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The Seventh Seal

Det sjunde inseglet (The Seventh Seal) is a 1957 film directed by Ingmar Bergman, most notable for the scene in which a medieval knight (played by Max von Sydow) plays chess with the personification of Death, with his life resting on the outcome of the game. more...

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The title is a reference to the passage from the Book of Revelation used at the start of the film, beginning with the words "And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour."

Bergman stated in an interview that the film had helped him overcome his fear of death.


A knight (von Sydow) returns from the Crusades and finds that his home country is ravaged by the plague. To his dismay, he discovers that Death (Bengt Ekerot) has come for him too. In order to buy time he challenges Death to a match of chess, which allows him to reach his home and be reunited with his wife. The knight's faith is broken, and this is stressed in one of the strongest scenes in the movie; when the knight gives confession to a priest about his doubts that God actually exists, he tells the priest how he plays chess with death and how he plans to win only to find that the "priest" is actually death. The movie has very Kierkegaardan themes on death and meaning (see Kierkegaard on despair) and thus it is quite existential. In another powerful scene of a witch burning, the knight is asked by his squire whether he sees God in the victim's eyes or whether he sees emptiness. The knight trembles and refuses to acknowledge emptiness despite his doubts in God. The knight realises that he would rather be broken in faith, suffering constantly of doubt, than to acknowledge a life without meaning.

Under the fateful journey they encounter several features of medieval society and the way it dealt with the fear of death: penitence of flagellators, the burning of a witch and the entertainment provided by travelling artists. Bergman is particularly scathing in his depiction of the clergy, who thrive on the atmosphere of terror engendered by the plague. They offer no comfort to their people, and are represented as little better than thieves. The despairing unbelief of the knight and the cynicism of his squire (Gunnar Björnstrand) are neatly contrasted to the innocent belief of the acrobat (Nils Poppe) and his young wife (Bibi Andersson), who together with their child may perhaps be symbolic of the holy family.

Eventually, the knight achieves the significant act which gives his life meaning, by enabling the escape of the young couple and their child. While the knight and his followers are led away over the hills in a medieval dance of death, the young family continue their journey.

Relation to medieval Sweden

The medieval Sweden portrayed in this movie is not very accurate. For example, flagellators never existed in Sweden, and the theme of life and death probably is more typical to the existentialism of the 1950s than it is to the feelings and thoughts of medieval Swedes.


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