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  Seventh Seal, The Player Of Games
Year: 1957
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Stars: Gunnar Björnstrand, Bengt Ekerot, Nils Poppe, Max von Sydow, Bibi Andersson, Inga Gill, Maud Hansson, Inga Landgré, Gunnel Lindblom, Bertil Anderberg, Anders Ek, Åke Fridell, Gunnar Olsson, Erik Strandmark
Genre: Drama, FantasyBuy from Amazon
Rating:  8 (from 1 vote)
Review: It is the era of the plague across Europe, and the knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) is all too aware of the devastation that has been brought to the land, but has had an idea of how to avoid it. When he wakes up on the pebble beach he washes his face in the sea and steps over his squire Jons (Gunnar Björnstrand) to be greeted with the figure of Death (Bengt Ekerot) who is regarding him keenly, as it is the knight's time to go with him. However, he has news for the entity, as he does not plan to die, not just yet at least, and strikes a bargain with him: wouldn't he prefer a nice game of chess instead? Death admits he is a good player and finds the request too tempting to pass on, even with the major caveat that should he lose, he will have to allow the knight to live...

Director Ingmar Bergman had already been making a name for himself, chiefly with romantic comedy Smiles of a Summer Night, when he released The Seventh Seal, which was drawn from his own self-confessed struggles with the concept of dying. Not only the concept, as the reality was a big concern as well, but nobody in the late fifties was prepared for this, it was deeply strange, vividly rendered and philosophically deep, about as far from romantic comedy as it was possible to get. Maybe there were a handful of scattered laughs, but they were bleak ones, as the theme of what to do with your life when it was going to end sooner or later preyed on the minds of the characters, and that would translate to anyone with half a mind to consider those implications in the audience.

Yet the setting was significant, for a lot of the people we watch in the story, photographed as one of the best looking black and white films ever, believe the End Times are nigh, and the prophecies as delineated in The Book of Revelation are coming to pass, which as we know from our modern perspective was not the case, as the world has endured unimaginably far past what these characters could have envisaged. Hence, when the threat of the nuclear bombs dropping was uppermost in the Cold War when this was made, we could conceivably hold justified hope in our hearts that as all things must pass, so would our worries, terrors even, and life would go on. Not that there was much succour from Bergman, as he continually pointed out we were always going to die at some stage, no matter how far we managed to stave off our eventual demise.

The knight was the conduit through which the director's fears were expressed, von Sydow's grace and gravitas making his conversations with Death what were often described as the highlight: Death is wily to the point that he is willing to cheat to claim his victims, so what is it possible to do to counter that? The answer is nothing whatsoever, but that need not mean we cannot appreciate our time when alive, and that has nothing to do with whether God, who many viewed as the orchestrator of life and the potential afterlife, exists or does not. The knight seeks after knowledge, that's his reason for being, though he seeks after that which is unknowable to humanity which is why he is so unsatisfied, unable to prove any of his pressing questions about existence when the fact is that nobody can tell him and there is no way of discovering for himself.

But there are other methods of making the most of your life, and the other characters the knight and his squire (who may be wiser than his boss) meet indicate that: you can bring meaning to through a variety of means, be that music, humour, sex or some alternative diversion. You won't live forever, as far as anyone can tell, but activities such as those will brighten up your days no matter how many you are allotted in this world. We follow a small troupe of travelling players who live only to entertain (not that they are always welcomed) but the couple (Nils Poppe and Bibi Andersson) have their baby to keep them going, so family and creating more life to carry on are just as valid a justification for being alive, indeed the last shot positively endorses this. If you fill up your life with negativity, The Seventh Seal implied, you are wasting your time, as obviously there will be disappointments and tragedies to encounter, but concentrating on the worst elements, be that plague or punishing yourself and others with your failings, will be an opportunity dreadfully missed. And yet, the knight's yearning for good answers, any answers, is something we can all relate to with sobering recognition. Music by Erik Nordgren.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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Ingmar Bergman  (1918 - 2007)

Undoubtedly one of the greatest artists of cinema, Ingmar Bergman was often accused of being too depressing as his subjects covered the existence (or otherwise) of God and deep-seated marital problems (he himself was married five times), but he always approached them with a sympathetic eye. Among his most memorable films were Summer with Monika, Smiles of a Summer Night, The Seventh Seal (with its unforgettable chess game with Death), Wild Strawberries, The Virgin Spring (the inspiration for Last House on the Left), Through a Glass Darkly, The Silence, Persona, Hour of the Wolf, Cries and Whispers, Scenes from a Marriage and Fanny and Alexander. He also made international stars of Max von Sydow, Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson.

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