The Seventh Seal (1957, Ingmar Bergman)

The Seventh Seal has a lot of striking imagery. Gunnar Fischer’s cinematography is peerless, but it’s more–it’s how the photography works with the shot composition, how the shots work with one another (Lennart Wallén’s editing is simultaneously amiable and stunning). And then there’s how it all works with Erik Nordgren’s music. Bergman’s going for theatrics in The Seventh Seal, which I wasn’t expecting. He goes from them right away though–the film’s opening titles are silent and then very noisy; I’m surprised now, after seeing it, learning he adapted it from a play (his own play, but still a play). It makes sense, but since the film’s never stagy and so visual, I hadn’t thought about it.

The film has a lot of characters–something else I wasn’t expecting–but the main ones are Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand and Nils Poppe. von Sydow is a knight back from the Crusades, Björnstrand is his squire, Poppe is a juggler in a touring company. Even though Bergman opens with von Sydow (meeting Bengt Ekerot’s Death, no less), the film quickly moves to toggling between Björnstrand and Poppe. They’re regular guys, after all. von Sydow is in the middle of a spiritual crisis, pestering Death to confirm or deny the existence of God; he’s not exactly relatable. And von Sydow’s so beautiful, with his golden locks (Seal’s black and white, but they made sure to make his hair look good–for the film, obviously), he’s a bit apart from everything else. Whole scenes will pass between the rest of the cast while von Sydow stays in the background. Sure, he’s the knight on a quest and Bergman’s interested in this specific narrative and the literary trope, but Bergman’s a lot more interested in the people. But he never shortchanges the trope–and Seal’s just under 100 minutes, Bergman’s got a nimble pace–just shows there’s a lot more going on.

Oh, right–Seal’s set against an outbreak of plague, which has everyone gathered worried and looking for signs. Can’t talk too much about that detail without spoiling something. Even though The Seventh Seal is straightforward in its plot, Bergman does so much with the symbolism–which he bakes into the narrative, both visually and in scene–it’s just as dramatically compelling an arc as everything else. Bergman’s really serious about the film. So it’s kind of strange–and endearing–when the film’s fun and funny and gentle. It’s fairly upbeat overall; it’s also without Bergman doing it as a reward, like something the audience gets after sitting through numerous horrific scenes.

All the performances are great. Björnstrand is the best. He has the most to do, but he’s the best. Bibi Andersson’s great as Poppe’s wife. von Sydow’s fantastic. And Ekerot’s good as Death, of course. Oh, and Åke Fridell, Erik Strandmark and Inga Gill are all good. Like I said, it’s a lot of characters. Gunnel Lindblom’s got maybe three lines and she’s great too. Bergman’s direction of the actors is just as breathtaking as everything else in The Seventh Seal.

It’s a wondrous film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ingmar Bergman; screenplay by Bergman, based on his play; director of photography, Gunnar Fischer; edited by Lennart Wallén; music by Erik Nordgren; production designer, P.A. Lundgren; produced by Allan Ekelund; released by Svensk Filmindustri.

Starring Gunnar Björnstrand (Jöns), Max von Sydow (Antonius Block), Bengt Ekerot (Death), Nils Poppe (Jof), Bibi Andersson (Mia), Gunnel Lindblom (Girl), Maud Hansson (Witch), Åke Fridell (Blacksmith Plog), Inga Gill (Lisa), Inga Landgré (Karin), Bertil Anderberg (Raval), Anders Ek (The Monk), Gunnar Olsson (Church Painter) and Erik Strandmark (Jonas Skat).


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