Disillusioned knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) and his nihilistic squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) return after fighting in the Crusades and find Sweden being ravaged by the plague. On the beach immediately after their arrival, the knight encounters Death (Bengt Ekerot), personified as a pale, black-cowled figure resembling a monk. The knight, in the middle of a chess game he has been playing alone, challenges Death to a chess match, believing that he can forestall his demise as long as the game continues. Death agrees, and they start a new game.
The other characters in the story, except for Jof in the end, do not see Death, and when the chess board comes out at various times in the story, they believe the knight is continuing his habit of playing alone.
The knight with his squire heads for his castle. Along the way, they pass some actors, Jof (Nils Poppe) and his wife Mia (Bibi Andersson), with their infant son Mikael and their actor-manager Jonas Skat (Erik Strandmark). Jof is also a juggler and has visions of Jesus and Mary, although Mia is skeptical of them (especially since Jof is also given to lying).
Block and Jöns enter a church where a fresco of the Dance of Death is being painted. The squire draws a small figure representing himself, while chiding the artist for colluding in the religious and ideological fervour which has led to the disastrous crusade. Still hoping for resolution and comfort within his faith, the knight goes to the confessional where he is joined by Death in the robe of a priest. During confession, Block admits that his life has been futile and without meaning, but that he wants to perform "one meaningful deed". Upon revealing the chess strategy that will save his life, the knight discovers that the priest is Death, who promises to remember the tactics. Leaving the church, the knight speaks to a young woman (Maud Hansson) who has been condemned to be burned at the stake for consorting with the devil. He believes she will tell him about life beyond death, only to discover a woman beyond her sanity.
Shortly thereafter, Jöns searches an abandoned village for water. He saves a mute servant girl (Gunnel Lindblom) from being raped by a man robbing a corpse. He recognizes the man as Raval (Bertil Anderberg), a theologian, who ten years prior had convinced the knight to leave his wife and join a crusade to the Holy Land. The squire promises to brand the theologian on the face if they meet again. The servant girl joins the squire. The trio ride into town, where the actors met earlier are performing. Skat the actor-manager introduces the other actors to the crowd, then is enticed by Lisa (Inga Gill)—wife of the sentimental and violent blacksmith Plog—away for a tryst. They run off together. The actors' performance is interrupted by the arrival of a procession of flagellants.
At the town's public house, Plog—jealous and wounded—is looking for Lisa. Both Jof and the manipulative Raval are also present: for the sake of mischief, Raval tells Plog that Jof knows what Lisa is doing. Raval manipulates Plog and the other customers into intimidating Jof, and forces Jof to dance on the tables like a bear. The bullying is broken up by the appearance of Jöns, who once again recognises Raval: true to his word, he slashes and permanently scars the theologian's face. Both knight and squire are reacquainted with Jof's family, with a repentant Plog also joining them. The knight enjoys a country picnic of milk and wild strawberries gathered by Mia. The knight says: "I'll carry this memory between my hands as if it were a bowl filled to the brim with fresh milk...And it will be an adequate sign—it will be enough for me."
Moved by the simple love of Jof and Mia, Block relaxes his pursuit of religious meaning. He invites Plog and the actors to shelter in his castle, where he believes they will be safer from the plague. Along the way, the party encounters Skat and Lisa in the forest. Dissatisfied with her new lover (and well aware that her husband will rapidly forgive her), Lisa rapidly abandons Skat and returns to Plog, while Skat uses his acting skills—and possibly Jof's collusion—to fake a remorseful suicide. Once the group has moved on, Skat climbs a tree for the night. Appearing and informing the actor that his time is up, Death then cuts down the tree and kills him.
The travellers pass the condemned young woman again, now tied to a stake and awaiting burning. Block asks the woman again to summon Satan, so he can ask him about God. The girl claims already to have done so, but the knight cannot see him, only her terror. As her execution fire is lit, the knight gives her herbs to take away her pain. Jöns and Block watch, grimly, as her sentence is carried out.
Further along in the journey, Raval reappears: dying of the plague, he pleads for water. The servant girl attempts to bring him some, but Jöns stops her, and Raval dies alone and uncomforted. Jof tells his wife that he can see the knight playing chess with Death, and decides to flee with his family while Death is preoccupied.
After hearing Death state "No one escapes me", Block knocks the chess pieces over, deliberately distracting Death while Jof's family slips away. Death places the pieces back on the board, then wins the game on the next move. He announces that when they meet again, the knight's time—and that of all those traveling with him—will be up. Before departing, Death asks if the knight has accomplished his one "meaningful deed" yet; Block replies that he has.
Block is reunited with his wife, Karin (Inga Landgré), the sole occupant of his castle (all the servants having fled). The party shares one "last supper" before Death comes for them. The knight prays to God, "Have mercy on us, because we are small and frightened and ignorant."
