Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) has heavily influenced my practice. The Swedish epic, 'an undoubted masterpiece of world cinema' (Parkinson, 2006 :1089), 'contains some of the most extraordinary images ever committed to celluloid' (Floyd, 2011: 951). Set in the mid 14th century, the film tells of a medieval knight (Antonius Block, played by Max von Sydow) returned from the Crusades, who challenges Death to a game of chess. Buying time through the game, Block attempts to prove the existence of God and find goodness in the world (Fig.1). The story is a common one in Medieval folk law and many of Block’s contemporaries would have been familiar with it (Fig.2).
Fig. 1 Fig. 2
Throughout the film it is clear that Block fears death and undergoes an internal struggle concerning his faith. At a broader level, the question of human existence and agnosticism is challenged and the viewer is forced to examine their own beliefs. Set at the time of the Black Death, arguably the darkest period in human history, wiping out some two-thirds of the European, East Asian and Middle-Eastern populations, the film’s 'atmosphere is that of a dark world irrationally sustained by religion' (Walker, 2004a: 785), when the scale of suffering, of unknown origin to Medieval physicians and completely untreatable, was beyond comprehension and, indeed, at the end, Death claims Block and his friends.
Like Dreyer’s, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Bergman’s use of light and dark to portray good and evil proves particularly effective. As Dent put it: ‘The most extraordinary mixture of beauty and lust and cruelty, Odin-worship and Christian faith, darkness and light’ (2004: 785). The viewer is aware that 'an air of doom hangs over the action like the hawk which hovers in the air above' (Floyd, 2011: 951), which mirrors the anguish and distress felt during the Black Death, as many thought that the Day of Judgement was upon them. This brought many to check and realign their own moral compass and attempt to absolve themselves. The most memorable, and perhaps disturbing show of such behavior, is present in the scene where we observe the flagellants staggering through the street performing penance by penitential whipping. This macabre event is frightening and upsetting and haunts the viewer. It also provides a harsh reminder of our own behaviour towards others.
Fig. 3 Fig. 4
I greatly admire Bergman’s ability to conjure up such intense emotion in the viewer and I hope to replicate this in my own work.
Dent, A. (2004) Quote from the Illustrated London News. In Walker, J. Halliwell’s Film, Video and DVD Guide 2005 (HarperCollins, London).
Floyd, N. (2011) The Seventh Seal. In Pym, J. (ed.) Time Out Film Guide (Time Out Guides, London).
Parkinson, D. (2006) The Seventh Seal. In K. Fane-Saunders (ed.) Radio Times Guide to Films 2007 (BBC Worldwide, London).
Walker, J. (2004) Halliwell’s Film, Video and DVD Guide 2005 (HarperCollins, London).
THE SEVENTH SEAL