Shot in only 35 days, The Seventh Seal is a medieval morality tale which powerfully depicts the cruelties of the time such as witch burning and flagellation, as well as the joys and aspirations of ordinary people.
Set against the backdrop of 14th century Sweden, in the midst of the plague, a knight (Max Von Sydow) and his squire Jöns (Björnstrand) return home from the holy crusades.
Having escaped death during his perilous travels, the knight enters a church and comes face to face with it, in the form of a hooded man (Bengt Ekerot). It transpires that the shadowy figure has been following the knight on his homeward journey.
One of the most enduring images of the Grim Reaper in the movies is the black-cloaked, white-faced figure who saves Max von Sydow’s knight from death for the duration of a game of chess.
The scene has been widely parodied, especially in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) where a similarly attired Death challenges the excellent heroes to games of Battleship, Cluedo, NFL Super Bowl, Electric Football and Twister.
Although dealing with a subject so dark and bleak, The Seventh Seal is thought-provoking and directed with such skill that the viewer is drawn in and forgets the depressing issues that are being played out on the screen.
Bergman was a master of this broody genre of filmmaking, always exploring the complexities of human existence and religious beliefs.
Historians have pointed out that self-flagellation and witch hunts were not phenomena in Sweden until the 15th century, but a little anachronism is a small price to pay for the marrow-chilling moment in which a procession of woe begot ten pilgrims appears in town, whipping themselves raw in desperate penitence.
Antonius Block, the knight
Max von Sydow
Karin, the knight’s wife
Jons, the squire
Jof, the jester
Mia, the jester’s wife
Plog, the blacksmith
Lisa, the blacksmith’s wife