Script of the Week: The Seventh Seal

Death personified becomes an unbeatable antagonist

Doten dantz (Heinrich Knoblochter, 15th century)

DEATH 
You're rather arrogant.
KNIGHT 
Our game amuses me.
DEATH
It's your move. Hurry up. 
I'm a little pressed for time.
KNIGHT
 I understand that you've a lot to do, 
but you can't get out of our game. It takes time.
DEATH is about to answer him but stops and leans over the board. The KNIGHT smiles.
DEATH
 Are you going to escort the juggler
and his wife through the forest? Those whose 
names are Jof and Mia and who have a small son?
KNIGHT 
Why do you ask?
DEATH 
Oh, no reason at all.
The KNIGHT suddenly stops smiling. DEATH looks at him scornfully.

The Seventh Seal (Det Sjunde Inseglet,1957) was written and directed by Ingmar Bergman.

…it became a kind of “road movie”. Travelling without constraint in time and space.

– Ingmar Bergman

At the start of the film the knight meets Death on a beach. The knight doesn’t want to die and offers Death a game of chess to delay the inevitable. Death agrees and the game of chess along with the knight’s existential questions he wants Death to answer continue throughout the film.

Death personified becomes a powerful antagonist you know no one can beat, but he can be tricked and delayed, the question is – for how long? The theme of death is also woven through scenes where the character of death is not present, constantly reminding us of the reach of his power – it doesn’t matter who you are, no one escapes (the theme of the medieval Dance Macabre paintings). The tension in the story does not come from ‘how’ the knight will die, the act of dying itself nor any bodily horror from it, but from how long the knight will be able to put it off; how long will the trick with the chess and questions work, and whether the knight will be able to get or learn what he wants during the bit of time he’s managed to steal.

Ingmar Bergman on creating the figure of Death:

I had recklessly dared to do what I wouldn’t dare to do today. The knight performs his morning prayer. When he is ready to pack up his chess set, he turns around, and there stands Death. “Who are you?” asks the knight. “I am Death.”

Bengt Ekerot and I agreed that Death should have the features of a white clown. An amalgamation of a clown mask and a skull.

It was a delicate and dangerous artistic move, which could have failed. Suddenly, an actor appears in whiteface, dressed all in black, and announces that he is Death. Everyone accepted that dramatic feat that he was Death, instead of saying, “Come on now, don’t try to put something over on us! You can’t fool us! We can see that you’re just a talented actor who is painted white and clad in black! You’re not Death at all!” But nobody protested. That made me feel triumphant and joyous.”

(The Ingmar Bergman Archives, Taschen 2008)

Read the screenplay here

The dance scene in The Seventh Seal (c)Svensk Filmindustri

Dance Macabre or Dance of Death by Bernt Notke (15th century) in St Nicholas Church, Tallinn

Watch: the Knight confesses, without realising that instead of a priest, Death is listening

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