Re-Match: The Seventh Seal

Image of Death played by Bengt Ekerot and Antonius Block, the knight, played by Max von Sydow. Courtesy of the Criterion Collection


Ingmar Bergman didn’t shoot The Seventh Seal on Fårö Island, the wintry Baltic Sea redoubt where the great Swedish filmmaker lived for decades, but he could have. Surf washing over rocky beaches, gusty landscapes that support only the most austere human settlements—it’s a backdrop that seems right for Bergman, and Fårö and the film are both all about it.

Criterion’s DVD re-release of the deadly-serious The Seventh Seal, a (perhaps the) primary example of mid-century haute cinéma, arrives from a remote place: a far-flung corner of Sweden, yes, but also an era when Death (Bengt Ekerot, as a grim-faced, black-robed ghoul) could play chess against a questing knight (the impossibly blond Max von Sydow) and film characters meditated on God, the afterlife, and other Big Questions without so much as a hint of a smirk.

It might be the most-watched Swedish film ever made, which is why it’s nice that Criterion has packaged it with Bergman Island, an enlightening documentary that almost no one has seen. (Bergman Island is also available from Criterion as a stand-alone DVD.) Filmed in 2003 and later aired on Swedish TV, it’s the most access the filmmaker (who died in 2007, at the age of 89) ever allowed anyone into his home on Fårö Island.

Bergman leads a solitary, not to say lonely, existence there among his film archives, classical records, and ticking clocks. When a genial Swedish journalist, Marie Nyreröd, drops in on him, he seems happy to have someone with whom he can discuss his life. Some of the take-homes:

—Bergman’s stern mother and stern father, both of whom had tempers, thought he was too cuddly.

—When he was a child, pranksters locked Bergman in a morgue with the corpse of a woman. “She was watching me,” Bergman recalls, adding that he still dreams of it.

—He made The Seventh Seal “in a state of the most appalling suffering.” Although Bergman doesn’t really elaborate on this, it probably has something to do with this subsequent confession: “Not a day has gone by in my life when I haven’t thought about death.”

—Throughout his career, Bergman felt “incredibly pleasurable tensions” working with actresses who were as devoted to their art as he was. The various relations he had with his talent (he switched from Bibi Andresson to Liv Ullman after casting both of them in Persona, for example) would bear this out.

—He had nine children by various wives: “I haven’t put an ounce of effort into my families,” he admits, with typical candor.

—Bergman’s fears were all-inclusive: cats, dogs, birds, large crowds. “I’m actually scared of everything,” he says.

—In 2004, Bergman vowed never to leave Fårö Island. And he stuck to it.

In a seven-minute tribute that originally aired on Turner Classics, Bergman disciple Woody Allen says he preferred the Swedish director’s films over those of Truffaut, Kurosawa, and Fellini because his films had “the deepest intellectual content.” Like Allen, he was tireless. Many years after he made his last film, 1982’s Fanny and Alexander, Bergman continued to work in theater and TV. “As he got older, he took more risks,” film scholar Peter Cowie asserts in another slideshow add-on, “Bergman 101.” He also gradually became more of a homebody. Apparently, even in a place as remote as Fårö, the two aren’t mutually exclusive.