The Seventh Seal
Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman
Release: The Criterion Collection
There is a thing that I do. Whenever I am having a remarkably bad moment I close my eyes and picture a rocky beach. It is just me on that beach, at least to start, that is. I blink my closed eyes and I am joined by a man without a face and we are playing chess. To this day I try and keep a chess pawn near my person whenever possible. I can grab onto it like an alcoholic remembering their sobriety. It keeps me level. It keeps me on target. It keeps me sane.
Disillusioned and exhausted after a decade of battling in the Crusades, a knight (Max von Sydow) encounters Death on a desolate beach and challenges him to a fateful game of chess. Much studied, imitated, even parodied, but never outdone, Bergman’s stunning allegory of man’s search for meaning, The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet), was one of the benchmark foreign imports of America’s 1950s art-house heyday, pushing cinema’s boundaries and ushering in a new era of moviegoing.
I know that this imagery is not my own. I have never pretended that it was. My tools are a direct rip-off of one of Ingmar Bergman’s masterpieces. In my computer training I was taught early on that I do not need to re-write the COPY command, the one we use is fine as it is. So I use Bergman’s island, its breeze, its sounds, to pull me back, away from the edge. Someday I will need to go there.
“My body is frightened, but I am not.”
I don’t know if I have written about this here but I, like many of us, live with depression and somewhat mild OCD. Some of my days are better than others, but it is always there, staring into me, trying to keep me off my game. In The Seventh Seal the Knight plays a game of chess with Death. The Knight knows he is dead but he uses the game to try and delay the inevitable. The Knight says of the game, “The condition is that I may live as long as I hold out against you. If I win, you will release me.” Living with depression is a game, it mental one. As long as I keep holding out I can still win and one day I hope to do just that.
The Seventh Seal is one of three of Bergman’s films in my top 25. Bergman and Kieslowski are in a fight for my supremacy on the list. There is a time, about five years ago, when I knew that Bergman was a film director but little more. Now, though, I know that when I spin up a Bergman disc I know that I am going to, with few exceptions, going to have and spiritual experience.
Some of my favorite theologians are atheist. Those who developed a defensive posture to refute another’s belief while silently trying to understand the wherefores and the whys that the religious are able to blindly accept their opposite on faith alone. Bergman was raised protestant but often explores the existence of God in his films. This is not to say that he is a non-believer, or an atheist, but he seemed to be ill-prepared to accept Protestantism blindly.
There is something nihilistic in the film. There are people around the Knight who strive to live out their lives but then the Knight who is ready to accept death, while actively trying to cheat it, cannot find joy except for a small twinkle when looking at Mikael. Surviving a holy war and seeing that there was little that was holy about the war he is just tired; ready. This is the value of the experience which is The Seventh Seal.
This morning I woke up early, unintentionally, with sweats of anxiety. I felt like the Knight because there seemed little about which to be happy. I know that I am wrong to feel this way about a dream but I am able to use the Knight, use Bergman, to force these thoughts out of my head. I may not be very good at chess but I will play.
My first, and only, experiences with the film have been through the hands of the Criterion Collection or their streaming platform, Filmstruck. I want to see it in a theater someday, but I am glad to have access to such a beautiful Blu-ray.
- Digital transfer (box set edition); new, restored high-definition digital transfer (two-DVD and Blu-ray editions), with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
- Introduction by Ingmar Bergman, recorded in 2003 (two-DVD and Blu-ray only)
- Audio commentary by Bergman expert Peter Cowie, with a new afterword on the two-DVD and Blu-ray editions
- Bergman Island (2006), an 83-minute documentary on Bergman by Marie Nyreröd, featuring in-depth and revealing interviews with the director (two-DVD and Blu-ray only)
- Archival audio interview with Max von Sydow (two-DVD and Blu-ray only)
- A 1989 tribute to Bergman by filmmaker Woody Allen (two-DVD and Blu-ray only)
- Theatrical trailer
- Bergman 101, a selected video filmography tracing Bergman’s career, narrated by Cowie (two-DVD and Blu-ray only)
- An annotated, illustrated Bergman filmography, featuring excerpts from Wild Strawberries and The Magician with commentary (box set only)
- Optional English-dubbed soundtrack
- New and improved English subtitle translation
- PLUS: A new essay by Cowie (box set edition); a booklet featuring a new essay by critic Gary Giddins (two-DVD and Blu-ray editions)
Director: 10 – Cinematography: 10 – Edit: 8 – Parity: 4 – Main performance: 9 – Else performance: 8 – Score: 7 – Sound: 9 – Story: 9 – Script: 9 – Effects: 8 – Design: 8 – Costumes: 9 – Keeps interest: 10 – Lasting: 10