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Middle Ages: Antonius Blok, a Swedish knight, returns from the Crusades
to find his country dying of the plague, religious fundamentalists taking
over and Death himself wanting him to come along. Antonius challenges
to a game of chess and is meanwhile driven to desperation because of the
absence of God. This description sounds like a very serious, philosophical
and dour film, and actually it is serious, philosophical and dour; but
is also a little warmth, hope and humor, maybe not for Antonius, but for
When Blok and Death interrupt their game of chess (due to the plague, Death is very busy), he meets two actors, Jof and Mia, with their little son, the most human characters of the film, and I don't think it's a coincidence that there names sound very much like Joseph and Mary. These people may be a little dim, but they are good at heart and you can see the happiness in Antonius' eyes when he is together with them for the first time.
But the main aspect of Ingmar Bergman's arguably best film are Antonius Blok's grim encounters, as the young girl about to be burnt at the stake, as a scapegoat for the plague. And the haunting image of a huge crowd of flagellants interrupting a play of Jof and Mia and trying to convince the crowd thery are doomed; hardly any other film is that direct in asking controversial and essential questions about God, religion and mankind as The Seventh Seal.
Another reason for the impact this almost 50-year-old film has still today is the acting: Max von Sydow's face always seems to reflect what Antonius Blok is thinking, Nils Poppe's performance as the naive actor and caring father is priceless and Bengt Ekerot's Death became a part of film history and survived all its spoofs (the best one being in Woody Allen's tremendously funny "Love and Death"). But the best performance is done by Gunnar Björnstrand as Antonios Blok's misogynist squire, dryly commenting all their encounters even in the face of death.
The Seventh Seal is not subtle in raising it's questions, that's for sure. But it makes you think about these questions nevertheless. It's disturbing and grim most of the time, but at the end it gives you the hope that it might become better.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
In the magnificent 1957 classic The Seventh Seal by Ingmar Bergman, Antonius
Block (Max Von Sydow), a knight returning home from the Crusades with his
squire Jöns (Gunnar Bjönstrand) meets Death (Benkt Ekerot) on a lonely beach
and challenges him to a game of chess. If he wins, he lives. While the game
goes on, he gets a reprieve. It is the 14th century and suffering and pain
abound. Penitents flog themselves, seminarians rob the dead, people go mad
from fear, and witches are burned at the stake. It is the time of the Black
Plague and Death has his hands full. As in the Greek legend of Kronos and
medieval folklore, Bergman depicts Death as the Grim Reaper, a man clothed
from head to foot in a black habit and hood. In The Seventh Seal, however,
Death is not frightening or sinister, just an old man performing his job
with a wry detachment.
The film opens and closes with the passage from Revelation from which it takes its title: `When he broke open the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour' (Rev 8:1). Bergman's message, however, is more about the silence of God on earth than in heaven. Block is tormented by the fact that God will not outwardly reveal himself. He says to a priest during confession, `I want God to stretch out his hand to me, reveal himself and speak to me. But he remains silent, I call out to Him in the dark but no one seems to be there". But Block still senses the God within him and is tormented. "Why can't I kill God within me?" he asks. "Why does he live on inside me, mocking and tormenting me till I have no rest, even though I curse him and try to tear him from my heart' Block asks Death if he knows anything but he knows nothing. He even asks a woman being taken to the stake if he can see the Devil so that he can ask him about God but all she says is to look into her eyes.
The Seventh Seal is not all heavy "significance", however. It has a good story with believable characters, wonderful performances, lots of comic relief and moves easily from drama to comedy as in the great Shakespearean plays. We meet an actor named Jof (Nils Poppe), his wife Mia (Bibi Andersson), and their infant son Mikael. Block looks with envy on the simple love of this family for their child. Both Jof and Block see visions of the spiritual world but Jof's visions are life affirming whereas Block sees only reflections of darkness. The film has unforgettable images such as a hawk floating in a cloudless sky, two horses standing in the surf, Jof's vision of the Virgin Mary caring for her child, and a frightening procession of plague-infected flagellants.
Perhaps too melodramatic for modern viewers (it has been parodied), The Seventh Seal still touches a universal longing deep within us. Some view the film as a complete denial of God, but it seems that God does show his face -- only Block and his squire cannot see it. It is there in the wild strawberries, the fun of watching a troupe of players perform, the innocence of the little boy, the eyes of the young lovers, and the haunting visions of Jof. The film ends on a note of affirmation including one of the most memorable scenes in the history of cinema, the Danse Macabre, the Totentanz -- a string of silhouetted figures dancing in a line with arms outstretched as they are about to enter the unknown. In the magnificence of his vision and the timeless beauty of his art, Bergman has answered the question about God's existence simply in the act of posing it.
