The jury is still out (and probably always will be) as to whether The Seventh Seal or Wild Strawberries is Ingmar Bergman’s greatest film. For me, it depends largely on my mood of the moment — today, I’d lean toward The Seventh Seal. It is hard to deny that The Seventh Seal is the film that immediately comes to mind when Bergman’s name is mentioned. In this regard, it’s to Bergman as 8 1/2 is to Fellini, or Potemkin is to Eisenstein.
The Seventh Seal is a work that has entered our collective cinematic conscience. Its striking images of the knight (Max von Sydow) playing chess with Death (Bengt Ekerot), and the final shot of the dead being led along a hilltop by Death have become indelible — not to mention endlessly parodied. Instead of following a plot, the film follows a journey. On his way back from the Crusades, the knight, Antonius Block, encounters Death who has come for him. Rather than submit, Block challenges Death to a game of chess (a cerebral variant on Mr. Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner shooting craps with Death in his epic poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner).
The game is played out as Block makes his way home through his black plague infested country. Bergman uses the premise to question and examine a wide array of philosophical and theological issues, which, of course, is what the film is all about. What is often forgotten is that Bergman also created a wonderfully entertaining and sometimes blackly funny film in the bargain. Almost hypnotic in its power, it’s a film that washes away all the parodying it has received over the years, emerging as fresh and startling today as it did nearly 50 years ago. One of the essentials of film.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke