Bergman Wins International Fame with Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Director Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal captured a special award at the Cannes Film Festival, securing both fame and wider distribution for the director’s bleakly existential works.

Summary of Event

The Cannes Film Festival, the most important of the international film festivals, is known as a freewheeling marketplace attended by directors, actors, producers, publicists, writers, and others affiliated with the film industry. The first of the annual festivals at Cannes was held in 1946. (It had been planned for 1939, but it had to be postponed because of the war.) The Cannes Film Festival has been marked by controversy and political upheavals; in 1968, the festival was even closed halfway through by political demonstrations led by major directors. Despite such turmoil, however, this unruly gathering of movie people has always represented the cutting edge of the film industry. It is the event at which reputations are made, enhanced, and diminished. It was the showing of director Ingmar Bergman’s Det sjunde inseglet (The Seventh Seal) on May 17, 1957, at the Cannes Film Festival that gained him recognition as an international superstar. [kw]Bergman Wins International Fame with The Seventh Seal (May 17, 1957) [kw]Seventh Seal, Bergman Wins International Fame with The (May 17, 1957) Seventh Seal, The (Bergman) Cannes Film Festival Seventh Seal, The (Bergman) Cannes Film Festival [g]Europe;May 17, 1957: Bergman Wins International Fame with The Seventh Seal[05460] [g]Sweden;May 17, 1957: Bergman Wins International Fame with The Seventh Seal[05460] [g]France;May 17, 1957: Bergman Wins International Fame with The Seventh Seal[05460] [c]Motion pictures and video;May 17, 1957: Bergman Wins International Fame with The Seventh Seal[05460] Bergman, Ingmar Dymling, Carl-Anders Sydow, Max von Ekerot, Bengt Camus, Albert Carné, Marcel Lagerkvist, Pär Picasso, Pablo

In 1956, Bergman had a strong reputation as an up-and-coming director. This reputation had been enhanced by his winning of the prize for “Most Poetic Humor” at Cannes with his Sommarnattens Smiles of a Summer Night (Bergman) (1955; Smiles of a Summer Night). At that time, he joked that Swedish directors would ordinarily go to the Cannes Film Festival only for the trip. Smiles of a Summer Night did not, despite the award, gain for Bergman the international acclaim for which he had hoped. The following year, he entered The Seventh Seal, the movie that made his reputation and gave the world the basic outlines of the popular conception of Bergman. The film did not win the Golden Palm, the film festival’s major award, given to the best film of the year; that coveted prize went to William Wyler’s Friendly Persuasion (1956). The Seventh Seal, however, did win the prestigious Special Jury Prize (awarded on the festival’s final day, May 17, 1957), sharing it with Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s Wajda, Andrzej 1957 film Kanal. Kanal (Wajda)

More important perhaps than the actual prize was the critics’ enthusiastic reception of the film. Its stark black-and-white photography combined with its message of existential loneliness and alienation both startled and hypnotized; worldwide reviewers applauded. Bergman described the movie’s content later as “an enormous, neurotic fear of death” that he believed he later transcended. Yet the primal anxiety about death expressed in the movie and its obscure, poetic meditation on the desire for immortality have continued to rivet audiences.

The film was based on Bergman’s own play Painting on Wood, Painting on Wood (Bergman) which was taken in part from the medieval morality play Everyman; elements of the works of Albert Camus and the paintings of Pablo Picasso, particularly his Les Saltimbanques, Saltimbanques, Les (Picasso) helped Bergman transform the one-act play into the full-length film. The film takes the returning crusader Antoninus Block and his squire Jons through a plague-ridden countryside toward home. Comedy, farce, pathos, and tragedy are mixed in the story, which involves subplots concerning rustic adultery, invasions of flagellants, and the burning of a child as a witch. The main story, however, is that of Antoninus Block, the Knight, who, confronted by Death, asks for a chess game as a delaying tactic.