The mysteries of religion and death have long been a popular focus among
artists of all media, including film. And while many films question these
mysteries, they seldom provide any real insight into the world of the
unknown. In Ingmar Bergman's THE SEVENTH SEAL, these mysteries are not only
questioned; they are dissected, splayed, and scrutinized.
THE SEVENTH SEAL could very well serve as sort of a manifesto for existentialism. Its deep acuity and haunting imagery is powerful enough to jar even passive viewers out of their complacency and force them to examine their own reality. The delicately crafted story centers around a 14th century knight named Antonius Block and his ongoing game of chess with a shadowy, hooded figure: Death. Bergman uses this allegory not just to personify death, but to illustrate the lengths man will go to in order to avoid it. In the end, however, Death is a much better player than any of us, and though he may humor some of his opponents by letting them think that they have the advantage, the end result is inevitable: Death always wins. No matter how skillfully we plan our moves or how determined we are to win, we can never beat Death.
In Antonius's search for answers, he encounters a variety of very unique characters, each with their own outlook on life, death, faith, fear and love. Their commentary on such matters is often dryly funny and always brilliant, continuously and effectively challenging our perceptions of the world around us. For me, the dialogue was definitely the high point of the film, as it was extremely thought-provoking and carefully constructed throughout. Almost every line spoken is, in one way or another, daunting and unforgettable. Jöns's description of love as "the blackest of all plagues" is a quote that will forever be engraved in my mind.
THE SEVENTH SEAL truly is a remarkable accomplishment in the world of cinema. It is a deep, mesmerizing, and darkly beautiful work of art. More importantly, THE SEVENTH SEAL is one of those rare movies that doesn't just entertain, but also has the power to change the way one thinks.
Antonius Block - "Who are you?" Death - "I am Death." Antonius Block -
"Have you come for me?" Death - "I have long walked by your side."
Antonius Block - "So I have noticed."
The Seventh Seal, considered by some to be Ingmar Bergman's greatest achievement, is the desperate prayer of a sensitive, introspective, and insightful young man confused by the horrors of the world around him. Ingmar Bergman's films are often very deep, full of symbolism, philosophy, spirituality, emotion, and thought. The Seventh Seal is classic Bergman. Expressing his fear of life with no meaning, death with no understanding, and faith with no validity, Ingmar Bergman takes us deep into the well of his mind.
As the Black Plague ravages the world, a Antonius Block and his squire, Jons (Max Von Sydow and Gunnar Bjornstrand, respectively), return from fighting in the Crusades. They find their homeland devastated by the plague, their countrymen mad with fear, and their cause lost. Antonius Block is confronted by Death (Bengt Ekerot). Block challenges Death to a game of chess to provide him time to seek answers to the questions that plague his mind as Death has plagued his country. Death accepts, knowing that Block cannot escape his fate, and the two begin their game. As the story continues, Block and Jons meet with several testaments to the agony that the Black Death has brought upon their land. They find a young girl who is to be burned at the stake for having been with the Devil. They find madness in the eyes of all they meet, as everyone is convinced that God is angry and is punishing the world with the plague. They also find a small group of travelling actors, who appear to be the only souls to have remained sane in the midst of all of the death and fear. Block and Jons move across the countryside in the hopes of finding safety in Block's castle, but Death is always around the corner, biding his time.
Brilliantly conceived, and stunningly executed, Bergman's vision is brought to the screen through Gunnar Fischer's powerful cinematography creating images that will likely remain with you for the rest of your life. Strong performances from everyone involved bring humanity to the film. Max Von Sydow's brave and conflicted Antonius Block matching wits with Bengt Ekerot's sinister, omnipotent Death is a microcosm of the forces at work in this breath-taking interpretation of the mortal struggle.
