually confounding, and morally uplifting movie compared with any other I’ve at any time observed.

In this image from The Seventh Seal, Death is depicted leading his six victims in a dance along the hillside.
Jof’s ultimate eyesight has Demise leading his victims in a dance together the hillside.

That characterization includes the the greater part of Bergman’s other get the job done, particularly people that preceded The Seventh Seal. Even though his movies generally featured the same crew and quite a few of the very same forged, with Björnstrand in particular the pillar of his stock firm, nothing at all in the director’s before oeuvre matched the ambition, scope, reach, or wit of The Seventh Seal. Some historians pounced on its historical infidelities, as witch-burnings and processions of flagellants were almost nonexistent in the 14th century he depicts, but for that make any difference, we never know either that a black-garbed, bald-pated, chalk-faced, trash-talking Loss of life roamed the countryside taunting plague victims or flexing his chess activity, either. The Seventh Seal was not meant to be literal.

In its place, its meanings do the job still greatest allegorically. At a single time the most pressing interpretation was the conflict concerning existentiality and Christianity in a time of prospective nuclear Armageddon. Many years afterwards, the AIDS epidemic that would claim above 36 million lives introduced the film into sharp relief for a new era of viewers. These days, it might be extremely hard to look at The Seventh Seal with out thought of the coronavirus pandemic and humanity’s scattershot, ineffective response to its requires. I may perhaps not myself have the wherewithal to redirect our response to the current pandemic, but when Dying is all all-around, I can change to The Seventh Seal yet again and yet again for a starkly prescient and deeply resonant treatise on the which means of lifestyle.

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