Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) has been widely loved, analysed, and even parodied. Whether it be Animaniacs, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, or The Muppets, Bergman’s film has had an undeniable effect on our popular culture. The way our culture personifies death, the way we imagine the scarier European Art Film, and the discussion of the myriads of themes in the film. And isn’t that what makes a film, or any piece of art, a “classic”? The ability to influence either filmmaker or film styles.
The film deals with the return of a knight Antonious Block (Max Von Sydow), and his bitter squier Jons (Gunna Bjornstand), to their homeland Sweden. After fighting for ten years in the Crusades, they find conditions at home being worse due to the arrival of a plague. While resting on the beach Antonious is confronted, and challenged to a game of chess, by none other than Death (Bengt Ekerot) – setting up the story of the film, and creating one of the most iconic images in Film History. Through Antonious and Jons’ travels they meet a wide variety of characters: including a troupe of actors, a theologian who convinced Antonious to join the crusades, and a local blacksmith. However the film does introduce us to various characters, its the confrontation between Antonious and Death’s chess game – which runs throughout the film, which gives the film its structure and thematic jumping points. Bergman uses Antonious, and at times Jons’, plight to explore themes of death, faith, family, PTSD and purpose of life. He uses Antonious faith in a God, and Jons hedonistic values, to start a dialogue on the previously mentioned themes. However its also the use of the various other characters, including Death, to showcase other ideas on life.
Since this film is being shown for the Film Society’s Classic series, the question needs to be asked what exactly makes a classic? For me, and this is a rather simple statement, is a film’s ability to influence other filmmakers, and films, to come after the film’s release. To answer this question I would like to explore Bergman’s influence on American director Woody Allen. Allen has stated on numerous occasions, his admiration for Bergman’s work, and has stated Bergman to be a “magical filmmaker”. Allen’s films tend to revolve around themes brought up in Seal, including the fear of death, faith, and existentialist dread. For example in Allen’s 1986 film Hannah and Her Sisters, the character of Mickey (Woody Allen) begins to have questions similar to Antonious and Jons, after he realizes that his life holds no meaning. He tries out various religions, including Catholicism and Hare Krishna Consciousness, and even attempts suicide to end his existential dread – don’t worry the the movie is actually really funny. The opening of Allen’s classic Annie Hall (1977) has our protagonist questioning existence after realizing the world is expanding. “What does that have to do with you… Brooklyn isn’t expanding” a young Alvy Singer’s mother asks. To this day Allen’s films are wrapped in themes present in The Seventh Seal, for example his 2013 reworking of A Streetcar Named Desire – Blue Jasmine – tells the story of wealthy socialite (Cate Blanchett) coping with everyday life after her husband is jailed for fraud.
Filmmakers as varied as Eli Roth, Satyajit Ray, Woody Allen, and Stanley Kubrick, have shown their admiration for Bergman’s work, and The Seventh Seal is still considered to be one of the best films. For this screening of Seal, and the discussion following, I would like to ask two questions: a.) What makes a film a classic?, and b.) Where can you see Bergman’s influence in films/filmmakers today.
We hope to see you at Social Science 203 at 5:00pm.
By Ankur Desai