Screenwriter: Ingmar Bergman
Running Time: 96 mins
Currently screening at select UK cinemas
Believe it or not, Ingmar Bergman was once considered a filmmaker of comedies. It was 1955, and Bergman, a “working” director in the Swedish studio system, had already made 15 films before finally breaking through internationally with the poetic comedy Smiles of a Summer Night. The film was a surprise hit at Cannes, emboldening Bergman to drop his repeatedly rejected screenplay for The Seventh Seal into the lap of the President of Svensk Filmindustri, declaring “its now or never Carl-Anders Dymling.” Dymling, feeling Bergman had finally earned his chance to make a challenging and personal film, gave Ingmar a small budget and 35 days to make the picture. The film was released in 1957, and went on to become one of the most exciting and important films of its time, proving to film studios that audiences can handle intellectual themes and therefore paving the way for the European art cinema of the 60s and influencing nearly all of the greatest filmmakers ever since.
Fifty years on, and just days after his death at age 89, Bergman’s first and most iconic masterpiece is re-released in a gorgeous new print, allowing many of us to see one of his films in the cinema for the first time. If you’ve never seen the film, you’ve certainly seen it parodied. My first indirect encounter with The Seventh Seal was through one of my favourite childhood films – Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey. A few years later, and I saw the scene again in several Woody Allen films, particularly Love and Death and Deconstructing Harry, in the scene where amateur swinger Harvey Stern, played by Toby Maguire, has a hilarious argument with Death, trying to explain how he is borrowing the apartment of a comatose man so that he could enjoy the services of a call girl.
The Seventh Seal begins with one of the most soul-clenching scenes in all of cinema. A knight, Antonius Block (Max Von Sydow, in his breakthrough performance) exhausted from the crusades, is met, quite literally, by Death (personified here by Bengt Ekerot). Keeping his cool, Block tries to bargain with Death, agreeing to go only if he fails to hold his own in a chess match. Death, being quite busy with the plague and all, pops up occasionally throughout the film to engage the knight in philosophical debate over the chess board until the inevitable, yet still astonishing conclusion. What happens in between is a sort of road movie, as knights and artists move about the countryside trying to escape the plague, occasionally stopping in a village for a bar fight, a play, or, in another incredible scene, to witness a young woman being burned at the steak.
Bergman, an auteur without a big film movement around him (as the French and Italians had), made great films because he made deeply personal, authentic, artistically uncompromised films with unmatched vision and craft. In The Seventh Seal, Bergman addressed his intense terror of death and scepticism of God. Working through his terror with The Seventh Seal, Bergman’s next film was Wild Strawberries, which also pondered mortality, though its protagonist was face to face with life more than with death. Ingmar Bergman went on to make 24 other films after that. None of them were comedies. Many of them were masterpieces.