While Block tries to keep Death from checkmating him, he looks for the answers to cosmic questions (none are forthcoming), and he attempts to complete one meaningful action. Thus, the plot encapsulates the existential-quest Existentialism;cinema theme so popular in the 1950’s (and since). Other characters include the visionary Jof and his wife Mia (their names variants of Joseph and Mary) and their child. At the end, the Knight apparently succeeds in briefly diverting Death by upsetting the chessboard, so that Mia, Jof, and the baby escape, but of course the Knight cannot win his own game with Death. The last scene is remembered by all who see the film. Jof the seer describes seven black figures silhouetted against the gray sky as Death with his scythe leads the Knight and his friends away in a danse macabre: “They dance away from the dawn and it’s a solemn dance toward the dark lands, while the rain washes their faces and cleans the salt of the tears from their cheeks.”

The poetry and the repeated unanswered questions blend with the severe ritualized scenes, including a number of tableaux suggestive of medieval church murals, as the Knight searches for meaning. The game of chess counterpoints the chaotic actions of the other characters and the seemingly meaningless flow of events. This film was manna to a generation immersed in Camus and Søren Kierkegaard. Following The Seventh Seal’s exposition, the moviegoing world’s attention focused on Bergman, waiting for more.


The acclaim received by The Seventh Seal had major consequences both in Ingmar Bergman’s career and in the world of film. For Bergman, it was the film that made his name known to audiences around the world, and it was his real introduction to American critics. Up until that point, he had been a promising director; now he was bracketed with Jules Dassin, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, and the other greats. Bergman had also for a while found his theme and voice—the confrontation of life and death represented in a starkly simple allegorical form. His skilled manipulation Cinema;cinematography of the camera and introduction of some surrealistic elements that did not, however, draw attention away from the basically linear plot added to the atmosphere of alienation and gloom. So, ironically, did his use of farce and wit as a contrast to the basic downward swing of his films. The effect of the films was also heightened by his constant use of Christian emblems and traditional formats in contexts of failed Christianity and silent divinity.

Many of Bergman’s subsequent films carried further the theme of the foiled religious-existential quest, identifying Bergman clearly as the gloomy, realistic spokesman for twentieth century seekers of lost certainties. The films of this period include Smulltronstället (1957; Wild Strawberries), Ansiktet (1958; The Magician), Jungfrukällan (1960; The Virgin Spring), as well as the trilogy of Sasom i en spegel (1961; Through a Glass Darkly), Nattvardsgästerna (1963; Winter Light), and Tystnaden (1963; The Silence). These films use expert photographic techniques to manipulate light and dark as symbols that define the relationship between the individual and the unknown world as a series of shades.

In the film world, Bergman’s style Cinema;stylistic innovation and substance affected the new major directors who were born in the 1920’s and 1930’s and began their major works in the 1960’s. François Truffaut and others use some of Bergman’s techniques. His vision itself has been both copied and mocked: Woody Allen’s Allen, Woody 1968 play Death Knocks, Death Knocks (Allen) for instance, has its main character playing gin rummy with Death—and winning both time and money. Death is made into a true clown in this parody, and a “schlep” as well:

Death: . . . Look—I’ll be back tomorrow, and you’ll give me a chance to win the money back. Otherwise I’m in definite trouble.

Nat: Anything you want. Double or nothing we’ll play. I’m liable to win an extra week or a month. The way you play, maybe years.

Much of Allen’s usual perspective is sheer Bergman, however, and Allen, like Bergman, has a penchant for mixing farcical with tragic elements in portraying a random, indifferent cosmos. Bergman’s influence on other writers and directors cannot be overestimated, although it is not always immediately evident on the surface. The late 1950’s and early 1960’s saw a barrage of movies using Bergmanesque lighting and perspectives to demonstrate loneliness and alienation while reflecting on the silence of God and the indifference of the cosmos.

