Story Of The Scene: 'The Seventh Seal' Ingmar Bergman (1956)

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The Independent Culture

There's a much-parodied scene right at the end of The Seventh Seal which has etched itself onto the minds of all who see it: the Totentanz, or Dance of Death, in which Death leads his helpless victims across a hillside skyline.

The premise of the film is stark: a knight returns from the Crusades to find Sweden in a state of anarchy - blighted by disease and convulsed by witch hunts and religious mania. The Grim Reaper confronts the knight, but he delays the fatal moment by challenging Death to a game of chess (a scene gleefully aped in films such as Bill and Ted's Big Adventure).

Bergman, the son of a Lutheran minister, has a keen interest in religious imagery. His fathergave young Ingmar a strict upbringing, sometimes locking him in the cupboard "with things that will eat your toes".

There are several notable scenes in The Seventh Seal, but the final Dance of Death remains one of the most indelible images in all of cinema - even though it was both unplanned and improvised.

After a long day's shoot most of the actors and crew had gone home when Bergman observed an extraordinary cloud, looming and apocalyptic, on the horizon. The camera was hastily set up and Bergman pressed some electricians, and even a few passing tourists, into the scene. Of course, when Monty Python spoofed it in The Meaning of Life, the middle-class victims of the Grim Reaper all follow him in their Volvos - but that's another story.