Directed by Ingmar Bergman
The Seventh Seal begins with a knight (Max von Sydow) playing chess against death. The knight is named Antonius Block, and he has just returned from the Crusades to find his country picked apart by the Black Plague. Block is obsessed with finding meaning, and thus God, wherever he can. He plays against Death with a cocky sense of determination. Death, it seems, always falls for his old tricks. Perhaps you can read a little into this and see that his lack of fear of death means a lack of joy in life.
Death is laughable to him, but life is a struggle. Block travels with another man, and eventually they come into contact with a group of actors to whom Block becomes particularly enamored.
The actors are made up of a husband and wife team as well as a third man who steals another’s wife, then fakes his own death only to find the personification of Death lurking around the corner to kill him as a punishment for tempting death. This moment, though, seems to be played for humor more than dread.
This is a world ravaged by death, and there really doesn’t seem to be much hope, yet Block continues to seek it out, and the film presents some of these characters in a way for you to laugh at them. They are so desperate and so in pain that it’s so extreme as to become funny.
When Block meets the two married actors and their infant son, he seems to fall in love with their joy. In the next moment, Death shows up and threatens to take not only Block but his friends as well. And Death has another secret, he has learned Block’s go to move in chess.
The next time they play, Block loses, and Death promises to show up and kill them all next time. In the final sequence, Block returns home to a wife he might not recognize, and he brings his small caravan of people with him. While there, Death shows up, only this time we don’t see the bald, pale, hooded man, just the reactions of the people at his mercy.
The film ends with the married couple and their son. The man sees his friends dancing on the distant hillside with Death leading the way. His wife doesn’t see what he sees and scoffs at him, suggesting this is just another of his many visions. This final moment is parodied in Woody Allen’s Love and Death.
The story is simple, though there are a couple twists and turns I didn’t mention. It’s effectively a road trip movie, as Block and his partner come across people grieving in their own way. They pass through a chapel where a man paints the walls, including a graphic depiction of the horrors of the plague. He doesn’t spare any detail in describing how painful the process of dying is. Block’s fellow knight stares at the painting for a long time. As this is happening, Block himself goes to confession, but only later does he realize the man he is confessing to is Death.
Block’s relationship to Death is like a friendly rivalry. Death doesn’t scare him, though it certainly tries to taunt him. Each time they meet face to face, Block grits his teeth and makes it known how much he loathes Death. He mocks him too, playing up Death’s fecklessness. After all, their interactions always come down to a simple game, one that Block hasn’t yet lost. Though he struggles to find meaning in life, Block has a strong relationship with Death, such that he doesn’t fear it.
The story feels more like he is learning to coexist with Death more than trying to survive. After all the plague is everywhere and doesn’t seem survivable. Before Death inevitably gets him, though, Block wants to find out what’s really going on here, in life.
Nothing makes sense to him, or to us. People fight each other, scar each other, burn each other and even whip themselves. The priests, we’re told in one scene, try to unsettle and even frighten their audience because, as one knight guesses, it’s better to control through fear than through comfort.
And Block himself has just returned from war to a place even more ravaged by death. It’s like he’s waiting in the cleared out lot where his mom and pop store once stood before being demolished for a Starbucks.
By the end of the film, though the final death feels inevitable, there does seem to be some growth. It’s not just that Block dies, but he literally dances with Death.
Maybe Block finally did find his answer, and to find meaning in death, perhaps you have to find meaning in life. Thus Block’s life ended just as his mission did.
This is a film loaded with poetic imagery and scenes that seem to say more than I can understand on a first viewing. It’s funnier and more plotted than I anticipated. There is some screwball comedy in between the characters fighting for the same woman or in the scene where one knight feeds insults to a man like Emily Blunt’s character to Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada.
Even the scene where one of the actors pretends to commit suicide follows with him saying how impressed he is with his own performance. When he dies soon after, with Death methodically sawing down the tree he’s perched in, he doesn’t whine or wail. Instead he just lets it happens.
These are characters who seem more surprised at their existence than their deaths. It’s as if they all expect to die, so that part doesn’t bother them, but they can’t understand why, if their lives are so unpredictable, they exist in the first place.
From what I read, this film helped director Ingmar Bergman conquer his fear of death. The whole story is so immersed in fighting and death and apathy (a woman is burned at the stake), that you have to be okay with it to make it through. At the very least you need to look at the story and its themes with some sense of humor, as the film itself does. The simple image of a man, wearing clothes meant for war but playing a game, is funny. It highlights the meaninglessness in everything if it comes down to a manmade game to determine the outcome of your life.
Lastly, here’s the final scene of Woody Allen’s Love and Death (1975):