Friday Flashback: The Seventh Seal (1957)

In honor of Gunnar Fischer, the brilliant cinematographer who passed away last week at the age of 100, I thought to dedicate this week’s ‘Friday Flashback‘ to the movie he is most closely associated with — the classic, and beautifully shot film The Seventh Seal, directed by Ingmar Bergman. After directing 16 films, it was The Seventh Seal that brought Bergman (and his stars) recognition from around the globe — and established the filmmaker as an art-house favorite. The film, one of my all-time favorites, was ranked #8 in Empire magazine’s 100 Best Films of World Cinema last year, and was just one of about a dozen films that Fischer collaborated on with Bergman (beginning with 1948’s Port of Call).

The film is set in the 14th century amidst a ravaging plague and follows the journey of a medieval knight (Max von Sydow) who, upon his return from fighting in the Crusades, meets Death (the very pale and ominous Bengt Ekerot) on a beach. The two commence in a game of chess…the knight’s way of delaying the inevitable that we all must face. But the disillusioned knight wants to use this momentous reprieve to commit one meaningful deed.

The film is filled with wonderfully delectable symbolism and religious themes (Bergman favorites). And Fischer’s cinematography is nothing short of stunning to digest — he gives the film a wonderful expressionistic look, with gorgeous black-and-white contrasts, especially in the chess scenes between the knight and Death. As he did throughout much of their time together, Fischer was able to bring Bergman’s themes of one’s fear of death, sexual agony, emotional isolation, and redemption into fantastical light. The solemn Dance of Death sequence at the film’s end is a terrific example — an iconic image in the history of cinema and a scene which instigated a number of parodies in later years.

Max von Sydow is perfectly cast as Antonius Block, the knight. Bibi Andersson (Mia), Gunnar Bjornstrand (Jons), and Nils Poppe (Jof) also deliver standout performances — though, I think its screenplay and luminous visuals play the real stars here. What makes it even more remarkable is the fact that this masterwork was shot in a mere 35 days. The subplots here (the servant girl, the family of actors, etc.) are also engaging and play vital roles during the course of our knight’s newfound quest.

The Seventh Seal was my first foray into the world of Bergman. After watching so many Woody Allen films and learning about his deep admiration and infatuation with the Swedish filmmaker, I figured it would be wise to see what all the fuss was about. After watching The Seventh Seal, I began to take in as many of Bergman’s films as I could at a feverish pace — reading all about him, studying the themes and symbols in his works, and eventually naming my very own movie blog in his honor. The Seventh Seal makes for an ideal baptismal for those unfamiliar with the director’s canon of work. Though heavy in its use of imagery, I still feel it is easily accessible to a mainstream audience — and remains one of the finest films ever made.

Next Posting on The Lantern: Will Return with William Buhagiar’s “Harry Potter Retrospective” series.

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5 Responses to Friday Flashback: The Seventh Seal (1957)

  1. Pingback: Come Play With Me « Mike Hardisty Photography

  2. Love this review. While The Seventh Seal is not my favorite of Bergman’s films (Hello, Persona!) it is certainly a powerful, beautiful poem and one of the greatest movies ever made (s’cuse me if I sound preachy).

    • Thank you! I am a HUGE fan of Persona too and it is certainly in my Top 3. I just wanted to honor Fischer’s early work here this week. Seventh Seal hits closer to me and stays with me because it was my first introduction to Bergman….Thank you for commenting!

  3. Thanks, Joel. Fischer is certainly deserving of many honors. Admired his work greatly. My summary of the film here is half-assed but I didn’t want to get bogged down explaining the plot of the film. I do love Nyqvist’s work too — but Fischer certainly created many, many lasting images during the early years.

  4. Joel Burman says:

    Nice gesture to honor it to Gunnar. I’m a huge fan of his and I believe he has a larger part of Bergmans success than Sven Nyqvist who got a lot more credit than Fischer.

    He shot what I consider to be some of Bergmans best work like Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries and the Summer with Monika.

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