Meanwhile, away from the castle, Jof's family sits out a storm which the juggler interprets to be "the Angel of Death... and he's very big". The next morning, the juggler, with his second sight, sees the knight and his followers being led away over the hills in a solemn dance of death.Gunnar Björnstrand – Jöns, squire
Bengt Ekerot – Death
Nils Poppe – Jof
Max von Sydow – Antonius Block, knight
Bibi Andersson – Mia, Jof's wife
Inga Landgré – Karin, Block's wife
Åke Fridell – Blacksmith Plog
Inga Gill – Lisa, blacksmith's wife
Erik Strandmark – Jonas Skat
Bertil Anderberg – Raval, the thief
Gunnel Lindblom – Mute girl
Maud Hansson – Witch
Gunnar Olsson – Albertus Pictor, church painter
Anders Ek – The Monk
Benkt-Åke Benktsson – Merchant
Gudrun Brost – Maid
Lars Lind – Young monk
Tor Borong – Farmer
Harry Asklund – Inn keeper
Ulf Johanson – Jack's leader
Bergman originally wrote the play Trämålning (Wood Painting) in 1953 / 1954 for the acting students of Malmö City Theatre. The first time it was performed in public was in radio in 1954, directed by Bergman. He also directed it on stage in Malmö the next spring, and in the autumn it was staged in Stockholm, directed by Bengt Ekerot who would later play the character Death in the film version.
In his autobiography, The Magic Lantern, Bergman wrote that "Wood Painting gradually became The Seventh Seal, an uneven film which lies close to my heart, because it was made under difficult circumstances in a surge of vitality and delight." The script for the Seventh Seal was commenced while Bergman was in the Karolinska Hospital in Stockholm recovering from a stomach complaint. It was at first rejected and Bergman was given the go-ahead for the project from Carl-Anders Dymling at Svensk Filmindustri only after the success at Cannes of Smiles of a Summer Night Bergman rewrote the script five times and was given a schedule of only thirty-five days and a budget of $150,000. It was to be the seventeenth film he had directed.
All scenes except two were shot in or around the Filmstaden studios in Solna. The exceptions were the famous opening scene with Death and the Knight playing chess by the sea and the ending with the dance of death, which were both shot at Hovs Hallar, a rocky, precipitous beach area in north-western Scania.
In the Magic Lantern autobiography Bergman writes of the film's iconic penultimate shot: "The image of the Dance of Death beneath the dark cloud was achieved at hectic speed because most of the actors had finished for the day. Assistants, electricians, and a make-up man and about two summer visitors, who never knew what it was all about, had to dress up in the costumes of those condemned to death. A camera with no sound was set up and the picture shot before the cloud dissolved."
With regard to the relevancy of historical accuracy to a film that is heavily metaphorical and allegorical, John Aberth, writing in A Knight at the Movies, holds
the film only partially succeeds in conveying the period atmosphere and thought world of the fourteenth century. Bergman would probably counter that it was never his intention to make an historical or period film. As it was written in a program note that accompanied the movie's premier "It is a modern poem presented with medieval material that has been very freely handled...The script in particular—embodies a mid-twentieth century existentialist angst....Still, to be fair to Bergman, one must allow him his artistic license, and the script's modernisms may be justified as giving the movie's medieval theme a compelling and urgent contemporary relevance...Yet the film succeeds to a large degree because it is set in the Middle Ages, a time that can seem both very remote and very immediate to us living in the modern world....Ultimately The Seventh Seal should be judged as a historical film by how well it combines the medieval and the modern."
Similarly defending it as an allegory, Aleksander Kwiatkowski in the book Swedish Film Classics, writes
The international response to the film which among other awards won the jury's special prize at Cannes in 1957 reconfirmed the author's high rank and proved that The Seventh Seal regardless of its degree of accuracy in reproducing medieval scenery may be considered as a universal, timeless allegory.
Much of the film's imagery is derived from medieval art. For example, Bergman has stated that the image of a man playing chess with a skeletal Death was inspired by a medieval church painting from the 1480s in Täby kyrka, Täby, north of Stockholm, painted by Albertus Pictor.
However, the medieval Sweden portrayed in this movie includes creative anachronisms. The flagellant movement was foreign to Sweden, and large-scale witch persecutions only began in the 15th century.
Generally speaking, historians Johan Huizinga, Friedrich Heer and Barbara Tuchman have all argued that the late Middle Ages of the 14th century was a period of "doom and gloom" similar to what is reflected in this film, characterized by a feeling of pessimism, an increase in a penitential style of piety that was slightly masochistic, all aggravated by various disasters such as the Black Plague, famine, the Hundred Years' War between France and England, and papal schism. This is sometimes called the crisis of the Late Middle Ages and Barbara Tuchman regards the 14th century as "a distant mirror" of the 20th century in a way that echoes Bergman's sensibilities. Nonetheless, the main period of the Crusades is well before this era; they took place in a more optimistic period.
