The Seventh Seal
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.”
THE SEVENTH SEAL IS OUT NOW ON DVD, BLU-RAY AND DOWNLOAD