Classic Capsule: The Seventh Seal (1957)

It’s pretty fascinating to trace the long-term impact of Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal. In terms of modern cinema, it would probably make sense to dive right in with Woody Allen. Allen pulls symbiotically from Bergman, time and time and time again – most notably toward the end of Love and Death (if not throughout the play, Death Knocks). Dig a little deeper and you’ll find certain aspects of The Seventh Seal playing out via Bill & Ted, popular episodes of Seinfeld, and even during the final scene of The Sopranos: Season One. And that’s really just the tip of the iceberg, so far adirect homages are concerned.

While Death has held a constant place in mainstream cinema for years, The Seventh Seal cracked the yoke on turning Death into a caricature. Bergman lightened the load, so to speak, persuading the audience to accept death as an extension of humanity. In that spirit, The Seventh Seal features dark comic jabs throughout. A priest turned surly vagabond? A lowly squire playing liege? A classic game of Chess and Death amidst the backdrop of Black Plague? These were highly questionable themes back in 1957, so much so that Bergman’s script was rejected several times.

To that end, it’s probably worth noting The Seventh Seal has lost some of its cinematic appeal over the years. I mean, keep in mind, we’re talking about a 56-year old screenplay here – one that was filmed in black and white with Swedish subtitles, no less. Bergman’s film was originally released during a time when Dwight Eisenhower was still in office, Father Knows Best ruled the roost, and (leading actor) Max Von Sydow was busy reveling in the wonder of his youth. Given the constant movement toward split-second gratification, it’s difficult to watch a film like this without escaping the sense it drags. In fact, these days, watching a movie like The Seventh Seal requires an investment of focused time and undivided attention. The good news is, Bergman’s film provides an unequivocal return, if not a much more stringent understanding of its connection to the greater whole.

(The Seventh Seal is currently available as part of Hulu’s Criterion Collection.)