'The Seventh Seal' is universally regarded as a masterpiece. It's one of those classics like 'Citizen Kane', 'Rear Window' or 'The Godfather' that has subtlety entered popular culture, so even if you haven't actually seen it you recognize references to it in other movies, TV, magazines and everyday conversation. The thing is like the aforementioned and 'Rashomon' and 'Sunset Blvd' it isn't regarded as a masterpiece for nothing, it really is one. I think anybody who loves movies will be totally knocked out by 'The Seventh Seal'. It's still one of the most extraordinary movies ever made. Visually it's stunning, the acting is first rate, and the end result is mesmerizing. Once seen never forgotten is a cliche, but it's the perfect description for this amazing film. Max von Sydow brilliantly plays Antonius Block, a knight returning from the Crusades who challenges Death (Bengt Ekerot) to a chess match. He is accompanied on his journey home by his cynical squire Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand). Jons is my favourite character in the movie, and as good as von Sydow is Bjornstrand's performance is even better. I also was very taken by the traveling actors who become part of Block's entourage, Jof (Nils Poppe) and his wife Mia (Bibi Andersson), and confess to developing quite a crush on Mia. I cannot recommend 'The Seventh Seal' highly enough. Don't be put off by Bergman's highbrow reputation, this is a movie that can be appreciated by anybody, especially by old school horror fans. While it isn't strictly a horror movie itself anyone who admires the James Whale and Val Lewton classics of the 1930s and 1940s will find much to enjoy here.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The story of Antonius Block is the story of an agnostic who has begun to
Is life really meaningless? Is the only true ethic of life, to simply enjoy the moment? If God is there, why does he not answer? Why does he leave men with kind hearts and noble aspirations to fumble in the dark dying of the plague with no answers? Perhaps, Antonius reasons, the answers only come from Death.
No wonder then, that as Death approaches him, he cajoles the spirit to play a game with him. His intentions are to win, but most importantly, to find answers.
The little I know of Bergman's youth, the Paladin (Antonius Block) seems to symbolize Bergman's last struggles with his strict religious instruction as a child. Antonius' struggles, Antonius' angst, Antonius' withering agnosticism is a reflection of where Bergman was philosophically at this early stage in his life and career.
The climax of the film is of course the final 'duel' with Death. Antonius attempts to cheat death and in the end, death cheats him. This is an especially crushing defeat for Antonius, because the answers Death gives him, about the knowledge within Death itself, is Antonius' worst fears come true.
It struck me, that in the final moments, when each character faces there own mortality right in front of them, that the strongest and purest reaction of them all, is the one from the squire, the atheist voice in the film. I think if you are an atheist, this film is going to please you, because clearly the sanest characters in this film are either indifferent or deny God's existence entirely.
Whether it was intentional or not, I think Seventh Seal is a very personal film. Bergman deconstructs his father's teachings to us openly. There's nothing sublime here; this is a clear rejection of religion and the notion that death somehow provides 'answers'. The only answers, according to this film, lie in life and not death. A message Bergman delivers to us in striking fashion. A message Bergman knows directly contradicts what he was taught as a child.
I think this is why later in life, Bergman disowned this film. I think he saw too clearly, how much of a very personal statement it was and how in some cases it was a vindictive film against his parents. It's why I believe, Bergman, couldn't stand to watch it later in life, after he had reconciled with his parents.
While Bergman disowned it, for the rest of us, we can admire it. For us, the Seventh Seal is simple genius. A dark, but beautiful film, that is pure and meaningful, because it is so very personal.
I confess, I am a layman and I know little of Bergman's work and indeed have only seen this film once. But, I loved this film. It struck a very personal reaction in me, however uninformed that reaction might be. That reaction, pure and simple is that this movie is a very personal statement about life, God and death.
A compelling contemplation of death and the nature of Man's existence, Ingmar Bergman's `The Seventh Seal' is uncompromising, riveting drama that is every bit as striking conceptually as it is philosophically. In the Fourteenth Century a knight, Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), and his squire, Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand), have returned after ten years away at the Crusades to their native Sweden, and are beginning their journey home. For Block, it is a pensive time; he is troubled by what he perceives as God's silence, and thirsts for knowledge and some meaning to his life, as well as a resolution of faith, which has deserted him. Jons, meanwhile, is a study in jaded indifference, who believes in nothing beyond the present and whatever his senses and current circumstances dictate. Shortly after their arrival on the coast of Sweden, Death (Bengt Ekerot) comes for Block. But Block strikes a bargain with him, challenging him to a game of chess, to be played as they continue on with their journey. As long as Block prevails, they will go on; if he wins, he will be released. And though Block knows what the outcome must inevitably be, he welcomes Death's acceptance of his challenge, for the game affords him perhaps enough time to fulfill his quest, while adding purpose to what promises to be an arduous trek through a land being ravaged by the Black Plague. Von Sydow brings a commanding presence to the screen as Block, his very countenance bespeaking strength and poise. His subtle, stoic approach to this enigmatic character is captivating, and lends a depth and dignity that makes Block truly memorable. By contrast, Jons' strength seems born of his indifference; he takes things as they come, and is governed by a somewhat fatalistic philosophy. Bjornstrand, a gifted, eloquent actor (and veteran of numerous Bergman films), invests an earthy, gritty quality to Jons that plays effectively opposite von Sydow's more ethereal portrayal of Block. It is significant that in the closing scene the final speech, in the presence of Death, is accorded to Jons; for it elevates the character to a station equal to, if not surpassing, that of the protagonist, Block. The supporting cast includes Nils Poppe (Jof), Bibi Andersson (Mia), Inga Gill (Lisa), Gunnel Lindblom (Girl), Anders Ek (The Monk), Ake Fridell (Plog) and Erik Strandmark (Skat). Written and directed by Bergman, `The Seventh Seal' is a thought provoking, earnest meditation on faith and mortality that is filled with stunning metaphoric and visual images that will forever be indelibly inscribed in your memory. One scene in particular, in which the players link hands and, silhouetted against a twilight sky are led by Death in a dance across the crest of a distant hill, is breathtaking in it's simplicity. It stands (as does this entire film) as an example of why Ingmar Bergman is one of the greatest directors in the history of the cinema. I rate this one 10/10.