In the 1960’s and later, Bergman’s social commitments became clearer; his films beginning with Persona (1966) contain more direct statements about troubles in Sweden and elsewhere and attempts at solutions. These films, frequently centering on women characters, often deal with blocked communications and social alienation. In this direction, he was accompanied by many other filmmakers, as films became political statements in the 1960’s and early 1970’s.

The looming presence of death remained a constant in even Bergman’s most socially purposeful films such as Skammen (1968; Shame) and Viskningar och rop (1973; Cries and Whispers). In the 1970’s critics often rejected the earlier Bergman films as pretentious, overly abstract, or disengaged. Some found the artistic virtuosity inappropriate to the pain expressed in these movies. Later students of film, however, less ready to insist that a film articulate a particular social problem, rediscovered the power of The Seventh Seal.

In the years following the international reception of The Seventh Seal, Bergman became a regular on the Cannes Film Festival awards list, winning awards that included acknowledgment as best director in 1958 for Nära livet (1958; Brink of Life) and the International Critics Award in 1960 for Virgin Spring. Of course, his recognition extended worldwide; he received dozens of major film prizes, including Academy Awards. The length of Bergman’s tenure as acknowledged superdirector is breathtaking. In 1992, the Golden Palm was awarded to The Best Intentions, made from Bergman’s screenplay of his own parents’ story. It was thirty-five years after his achievement had been recognized at the Cannes Film Festival with the showing of The Seventh Seal. Seventh Seal, The (Bergman) Cannes Film Festival

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bergom-Larsson, Maria. Ingmar Bergman and Society. Translated by Barrie Selman. London: Tantivy Press, 1978. Discussion of Bergman as social reporter and social critic. Discusses Bergman’s view of the patriarchal structure and the artist’s role in contemporary society. Abbreviated bibliography and filmography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Braudy, Leo, and Morris Dickson, eds. Great Film Directors. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. Contains an introduction to Bergman and four separate articles, “Ingmar Bergman in the 1950s,” by James F. Scott; “The Seventh Seal,” by Andrew Sarris; “Persona,” by Stanley Kauffman; and “Persona: The Film in Depth,” by Susan Sontag. Well-written essays allow comparison with other directors.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cowie, Peter. Ingmar Bergman: A Critical Biography. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1982. Weaves biographical information and critical discussion together in an easily readable study. Information about actors in and reception of Bergman’s films. Critical analysis is not deep. Good notes, filmography, bibliography, list of stage productions, index. Excellent, plentiful photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gado, Frank. The Passion of Ingmar Bergman. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1986. Biographical criticism, precise and insightful; gives information about sources and production as well as interpretation of the films. A few photographs from the films. Exhaustive. Includes list of title translations, list of recurrent names, filmography, notes, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jones, G. William, ed. Talking with Ingmar Bergman. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1983. A series of five seminars given at Southern Methodist University by Bergman as recipient of the Algur H. Meadows Award. Useful as a source of personal, off-the-cuff commentary about Bergman’s films. Nice photos of Bergman in a casual teaching situation. Filmography, list of stage productions, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kalin, Jesse. The Films of Ingman Bergman. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Reading of Bergman’s oeuvre focusing on the director’s exploration of major existentialist themes, especially the search for meaning in the world. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Livingston, Paisley. Ingmar Bergman and the Rituals of Art. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1982. Critical analysis of the films, focusing on the filmmaker’s major theme of the attempt to communicate. Useful discussion of The Seventh Seal in this context. Many photos of the films; good notes, filmography, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Petric, Vlada, ed. Film and Dreams: An Approach to Bergman. South Salem, N.Y.: Redgrave, 1981. Anthology of articles on Bergman’s films and dreams, including one by Bergman. Worthwhile for those who wish to approach Bergman from this direction; not for the general reader. Bergman’s own article, however, is particularly useful. Bibliography of articles on dream and film. Illustrations.

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Categories: History