The late twentieth century’s defining anxiety – nuclear catastrophe –inspired film masterworks in a variety of genres, from noir (‘Kiss Me Deadly’) to essay (‘Hiroshima, Mon Amour’), faux documentary (‘The War Game’) to horror (‘Godzilla’). But it found possibly its greatest cinematic expression in Ingmar Bergman’s doom-laden medieval allegory, a film that re-imagines a previous period of existential angst and primal fear: the plague-ridden thirteenth century. ‘The Seventh Seal’ has the courage to give fear a face. You could say of its most famous image – returned crusader Max von Sydow’s desperate chess game with Death (Bengt Ekerot), shot in superb high-Gothic relief by cinematographer Gunnar Fischer in homage to an image Bergman remembered from a childhood church visit – that it has lost none of its power to impress. But, it seems to me, 50 years of relentless quotation and parody have taken some toll, as they have on the climactic improvised ‘dance of death’.
The film’s other inspirations were the extraordinary, sometimes ecstatic, often profane poems and music of the ‘Carmina Burana’, composed by anonymous wandering scholars scattered by Europe-wide famine, disease and death, which are sung in snatches in the film and echoed in the soundtrack. Bergman’s inclusion of a company of comic travelling players, which may once have seemed like a balancing, populist device, now provides quietly eloquent proof of the great director’s empathy and essential humanism. While ‘The Seventh Seal’ is most often characterised as a beautifully directed, portentous and despairing cry of abandonment to a godless world, it may be the film’s gentler but insistent curiosity about man’s peculiar talent for survival and artistic expressiveness, even under the direst threat, that ensures it remains not only highly impressive but thought-provoking, relevant and intensely moving in our present, nervous, times.