Show Me Cinema #20: The Seventh Seal

So my plans were to follow up The Phantom Carriage with something more contemporary and exciting, like 2012’s Call Girl or Eat Sleep Die, or perhaps Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or-winner The Square. But then we lost yet another giant figure of Swedish theatre and film that I felt compelled to write something in her memory. Gunnel Lindblom left us at the age of 89. She left behind a body of work in both film and theatre that shouldn’t be overlooked. Most of you would probably only have seen her in Ingmar Bergman’s films, especially The Silence and The Virgin Spring no doubt, arguably her most recognizable performances outside of the film of the day. But I would strongly urge you to seek out the films she did with Mai Zetterling, The Girls and Loving Couples, as I believe she’s just as good in those as in her classic Bergman films (and she did have a minor, but minor with a small m, role in the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). One of the things about Gunnel is that she, besides being an insanely gorgeous woman, was also a strong presence on screen. For instance, her silences and looks and facial expressions are almost as memorable, if not more so, than when she delivers lots of dialogue. And one of her most famous performances, where she did actually perform most of it silently, was in Bergman’s perhaps most well-known and iconic film and the film that truly launched his international career; 1957’s The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet).

1957 became a crucial year in Bergman’s career and possibly the one that cemented his legacy in the history of cinema. For Bergman’s 100th birth anniversary there was even a feature length documentary produced about his life during 1957 as he produced not one but two of his most recognized films (The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries), he also shot Brink of Life for 1958, produced four stage plays and a television film. The documentary in question is called Bergman: A Year in the Life. The Seventh Seal had originated as a play for acting students at Malmö City Theatre. He was given a modest budget and shooting schedule by SF and cast for the first time Max von Sydow, who would go on to appear in a total of eleven of Bergman’s films. His usual repertory company of actors, Gunnar Björnstrand, Inga Landgré and Åke Fridell were joined by relative newcomers Bibi Andersson, comedian Nils Poppe and Gunnel Lindblom.

The opening scene of the film is iconic. Even if you haven’t seen The Seventh Seal I can guarantee you’ve at least seen that scene, or just a still from it, or seen it parodied in countless ways since its release. The image of Max von Sydow as knight Antonius Block playing chess with Death (played by Bengt Ekerot who played the Block part on stage) is so iconic it’s been referenced in everything from Woody Allen to Bill and Ted and Last Action Hero. It’s also shot, it should be noted, at the cliffs known as Hovs Hallar and has been marked by the European Film Academy as a historic landmark. The cliffs are located in Skåne on a peninsula called Bjäre, where a lot of my family comes from so I’ve spent quite a lot of time there growing up, and I’ve walked Hovs Hallar at least a few times long before I had even heard about The Seventh Seal or Ingmar Bergman. So the fact that a place I know kinda well just happens to be the place where one of the most iconic scenes in world cinema was filmed is pretty darn cool I think.

So now you may ask yourself, what do I think of the film itself? Well I feel like I have to tread gently here as this is my colleague Amos Lambs’ favorite film of all time so I don’t want to be too rude, but this is probably one of my least favorite out of the Bergman canon. For me personally, the questions of faith and the silence of God are ones that don’t really resonate with me super-well. I’ve always to my knowledge been an atheist and not thought once or twice about the agony of having a God. But of course the fear of death is something every human being can relate to. As David Cronenberg says, death is the basis of all horror and in many respects the fear of death is perhaps the most universal of fears. But I think Bergman approached this matter better in Wild Strawberries personally. And the religious angels I think were better explored by Bergman in some of his later films, particularly The Virgin Spring and Winter Light.

It’s not a bad film by any means. Gunnar Fischer’s cinematography is very moody and atmospheric, especially all the scenes set in the forest with the light scheme reminding me of the way light was reflected in Kurosawa’s Rashomon just some seven years prior. It’s a very realistic lighting scheme that works in contrast with the more expressionistic and theatrical lighting of the other scenes. And like I mentioned, the opening scene is iconic, Gunnel Lindblom is excellent as the quite girl with her powerful gaze, and there are even some really funny moments in the film that bring some levity to the whole affair, albeit funny in the darkest senses probably. So I’m kind of split on this movie; on the one hand I appreciate it’s place in cinema history and am grateful that it let Bergman make (what I believe to be) superior films in the coming few years, but it’s not really a film I get that much out of and frankly don’t plan on revisiting this soon. I did manage to see it in a theatre back in 2018 for Bergman’s 100th birth anniversary so that’s pretty cool and I have no regrets having seen it. This is a good movie that’s just not my cup of tea. It is finished.

Dedicated to Gunnel Lindblom

(1931-2021)

Published by davidalkhed

Co-creator, critic and columnist for A Fistful of Film.

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