Monday, August 18, 2008

The Seventh Seal

If you're looking for a feel good movie, this is definitely not for you. The Seventh Seal is a 1957 Swedish film directed by Ingmar Bergman. There is a lot going on in this movie, so I'm writing about some of the main points. You could easily analyze each scene.

A knight and his squire return from the crusades to a plague ravaged Europe. When Death comes to take the knight, he challenges Death to a game of chess, with the stakes being the knight's life. The scene below is taken from the beginning of the movie and sets up the plot of the movie. (In subtitles for those who don't speak Swedish.)





The title of the film comes from the first line of the movie, which is a taken from the book of Revelations. This passage is repeated at the end of the movie. The movie is full of religious references and symbolism, as the knight struggles with death and his belief in God.

The chess game is worked in throughout the movie as the knight travels through the countryside, witnessing the horrors of the plague and how people react with facing their own mortality. Groups of people roam the country whipping themselves in penance and begging for God's mercy. A women accused of being a witch is burned for fear that she brought on the plague. (Did I mention this was a dark movie?)

In the end, the knight distracts death so that others may escape. After the chess match, he asks Death to reveal his secrets.
Death responds "I have no secrets...I am unknowing." When death comes back for him, he is welcomed into the knight's home with a mixture of fear and awe (maybe even some happiness) by the knight and his friends.

I see the knight as a man who has essentially just gotten a terminal diagnosis. He makes a wager with Death, bargaining for his own life. He tries to buy more time.


But in the end, no one escapes Death (or death).

So, what are the pieces on our modern day chess board? Are modern medicines just more moves to buy time in a losing chess match? Interesting movie, but it doesn't leave you with the most pleasant thoughts.

As a side note, the painting referred to by the knight in the film clip is one in the Taby Kyrka, a medieval Swedish church, painted by
Albertus Pictor in the 1480's. This is said to have inspired Bergman in the making of the film.

2 Responses to “The Seventh Seal”

Christian Sinclair, MD said...
April 3, 2009 at 9:13 AM

Found this on Mental Floss about scenes that were not in the script:

5. The Dance of Death

Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 masterpiece Det Sjunde Inseglet (The Seventh Seal) is set in medieval Sweden, ravaged by the black plague, where a knight returning from the Crusades (Max von Sydow) challenges Death (Bengt Ekerot) to a game of chess. Inevitably, the knight loses in the end. In one of the final scenes, he and five other characters are led away by Death, in the eerie “Dance of Death” sequence, shot against an ominous, cloudy background as the sun prepares to set. This very famous moment wasn’t in Bergman’s original script (or in his play, on which it was based), but added at the end of the day’s filming, when he noticed the visual effect of the clouds. Showing the doomed “dancers” in silhouette makes for a powerful image, but it was also a practical one. Most of the actors had already gone home, so Bergman arranged some technicians and nearby tourists to throw on the costumes as stand-ins. To the tourists, this must have been a real buzz. Spontaneously appearing in a movie is cool, but appearing in one of the greatest scenes of movie history must have been an incredible thrill.


Amber Wollesen, MD said...
April 3, 2009 at 10:31 AM

I love movie trivia like that! Thanks for sharing.