Brian Gourley (School of English, Queen’s University Belfast)Queen’s University Belfast, Quest, Vol.1 (2006)
Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film The Seventh Seal (Det Sjunde Inseglet) remains arguably his best-known work. If one talks of the existence of a genre of medieval film, and subsequently, the existence of a theory of medieval film, then The Seventh Seal’s exclusion from a discussion of what constitutes medieval film might well be unthinkable. The question of whether or not one can conceive of a concept of medieval film theory per se depends to a certain extent upon the idea of whether or not one can talk about the existence of medieval film as a distinct genre with given generic characteristics and expectations. Talking in terms of genre risks pigeonholing a film, and early reception of The Seventh Seal in mainstream film criticism appears to have proceeded along those lines.
Pauline Kael refers to the film as “Bergman’s medieval morality play” – a clichéd label if ever there was one – implying that the work functions as an essentially linear narrative of psychomachia propelled towards an inevitable conclusion. The external framework of The Seventh Seal would seem to lend weight to this assertion. After all, the film does concern itself with death, playing very gingerly with what David Bevington calls the “late medieval fascination…[of] the cult of death.” Bevington notes how “the Dance of Death, features Death playing on a fiddle while all ranks and conditions of men march to his tune.” This is the film’s central motif that appears on the church wall and gives it its famous end scene.