According to Max von Sydow, The Seventh Seal was made for about 45,000 Swedish kroner or about $9,000. Talk about getting your money’s worth. The print shown was visually outstanding, though the soundtrack wasn’t the same quality. Still, to see the cinematographer Sven Nykvist’s stunning images of the Swedish coast in the opening scenes of the film was wonderful.
A little to my surprise, quite a few people in the audience had not seen The Seventh Seal. Although I did chat briefly with one woman who had expected more of the chessboard scenes—Max von Sydow confirmed that at the time no one had any idea that these shots would become iconic—and did not care for the film, the response by the first-timers was overwhelmingly positive. “That was fabulous,” I heard one man say. I also heard comments like “I’d forgotten how powerful the scene was when the actors are performing and the procession of penitents comes through.”
Because von Sydow had mentioned Bergman’s love of Orff’s Carmina Burana, I noticed a shot that might have slipped by: first we see a pig walking on the floor of the tavern, then the camera moves up to show a pig roasting on the spit. This was probably inspired by the song of the roasting swan in Carmina Burana.
Much has been written about The Seventh Seal, and instead of discussing the whole film, I want to concentrate on some of the things which struck me most this time. Some of the characters are particularly sensitive to religious matters: Jof the actor sees a vision of Mary teaching the infant Jesus to walk. The Knight has a privileged moment, like an instant of divine grace, when the actors share their milk and strawberries with him, in a kind of divine communion. It’s noteworthy that what the Knight sees as a glimpse of the divine is Jof’s ordinary life. The woman whom the Squire saved from being raped, played by Gunnel Lindlom, also has an acute sensitivity to religious matters. Although she has no dialogue for much of the film, her reactions are always strong and important (a great performance), and Bergman makes sure that she is included in many shots where she has no lines. To get a fresh perspective on this film, pay attention to her scenes. She is drawn to the flagellants, and it is she who first sees the figure of Death when he appears in the Knight’s castle, and she is the one who says, “It is finished” (Christ’s last words from the cross).
Max von Sydow spoke of Bergman’s love of music, and one can see some of the structure of The Seventh Seal in musical terms. The Knight is the first theme, the Squire the opposing second theme. By the way, it’s important that the Squire, who feels no need for God, distrusts religion, and doesn’t see Death when he appears in the castle, is the one who saves the girl from being raped and who saves the actor Jof from being tormented, perhaps even killed, by the people in the tavern. If Jof and his family, the Knight, and the servant girl are the positive side of the religious impulse, the darker side—the thematic inversion, to continue the musical analogy—is represented by the flagellants, the young witch, and Raval, the priest who tries to rape the girl. This priest is the one who had sent the Knight off to the Crusades.
The medieval religious paintings which inspired Bergman’s play, which eventually became The Seventh Seal, contained humorous as well as serious scenes, and Bergman puts a surprising amount of humor in it, which isn’t how most of us remember the film. Most of the humor concerns the actors and the love triangle of Skat (the older actor), the blacksmith, and the blacksmith’s wife. The scene of Death sawing down the tree in which Skat is hiding has a very medieval feel—it’s more their sense of humor than ours, and it works.
Have you ever thought of The Seventh Seal as a film about marriage? I hadn’t until I saw it again. Jof, Mia, and their baby are the happy family, still early in their marriage, still in love. The Knight and his lady have been separated for years while he was on crusade, and chill that has grown between them is like a harbinger of similar couples in Bergman films to come. Perhaps the ideals and aspirations and doubts of the Knight have prevented him from the simple happiness available to Jof and Mia. The blacksmith and his wife are like a parody of these marriages, governed strictly by impulse, whether it’s the impulse to run away with someone else or the impulse to get back together. The squire and the girl he saves from being raped are not married, yet he looks after her in the way that a husband might. Their relationship is the least developed of the couples.
The festival presented us with tough choices, and for me the toughest of all was deciding to forgo The Train, The Big Parade, and The Tall Target for a chance to hear the interview with Max von Sydow and then watch The Seventh Seal again. I’m glad I did.