The Seventh Seal (1957) - Movie Review
Seventh Seal'; Swedish Allegory Has Premiere at Paris
By Bosley Crowther
Published: October 14, 1958
SWEDISH director Ingmar Bergman, whose "Smiles of a Summer Night" proved him an unsuspected master of satiric comedy, surprises again in yet another even more neglected vein with his new self-written and self-directed allegorical film, "The Seventh Seal."
This initially mystifying drama, known in Swedish as "Det Sjunde Inseglet," opened yesterday at the Paris, and slowly turns out to be a piercing and powerful contemplation of the passage of man upon this earth. Essentially intellectual, yet emotionally stimulating, too, it is as tough—and rewarding—a screen challenge as the moviegoer has had to face this year.
The specified time of its action is the fourteenth century and the locale is apparently Sweden—or it could be any other medieval European country—in the fearful throes of the plague. A knight, just returned from the Crusades, meets black-robed Death on the beach and makes a bargain for time to do a good deed while the two of them play a sort of running game of chess.
While the game is in progress, the knight and his squire go forth to find the land full of trembling people who darkly await the Judgment Day. Some are led to self-pity and torturing themselves by their priests, who also have provided a symbol of wickedness in an innocent girl condemned as a "witch." Others are given to snatching a little fun while they may; and, recalling Mr. Bergman's last picture, you should guess what sort of fun that is.
But en route, the knight, who, significantly, was disillusioned by the Crusaders and is still seeking God, comes across a little family of traveling actors who are as fresh and wholesome as the morning dew. Except that the young father of the little family has a way of seeing visions from time to time (to his pretty wife's tolerant amusement), the happy couple are as normal as their chubby child. And it is this little family that the sad knight, still uncertain, arranges to save when he and a gathering of weary wanderers, including his defiant squire, must submit to Death at the end of the game.
If this sounds a somewhat deep-dish drama, laden with obscurities and costumes, it is because the graphic style of Mr. Bergman does not glow in a summary. It is a provocative picture, filled with intimations, that is true—some what you want to make of them and some as clear as the back of your hand.
For instance, it could be that Mr. Bergman means the plague to represent all mortal fears of threats beyond likely containment that hang over modern man. Certainly, there can be little question what he means when he shows the piteous herds of anguished and self-tormenting people driven by soldiers and priests.
But the profundities of the ideas are lightened and made flexible by glowing pictorial presentation of action that is interesting and strong. Mr. Bergman uses his camera and actors for sharp, realistic effects. Black-robed Death is as frank and insistent as a terrified girl being hustled to the stake. A beach and a cloudy sky are as literal and dramatic as a lusty woman's coquetries. Mr. Bergman hits you with it, right between the eyes.
And his actors are excellent, from Max von Sydow as the gaunt and towering knight, through Gunnar Bjornstrand as his squire and Bengt Ekerot as Death to Maud Hansson as the piteous "witch." Nils Poppe as the strolling player and Bibi Andersson as his wife are warming and cheerful companions in an uncommon and fascinating film.