The importance of Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal cannot be overstated. It was not the first film to set off the art-house movement of the '50s (Rashomon did it at the turn of the decade seven years earlier), nor was it even the first of the European art films (the Italian neo-realist scene was already thriving). Nevertheless, it opened up the possibility of serious, philosophical work in cinema. The neo-realist films certainly lacked any melodrama, but their goal, like the Russian constructivist movement before them, stressed fact in their work. While films like Bicycle Thieves certainly contain themes that can applied to all or parts of mankind, The Seventh Seal dealt with philosophy and spirituality directly.
I watched The Seventh Seal about a year ago. The old Criterion copy was rough, with lines and scratches on the film and hisses in the audio. Recently, they used new digital technology to restore the damaged print, and the new Blu-Ray of the film is truly one of the few times I can say without irony that the result is like watching a different film. I couldn't spot a scratch anywhere, and the light hiss was replaced with a solemn quiet in the film's many moments of reflection. What had been a distracting copy was now transformed into the crisp, beautiful work of art it always was.
That is not to say, however, that the film is Bergman's defining masterpiece. Quite the contrary, it clearly displays the auteur's youth and inexperience. Themes are handled too explicitly, and Bergman's affirmation of God's existence seems a touch ironic when the knight Antonius renews his faith at his end when only Death comes to greet him. Nevertheless, it remains a masterpiece, not simply for its importance but because it survives the endless parody and the reams of critical and philosophical debate, and it feels every bit as affecting today as it must have been back then.
That opening scene, of Death coming to claim Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), remains one of the all-time great shots in cinema. Block is returning from the Crusades with his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand), and the atrocities of those wars has shattered Block's faith. He arrives on the shores of his native Sweden to find it covered in the plague. That Death should come in these circumstances is hardly surprising. Block tells the cloaked visage that his body is afraid to die, but he is not. Still, he wishes to see his wife, whom he hasn't seen in 10 years, so he challenges Death to a chess game to buy himself enough time to reach his castle.
Block's protracted game allows him to pass by a number of villages on his way home, all of which are devolving into mass panic from the wave of death sweeping through the country. Weeping men and women cry repents and flagellate themselves as they follow a group of monks. Jöns catches a robber attempting to rape a mute farm girl, only to discover that the man is the same theologian who convinced Block and him to join the Crusades in the first place. That might be the most unsettling implication in the film, though another scene, in which a girl condemned as a witch, who believes that she can see and converse with Satan, works herself into a silent terror at the stake not because of the flames, but because she sees, according to the atheistic and bitter Jöns, neither God nor Satan. She is alone in death, and that is far more terrifying that dying.
Block desperately looks for any sign of good in this terrible world, anything to prove that there is indeed a God, and that his life has not been a waste. If he finds only evil, then what was the point of fighting to spread Christianity? So, he fixates on a family of traveling actors (Nils Poppe and Bibi Andersson) and their newborn son, a picture of innocence in a world gone mad. Block requests that they accompany him to his castle, as much to give him a reminder that it's not all bad as it is to protect them from plague. When he at last does reach home, Death comes to claim everyone inside, and Block prays for help. The mute girl breaks her silence, and the next morning the actor family emerges alive to spot Death leading the knight and his followers in a solemn but slightly joyous dance of death.
For all its existentialist and religious struggles, however, I remain surprised at what a funny film this is. A cuckold finds the actor who stole his wife intent on revenge, but the two enter into nothing more than a shouting match, as Jöns feeds the simple farmer insults. Then it gets even funnier when the actor admits defeat and stabs himself with a prop knife; the farmer and his wife, unfamiliar with acting, believe him to be truly dead. "I was just starting to like him," the farmer moans. Later, that same actor climbs a tree, which Death casually saws down. "I have a performance," the actor feebly offers. "Canceled, on account of death."
That sense of humor and the undercurrent of creative passion make The Seventh Seal an enduring masterpiece even when Bergman went on to bigger and better things. Its affirmation of a God, compared to the almost imperceptible re-awakening of faith in The Silence, is too clunky and facile. Nevertheless, its renewal of faith comes via the realization of a man that some acts give life meaning, and they need not be grand gestures. That is a far better and more intuitive epiphany than a somewhat forced religious affirmation.
Still, the only other film to deal with a crisis of faith so effectively at the time is Carl Dreyer's (admittedly superior) Ordet, made two years earlier. It dealt with lad who appeared crazy because he believed himself to be Jesus, but in the end turned out to unsettle us only because he had true, unwavering faith, and that is frightening to those who don't have it. (Bergman's own Through a Glass Darkly veers closer to this plot than The Seventh Seal). Gunnar Fischer may not be Sven Nykvist, but his cinematography, at last appreciable thanks to Criterion's magnificent re-issue, sets the tone of the film as much as Bergman's contemplative dialogue and plotting. Even in these early stages, Bergman knew a great deal about camera placement and mise-en-scène, and it ensures that The Seventh Seal will live on forever as not just a leap forward in philosophical cinema but one of the most hauntingly beautiful films ever made.