Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Fourteen

#14 — The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)
There’s so much about The Seventh Seal that amazes me, all of it timeless and yet compounded by placing the film in the context of its era. I love the film’s experimentalism, which paradoxically manages to be both understated and bold. For me, watching it is like receiving an injection of understanding in the primacy of mood and idea in cinema. There is a narrative, but it lags in importance behind practically every other recognizable component of filmmaking. It’s not abdicated entirely in the style of other experimental films, but Bergman shows precisely what it’s like when the pyramid of importance is inverted. It’s almost luxuriant in its cinematic elegance. The cinematography of Gunnar Fischer, Bergman’s regular collaborator on his pivotal early films, nearly insures this effect on his own. Finally, as much as The Seventh Seal is held up as the prototypical realization of Bergman’s gloominess — Death himself is a character, after all — I’m struck by how funny it is. Now it’s hardly a laugh riot, and the humor is dark, to be sure, but it’s also there in abundance, poking at all the absurdities that speckle the film.

The central character is a glum knight, played wonderfully by Max von Sydow in his first big-screen collaboration with the director (in the same year, a TV movie and another cinematic effort, Wild Strawberries, were also released). In the conceit from the film that practically everyone knows, even those who have barely seen a frame of Bergman’s oeuvre, the knight is confronted by the personification of Death (Bengt Ekerot) and schemes to delay the grim reaper from claiming him by challenging the spooky figure to a game of chess. Swirling around that is the knight’s trek across Sweden, which has been ravaged by the plague while he was away fighting in the Crusades. As with most such stories, it’s somewhat episodic in nature, revealing a culture and a people through fragments of lives. There’s no reason to believe that Bergman was interested in verisimilitude, that he was making some sort of period piece. It is allegory rather than history, and the possibilities built into the film are the stuff of endless film aficionado debates.

The Seventh Seal is one of those incredible rarities, a film that unlocks all the varied potential inherent in the form. Bergman deemed it “an uneven film.” If that’s accurate (it’s certainly a debatable assessment), then the imbalance is only a product of the surplus of ideas. Scales are going to get wobbly when a truckload of stuff is piled upon them. One of the most fascinating things about The Seventh Seal is the creative assurance that is always at play. Even as Bergman adds idea after idea, there’s never disarray. There is a prevailing sense that he is in total command, a signal to the way he’d be able to wrestle even bigger, wilder concepts into riveting art in the years ahead. Bergman had already been signing his name to movies, prolifically, for nearly fifteen years when The Seventh Seal was released, but there’s little mystery as to why this is the work that announced him a great filmmaker.

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