One thing that can be certain after watching the Seventh Seal, outside of
being thankful for living in this century, is that Bergman knows his
film-making- and imagery. He uses subliminal and not so subliminal
techniques to convey a dying, frightened world, where making a living is
almost impossible and the debate of god's control over life is discussed
like un-rhyming yet fascinating poetry.
The result is beautiful cinema, capturing the always foreboding fear and allure of the almighty and for the waiting death, appropriately staged in post-crusades, mid dark age Europe. Max Von Sydow gives an excellent showing as the opponent of Death (in a clever and meticulous chess game), yet the character of Death, played by Bengt Ekerot with chilling conviction, steals the show, if only for the alluring quality of the character.
Even if the story veers it veers in good and interesting territory, focusing on people who convey Bergman's point and or style. I can't reveal what the bottom line point is (many newcomers to Bergman's work won't either, especially if you're not in the mood for soul searching), but one thing is for certain, an allegory on life and death is shown perfectly in the second to last shot of the reaper and his minions following in a dance across the field. This is one of the most pure of cinema's masterpieces and certainly Bergman's best cine. A++
Seventh Seal (1957) is one of my favorite movies. I have to rank it up
there with A Touch of Zen, Seven Samurai and Battleship Potemkin. If
there ever was such a thing as a perfect film, this one would have to
be a nominee. I've never seen such a picture (and I probably never
will) that was so moving, well shot, written, acted and directed. The
chess game between the knight and death is an all-time classic. Words
cannot describe how great this film is. There will never be another one
like it. Truly amazing piece of celluloid.
A knight and his squire are returning home from the crusades. For the past few years he's been in the middle east fighting for Christ. On his trip home he notices a familiar face, one that he has seen many times on the battlefield. It is death and it wants him to come with him to his new home. The knight strikes a bargain with death, they'll play a game of chess if he can defeat death then he'll spare his life as well as the squire's. Death is amused by this unusual challenge and accepts it. But as long as the game is on the life will continue to live. So he uses this time to look back at life and realizes how precious it is. Along the way he meets a young couple, they're from a performing troupe. They have a baby and are content with life. The husband has visions and can see interesting things like the Virgin Mary and little Jesus. He can also see the darkness that lies ahead as Black Death ravages the countryside. Will the knight defeat Death? Can the couple weather the storm of chaos that lies ahead? To find out you'll have to watch The Seventh Seal, one of the finest films ever made.
If Bergman never made another film this one would have made him a legendary film maker. But he continued to make even more classic cinema. This one however is his finest work.
My highest recommendation possible.
What makes The Seventh Seal - an apocryphal and uncompromising fable of medieval Sweden - one of the masterpieces of Cinema ? Ingmar Bergman creates a believable world of dark happenings, wherein Death can play chess with a Knight, witches burn at the stake, with flagellants, and plague ever present. Through superb black and white images, each carefully composed for maximum effect, sets and costumes, his fine actors seem to truly inhabit this frightening world. Max von Sydow, Gunnar Bjornstrand, and Bengt Ekerot lead a marvelous cast. But its not all doom and gloom, as the Knight tries to determine in his quest, the meaning of life, and if God exists at all. There are moments of sheer happiness and peace, such as the sequence of the milk and strawberries at dusk, and a number of bawdy comic moments throughout the film. Which balances the darker side. It is unforgettable and I still remember seeing it on its first release, being stunned by the quality of the photography, and the performances. A restored version on DVD is recommended. Bergman is one of the great film makers of our time. Seldom today do we see such precise and considered images on the screen. Not to be missed.
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