The title refers to a passage about the end of the world from the Book of Revelation, used both at the very start of the film, and again towards the end, beginning with the words "And when the Lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour" (Revelation 8:1). Thus, in the confessional scene the knight states: "Is it so cruelly inconceivable to grasp God with the senses? Why should He hide himself in a mist of half-spoken promises and unseen miracles?...What is going to happen to those of us who want to believe but aren't able to?" Death, impersonating the confessional priest, refuses to reply. Similarly, later, as he eats the strawberries with the family of actors, Antonius Block says: "Faith is a torment – did you know that? It is like loving someone who is out there in the darkness but never appears, no matter how loudly you call." Bragg notes that the concept of the "Silence of God" in the face of evil, or the pleas of believers or would-be-believers, may be influenced by the punishments of silence meted out by Bergman's father, a chaplain in the State Lutheran Church. Interestingly, in Bergman's original radio play sometimes translated as A Painting on Wood, the figure of Death in a Dance of Death is represented not by an actor, but by silence, "mere nothingness, mere absence...terrifying...the void."
Some of the powerful influences on the film were Picasso's picture of the two acrobats, Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, Strindberg's dramas Folkungasagan ("The Saga of the Folkung Kings") and The Road to Damascus, the frescoes at Haskeborga church and a painting by Albertus Pictor in Täby church. Just prior to shooting Bergman directed for radio the play Everyman by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. By this time he had also directed plays by Shakespeare, Strindberg, Camus, Chesterton, Anouilh, Tennessee Williams, Pirandello, Lehár, Molière and Ostrovsky. The actors Bibi Andersson (with whom Bergman was in a relationship 1955–59) who played the juggler's wife Mia, and Max von Sydow, whose role as the knight was the first of many star parts he would bring to Bergman's films and whose rugged Nordic dignity became a vital resource within Bergman's "troupe" of key actors, both made a strong impact on the mood and style of the film.
Bergman grew up in a home infused with an intense Christianity, his father being a charismatic rector (this may have explained Bergman's adolescent infatuation with Hitler, which later deeply tormented him). As a six-year-old child, Bergman used to help the gardener carry corpses from the Royal Hospital Sophiahemmet (where his father was chaplain) to the mortuary. When, as a boy, he saw the film Black Beauty, the fire scene excited him so much he stayed in bed for three days with a temperature. Despite living a Bohemian lifestyle in partial rebellion against his upbringing, Bergman often signed his scripts with the initials "S.D.G" (Soli Deo Gloria) — "To God Alone the Glory" — just as J. S. Bach did at the end of every musical composition.
Gerald Mast writes,
"Like the gravedigger in Hamlet, the Squire [...] treats death as a bitter and hopeless joke. Since we all play chess with death, and since we all must suffer through that hopeless joke, the only question about the game is how long it will last and how well we will play it. To play it well, to live, is to love and not to hate the body and the mortal as the Church urges in Bergman's metaphor."
Melvyn Bragg writes,
"[I]t is constructed like an argument. It is a story told as a sermon might be delivered: an allegory...each scene is at once so simple and so charged and layered that it catches us again and again...Somehow all of Bergman's own past, that of his father, that of his reading and doing and seeing, that of his Swedish culture, of his political burning and religious melancholy, poured into a series of pictures which carry that swell of contributions and contradictions so effortlessly that you could tell the story to a child, publish it as a storybook of photographs and yet know that the deepest questions of religion and the most mysterious revelation of simply being alive are both addressed."
The Jesuit publication America identifies it as having begun "a series of seven films that explored the possibility of faith in a post-Holocaust, nuclear age". Likewise, film historians Thomas W. Bohn and Richard L. Stromgren identify this film as beginning "his cycle of films dealing with the conundrum of religious faith".
Upon its original Swedish release, The Seventh Seal was met with a somewhat divided critical response; its cinematography was widely praised, while "Bergman the scriptwriter [was] lambasted." Swedish journalist and critic Nils Beyer, writing for Morgon-tidningen, compared it to Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc and Day of Wrath. While finding Dreyer's films to be superior, he still noted that "it isn't just any director that you feel like comparing to the old Danish master." He also praised the usage of the cast, in particular Max von Sydow whose character he described as "a pale, serious Don Quixote character with a face as if sculpted in wood", and "Bibi Andersson, who appears as if painted in faded watercolours but still can emit small delicious glimpses of female warmth." Hanserik Hjertén for Arbetaren started his review by praising the cinematography but soon went on to describe the film as "a horror film for children" and said that beyond the superficial, it is mostly reminiscent of Bergman's "sophomoric films from the 40s."
