The Sev­enth Seal

Empire (UK) - - REVIEW - DAN JOLIN

Ing­mar Bergman was just a boy when he first en­coun­tered Death. The art-house leg­end spent much of his 1920s child­hood in swedish coun­try churches with his fa­ther erik, a Lutheran min­is­ter. But young Ing­mar was less in­ter­ested in his dad’s preach­ing than his fas­ci­nat­ing sur­round­ings. His imag­i­na­tion was nour­ished by what he saw, es­pe­cially one mu­ral in Up­p­land’s Täby church by 15th-cen­tury artist al­ber­tus Pic­tor: ‘In a wood sat Death, play­ing chess with the Cru­sader…’

Decades later, in 1956, on the storm-lashed rocks of Hovs Hal­lar beach in south-west swe­den, Bergman would re-stage that im­age in his own, equally in­deli­ble way. He was now a re­spected di­rec­tor at home, though only just re­cently granted suf­fi­cient free­dom to in­dulge his deep­est cre­ative pas­sions (thanks to the hit 1955 com­edy Smiles Of A Sum­mer Night). In this case a low-bud­get, apoc­a­lyp­ti­cally themed me­dieval drama, ex­panded from a one-act play he’d writ­ten as a teach­ing ex­er­cise for stu­dents of malmö City The­atre. “we knew we were do­ing some­thing un­usual,” ac­tor max von sydow would re­call of The Sev­enth Seal in 1988, “some­thing Ing­mar had tried to do for some time but hadn’t been al­lowed, be­cause it was con­sid­ered such a gam­ble fi­nan­cially.”

Von sydow was cast by Bergman’s as dis­il­lu­sioned knight an­to­nius Block, re­turn­ing from a cru­sade to re­unite with his loved ones, when Death (Bengt ekerot) ap­pears to claim him. To de­lay his demise, Block sug­gests a game of chess, and as they play they dis­cuss, well, ev­ery­thing. It was von sydow’s first film with Bergman, and marked the be­gin­ning of a long, fruit­ful work­ing re­la­tion­ship.

ekerot, mean­while, did not ap­pear in a hideous skull-mask, or be­hind some skele­tal pup­pet. In a bold stroke, he and Bergman de­cided their grim reaper should have “the fea­tures of a white clown”. The di­rec­tor re­alised it was “a del­i­cate and dan­ger­ous artis­tic move, which could have failed”. But in fact, ekerot’s de­pic­tion be­came the defin­ing cinematic im­age of Death.

so not only did The Sev­enth Seal prove Bergman’s in­ter­na­tional break-out (it was his first film re­leased in the UK), but that chess game and Deathly vi­sion would re­sound through pop­u­lar cul­ture. Ian mckellen reprised the role amid the in­con­gru­ous sur­round­ings of the arnold sch­warzeneg­ger-star­ring Last Ac­tion Hero. and, of course, wil­liam sadler’s “white clown” would find him­self play­ing Bat­tle­ship and Twis­ter with a pair of san Di­mas doo­fuses in Bill & Ted’s Bo­gus Jour­ney.

It was quite a re­sult for a film made in 35 days on a bud­get of $150,000. “It was made un­der dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances in a surge of vi­tal­ity and de­light,” Bergman would re­call in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. But its per­sonal im­pact went even deeper. when asked in 1968 if the film metaphor­i­cally fore­boded nu­clear apoca­lypse, he replied, “That’s why I made it. It’s about the fear of death. It freed me from my own fear of death.”


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