Ingmar Bergman's Det sjunde inseglet is one of the strangest films ever made, in terms of content, yet it seems oddly universal. A film about medieval Sweden during the time of the plague, it speaks to everyone in every nation at every time. A film full of heavy, even obvious, even trite symbolism, it speaks subtly on the problems of death, doom, and courage without ever becoming maudlin or shouting.
Above all, it is a beautiful film. Adapted from Bergman's own play, it is rare in being able to transfer so well to film. Yet it retains some of the pacing and the stage style of dialogue to its advantage. While exploiting the visual medium expertly, with deft use of the close-up, the natural curvature of the scenery, and the shapes of the people and places the film includes, it never feels stagy, but it does feel as if someone is pulling the ropes on the scenery rather well and artfully. The sun is so bright and the seashore so bleak that they may seem to be set pieces themselves. Cinematographer Gunnar Fischer makes each frame pulse with its own energy.
If Bergman has a love affair with the face, it is certainly apparent in Det sjunde inseglet. Practically every character gets the full treatment, and so the audience is treated to the comic actor Jof (Nils Poppe), the beautiful Mia (Bibi Andersson), the square-jawed joker Squire Jons (Gunnar Bjoernstrand), the listless, helpless Tyan, the witch (Maud Hansson) and the solemn, crafty Death (Bengt Ekerot). By focusing in so exclusively on the faces of these characters, the actors never get to hide from the audience. Marvelously, all rise to the occasion so that despite the heavy-handedness of Bergman's symbolism, the audience is always anchored in the created reality of these very real, very believable characters. The casting is perfect as well. The faces of these characters stay with viewers as visual and emotional archetypes.
The tour-de-force performance, however, is Max Von Sydow as the knight Antonius Block. Similarly well cast and as expert an actor, it is impossible to imagine anyone else in this role. His combination of youthful strength and aged wisdom are unmatchable. His craggy, hard-bitten, yet earnest face makes him the perfect candidate to try to match wits with Death, and we want to see how that confrontation will turn out.
One of the prime emotions, then, in watching Det sjunde inseglet, is envy. Envy of Ingmar Bergman for just having to say, "Action (like, in Swedish)!" and step back. Of course that's not how it happened, but it is true that this matching of actor to part, or actor to symbol, is in large part why the film does not collapse of its own weight in the first ten minutes. What American film will set up the entire confrontation of the film so quickly, with the main character standing toe to toe with Death on the beach and challenging him to a game of chess? It's refreshing to see a film so little concerned with plot conventions.
And the message of the film, while obviously allegorical and utilizing the symbolism which it does, is nevertheless far from hackneyed. Any message in drama is far from quantifiable, of course, but Det sjunde inseglet seems fairly obviously to be about Death and the attitudes of those faced with it. Antonius Block is the model for every man. He knows he cannot escape Death, he knows that Death will win in the end, but he fights and tricks and schemes until his last move because he sees that he can make a difference, however small, in how Death will act as it continues on its endless journey.
Even Death, while austere and imposing, is not threatening or gloomy in the usual sense. Death is matter-of-fact and even amused with his role. The fact that he is Death itself is the only thing that separates him from the world of humans. The message is not about Death itself, but about courage in its face, whether Death is the omnipresent figure of the plague--or the omnipresent figure of today.
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