The Seventh Seal is one of those films that is easy to misunderstand. Some may like its brooding, quasi-Expressionist stylization, admire Bergman’s work generally and view the period when the film was made as one of cinema’s high points. Others may find it an inflated, pretentious bore, little better than a symphony for gloomy cuckoos. There is ample evidence to support either opinion, but both miss the fact that The Seventh Seal is a tremendously life-affirming, quite simply enjoyable film.
The Seventh Seal was one of the first European art films I ever saw, and it left a huge impression on me. By the time I reached college age, however, as my tastes began to mature with greater exposure to other, equally ambitious auteurs, my enthusiasm for Bergman waned a little, and for The Seventh Seal quite a bit. (It is not a film for sophomores.) Having perhaps over-valued the film originally, I tended to downplay its achievements.
In my thirties, I returned to it with enthusiasm, but for very different reasons than what initially attracted me. With greater age and experience, the symbolism and guilt-laden mood still struck me as a bit over done, but I could also recognize that the portentous atmosphere had a point directly opposed to my original reaction. The Seventh Seal is not a film about Death and Disease and Emptiness. Rather, it demonstrates how all of those things impede our ability to enjoy life, to accept what it has to offer on its own terms, to embrace the rich contradictions of experience as the reward for a questioning intelligence.
Since the film is popularly associated with such iconic images as Death (Bengt Ekerot) playing chess with the agonized, agnostic knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), it is easy to overlook how wonderfully, deliberately funny much of it is. Plenty of moments keep the film from being a dreary slog: when the actors’ troupe is pelted with vegetables for their performance, for example, or when the lead actor Skat (Erik Strandmark) seduces a woman in the crowd with his eyes, or when he later tries to convince Death he should be spared because of a family he doesn’t possess and Death’s playful response. And when Block shares a brief respite with the actors, his squire (Gunnar Björnstrand) and a peasant woman (Gunnel Lindblom) on a sunny hillside, it is one of the loveliest, most lyrical evocations of life’s bounty in the history of film.
To be sure, Bergman’s theatrical background comes through, in both good and bad ways. We are often aware of how “set up” scenes are, for example. That is partly because Bergman allows the viewer to absorb and enjoy the moment—including its flaws. It is the cumulative effect of such patience and lyricism that makes The Seventh Seal, for all its heavy breathing, a film to which I return repeatedly with the expectation of not only familiar, but new pleasures.