Film review: Det sjunde inseglet [The Seventh Seal] (1957), directed by Ingmar Bergman
This Bergman classic, known as The Seventh Seal in English and Det sjunde inseglet in its native Swedish, is currently enjoying the 112th spot on IMDb’s Top 250 list. First time I tried to watch it, some years ago, I fell asleep on the sofa. When I saw it coming up again more recently, I thought I’d give it another go. You know, just because.
Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) is a knight who has returned from the Holy Land with his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand). Block challenges Death (Bengt Ekerot) to a game of chess, and while its being played, Death is not to claim Block for his own. Meanwhile, self-flagellants are roaming the country to repent for the plague, and a company of travelling actors – Jof (Nils Poppe) with wife Mia (Bibi Andersson) and their son Mikael, and the director Raval (Bertil Anderberg) – try to make do on their way to a festival in Helsingør in Denmark. Jof is plagued by visions.
The two companies’ paths cross when Lisa (Inga Gill), the blacksmith’s wife, runs off with Raval, and blacksmith Plog (Åke Fridell) is terribly upset with actors in general, taking it out on Jof, who in turn gets rescued by Jöns. Jöns has also rescued a girl (Gunnel Lindblom, who doesn’t say anything until the very end of the film) from the clutches of the shady bastard who got people to join the Crusades in the first place.
Anyway. The name “Ingmar Bergman” normally has me breaking out in hives, so what’s the deal? Partly the whole chess-playing with Death thing, and that it’s an iconic film because of its opening scene … and partly because it’s set in Medieval Sweden. But mostly because the iconic opening scene was filmed at Hovs Hallar on the Bjäre peninsula – a place my family has been to several times on vacation, plus I did my radio broadcasting qualification in nearby Båstad.
Shame it’s all in black and white in the film, because it would look great in colour. The rocky beach at Hovs Hallar is very striking. Anyway. Block wants to use the pause button on Death because he’s having a crisis of faith. Does God really exist? What happens after death? He needs to know. Beforehand. Jöns is more cynical and for him it’s more of a “shit happens” approach.
So IMDb users have rated it 8.4 – is it worth it? If you’re one of them film snobs who think Bergman is a genius, probably. To the rest of us, who get bored with heavy-handed symbolism and find the whole thing too melodramatic and a tad bit dull, no. I mean, just listen to this:
I shall remember this moment: the silence, the twilight, the bowl of strawberries, the bowl of milk. Your faces in the evening light. Mikael asleep, Jof with his lyre. I shall try to remember our talk. I shall carry this memory carefully in my hands as if it were a bowl brimful of fresh milk. It will be a sign to me, and a great sufficiency.
Who in their right mind would talk like that? It’s so stilted it’s ridiculous. Block doesn’t even say it in a sarcastic way, oh no. He means every word. Ick. Here’s another one:
I want to confess as best I can, but my heart is void. The void is a mirror. I see my face and feel loathing and horror. My indifference to men has shut me out. I live now in a world of ghosts, a prisoner in my dreams.
On a more positive note, the battle of wits between the blacksmith and Raval is great; it had me smiling appreciatively. Well done! It was almost like a rap battle, but in a 1950s Swedish style, which has nothing to do with rapping. Other plus points are the actors. They might have some clunky lines to deliver, but they do it well. It’s fun to see Inga Gill as a lusty wench, considering I mainly know her as a short, chubby, middle-aged woman – not as a young, gorgeous blonde. Nils Poppe is an actor I mainly think of as an old man, but I have seen several films with his younger self before, so it wasn’t too weird. He was actually quite handsome back in the day!
All in all – no, I didn’t really care much for this film. It was interesting but dull, stilted and it took itself way too seriously. Full of Swedish melancholy, or svårmod, it’s a film that might interest you if you’re into the big questions about Life and Death. Too arty for my taste.
2 out of 5 chess pieces.