Bergman's international reputation, on the other hand, was largely cemented by The Seventh Seal. Bosley Crowther had only positive things to say in his 1958 review for The New York Times, and praised how the themes were elevated by the cinematography and acting: "the profundities of the ideas are lightened and made flexible by glowing pictorial presentation of action that is interesting and strong. Mr. Bergman uses his camera and actors for sharp, realistic effects."
The film is now regarded as a masterpiece of cinema. Empire magazine ranked it the eighth-greatest film of world cinema in 2010. In a poll held by the same magazine, it was voted 335th 'Greatest Movie of All Time' from a list of 500. In addition, on the 100th anniversary of cinema in 1995, the Vatican included The Seventh Seal in its list of its 45 "great films" for its thematic values.
The film was selected as the Swedish entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 30th Academy Awards, but was not accepted as a nominee.
On the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 92% based on 53 reviews, with an average rating of 9.1/10. The site's critical consensus reads: "Narratively bold and visually striking, The Seventh Seal brought Ingmar Bergman to the world stage -- and remains every bit as compelling today".
The Seventh Seal significantly helped Bergman in gaining his position as a world-class director. When the film won the Special Jury Prize at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival, the attention generated by it (along with the previous year's Smiles of a Summer Night) made Bergman and his stars Max von Sydow and Bibi Andersson well-known to the European film community, and the critics and readers of Cahiers du Cinéma, among others, discovered him with this movie. Within five years of this, he had established himself as the first real auteur of Swedish cinema. With its images and reflections upon death and the meaning of life, The Seventh Seal had a symbolism that was "immediately apprehensible to people trained in literary culture who were just beginning to discover the 'art' of film, and it quickly became a staple of high school and college literature courses... Unlike Hollywood 'movies,' The Seventh Seal clearly was aware of elite artistic culture and thus was readily appreciated by intellectual audiences."
The representation of Death as a white-faced man who wears a dark cape and plays chess with mortals has been a popular object of parody in other films and television.
Several films and comedy sketches portray Death as playing games other than or in addition to chess. In the final scene of the 1968 film De Düva (mock Swedish for "The Dove"), a 15-minute pastiche of Bergman's work generally and his Wild Strawberries in particular, the protagonist plays badminton against Death and wins when the droppings of a passing dove strike Death in the eye. The photography imitates throughout the style of Bergman's cinematographers Sven Nykqvist and Gunnar Fischer.
The protagonists of the 1991 science-fiction comedy Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey return to life by defeating Death (played by William Sadler) at Battleship, Clue, electric football, and Twister. After each of the first three games, Death insists that the competition be extended to a "best-of-three," "-five," and then "-seven" series, but after being beaten in four games he concedes defeat.
In Last Action Hero, Death (played by Ian McKellen) emerges from the film of the same name (The Seventh Seal).
In Monty Python and the Holy Grail the flagellant scene is depicted by monks smacking themselves in the head while reciting alines from the Dies Irae" In Monty Python's Meaning of Life Death appears at a dinner party in much the same guise.
In the animated feature Animalympics, the film is alluded to as the newest cinematic project of actor and sports commentator Bjorn Freeborg, with one "Ingmar Birdman" (a nominal parody of the film's director) directing. This sequence utilizes the reproduction of a screenshot of the famous chess-play scene, with Freeborg playing the role of Death.
Woody Allen's one-act play entitled Death Knocks, part of his anthology Getting Even, depicts a man playing gin rummy against Death. Allen, an enormous fan of Ingmar Bergman, references Bergman's work in his serious dramas as well as his comedies; his Love and Death, a broad parody of 19th-century Russian novels, closes with a "Dance of Death" scene imitating Bergman's.
The film is also seen in the Håkan Bråkan, the 2003 SVT Christmas calendar series, based on works by Anders Jacobsson and Sören Olssons , where Håkan watches the movie — even an animated version appears.
The song "The Seventh Seal" on Scott Walker's 1969 album Scott 4 is based on the film.
On Dance of Death (2003), the thirteenth studio album by British heavy metal band Iron Maiden, the album's title track was inspired by the final scene of The Seventh Seal, at the end of which, according to guitarist Janick Gers, "these figures on the horizon start doing a little jig, which is the dance of death.".
In 2016 composer João MacDowell premiered in New York City at Scandinavia House the music for the first act of "The Seventh Seal" a work in progress under contract with the Ingmar Bergman Foundation, sung in Swedish. The work is under production by the International Brazilian Opera (IBOC) as part of the celebrations for the Ingmar Bergman centenary in 2018.
The posters for the opera with photography by Athena Azevedo and design by Toshiaki Ide and Hisa Ide, featuring dancer Eliana Carneiro, in a collaboration work by the International Brazilian Opera (IBOC) and IF Studio LLC, have won multiple prizes in the Graphis Inc. International Competition, including double Platinum in the Poster and Design categories.