It’s an image that’s survived many parodies: a medieval knight playing chess with Death. The knight in question, Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), and his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) have returned to Sweden after fighting in the Crusades. After Death (Bengt Ekerot) shows up, Block challenges him to a game of chess on the condition that Death grant him a reprieve if he wins. The game is played at intervals throughout whilst the knight plunges into existential crisis, wrestling with doubts about God’s existence.
The two Crusaders return to a horrifying spectacle: The Black Death (notably one of the most God-forsaken periods in recorded history) has ravaged society and torn down order. Some are self-flagellating and praying for mercy; others are thrust into situations where, like the knight, they feel alone and helpless. A depraved man corners a young woman in a barn and sneers, ‘No-one will hear you, neither God nor man’; later at a tavern, he forces Jof to dance like a bear as everyone watches. Notably, in both instances it’s not divine miracles that save the victims but the pragmatic Jöns, who in his own words ‘guffaws at the Lord.’
The absence of God is a central theme in many of Bergman’s works, including Winter Light (1963)and Through a Glass Darkly (1961). However, The Seventh Seal (1957) is perhaps his most direct and uncompromising in this direction. Before he dies, Block needs to know there is something beyond his mortal existence. Wherever he looks, he only finds representations of God or the Devil in stories, religious iconography, rituals and prayers. Death, on the other hand, is personified, donning the classic hooded black robe, and follows Block throughout the film. “Is it so terribly inconceivable to comprehend God with one’s senses?”, the knight laments as breaks down in the confessional. As he does so, Death sits on the other side masquerading as the listening priest. Death’s personification in classic black hooded robe and Block’s inability to elude him contrasts with the absence of God to convey a stark message: only Death is certain.
The film is shot in black and white despite colour fast becoming the cinematic norm at the time. This accentuates chiaroscuro (contrast between light and shade), especially on the beach at the beginning. I automatically interpreted this as a metaphor for the battle between good and evil. This would render it merely another reflection (or shadow, so to speak) of the knowledge Antonius Block yearns for, suggesting it to be intentionally ironic on Bergman’s part.
Despite foregrounding its interrogation of God’s existence, The Seventh Seal also reminds us that ignorance is bliss. Jof and Mia are two thirds of a travelling troupe, and have a son, Mikail. They’re satisfied with their lot and undisturbed by existential uncertainty. Jof experiences visions, and at the beginning believes he has seen the Virgin Mary, but quickly forgets about it. When they cross paths with Antonius Block, their optimism rubs off and he remarks that his crisis of faith ‘seems unreal’ with them. The strawberries and milk they consume together symbolise the sweetness of their ignorance.
This film is undeniably a classic of world cinema. Some have said its thematic imagery is too stark, but I enjoyed its directness, and think it’s part of what makes it such a classic. Max Von Sydow, who sadly died in March this year, gives a bold, visceral performance as the knight–he starred in eleven of Bergman’s films and all that I’ve seen are made better by his performance. It’s a strange film—its macabreness, range of characters, loose plot, and the way all of these combine make it completely unique. And as with so many other films, I got more out of the second viewing.
In portraying Death as something Block cannot escape during his existential plight, and forcing the audience to face it literally and figuratively, it is both entertaining and thought-provoking. Despite this, Block’s interrogation proves fruitless, and it is Jof and Mia that end up best off. The paradox that underpins the film, therefore, is that it forces the audience to question God whilst acknowledging it might be better not to do so.