The Seventh Seal (1957)

Dir. Ingmar Bergman. Starring Max von Sydow, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Nils Poppe

When he says the following words, the Knight (von Sydow) has just been fooled by Death (Bengt Ekerot), who was playacting as a priest at confession. Even though he has just given away an exceptional strategy in the chess game that will decide whether he lives or dies, he still can feel life.

The Knight: This is my hand. I can move it, feel the blood pulsing through it. The sun is still high in the sky and I, Antonius Block, am playing chess with Death.

But with Death literally around the corner, invited in first by the Squire, Jons (Bjornstrand), who answered the door and then by the Knight’s wife (Inga Landgre), the Knight turns to God. He prays desperately to God for mercy, even though he has, at earlier dates, doubted the existence of such a being. The Squire, whose time in the crusades with the Knight has basically shipwrecked his belief, assumes the mantle:

The Squire: I could have given you an herb to purge you of your worries about eternity. Now it seems to be too late. But in any case, feel the immense triumph of this last minute when you can still roll your eyes and move your toes.

It’s not a terribly satisfying answer, but it’s the pretty good for The Seventh Seal. It certainly feels like a far better answer than the one found by Raval (Bertil Anderberg), the trainee priest who turned to thievery in the wake of the plague, or the Witch (Maud Hansson), which is out-and-out fear. Raval dies screeching and writhing; the young woman looks like she might scare herself to death before her ladder is to fall on the flames. It is also superior to similar tactics employed by Skat (Erik Strandmark), the libidinous actor. When he crawls up in a tree to get what he thinks is some safe sleep, Death comes along with a saw to chop down the tree. Aren’t there any exceptions or loopholes? he asks. ‘Fraid not, Death replies, and the tree falls. Of the cast we meet in The Seventh Seal (and with more than fifteen named characters in less than one hundred minutes of film time, this is one of Bergman’s most peopled movies), the most compelling and most humble method of meeting Death belongs to a seeming mute (Gunnel Lindblom), whose eyes widen more than anyone else’s and who falls to her knees as he approaches. “It is finished,” she says clearly. Perhaps it’s less bold than the ideology of Block and Jons, but there’s a profundity in the girl’s wisdom which is reminiscent primarily of the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…”

The Seventh Seal has one of the most famous opening scenes of all time, but after sixty years and more it still feels brazen, almost cocksure. Block walks into the water and splashes his face, his neck. He tries to pray, but cannot. It appears to be a lazy moment for him and for Jons, who are stretched out on the rocky beach. Later in the movie, characters like Skat will actively hide from perceived threats, but the crusaders are sure of themselves. Perhaps this is why Death appears to Block to tell him that he’s come for the knight’s life? There’s never a reason why Death appears to any of these men and women, which is obviously the point, but it’s a moment that reinforces a supposition I’ve had for a long time. (I expect you even share it with me.) Things go badly not just when things are getting good—for this is merely regression to the mean—but when you begin to think there’s nothing to worry about. Sleepy and dazed and nearing home for the first time in a decade, the Knight believes that his troubles are ending. Only the appearance of Death can shake him up, and only a game of chess which seems to pique Death’s interest keeps him from going right on the spot. The scene is fascinating; the image of a shrouded concept and a medieval knight playing chess on a rocky beach is indelible. And yet Bergman gambles his entire stack of chips on the first hand. If this scene doesn’t work, then the rest of this thoughtful movie is more farce than anything else. But it does work. Part of it is the light, which appears to be neither night nor day. Part of it is Bengt Ekerot, who can leer and smirk without being funny at all. Part of it is camerawork, which closes in on Ekerot’s outstretched cape as it nears its target. A disproportionate part is sound design, for the “silence in Heaven” that is referred to in the voiceover from Revelation foreshadows the silence of the waves when Death appears. And part of it is must be von Sydow, who reflects his director’s confidence as the specter and the man sit down at the board.

Max von Sydow had appeared in films before, but this was his first movie collaboration of nine with Ingmar Bergman. Von Sydow would go on to play other characters reminiscent of Block, such as Jonas in Winter Light and Jan in Shame. Unlike Jonas and Jan, Block can still access an important element of his own humanity: he can feel pleasure. In one scene, he eats wild strawberries and drinks fresh milk with new friends. I will try to remember this moment, he says, reveling in the purity of the movie’s single inclusion of joy. But all in all, Antonius Block is more like them than not, for he is defined primarily by his doubt, and furthermore all three live in times where that doubt is a crippling liability. Jonas is terrified of what might happen if a nuclear China decides to use its weapons; Jan frets and fears his way through the opening stages of the invasion of his country by a hostile foreign power. Block is returning home from his own hostile invasion to find that a terrific disease is obliterating his countrymen. (This is a good enough movie that one leaves aside the temporal miscalculations.) A monk (Anders Ek) with a hostile message and an even worse penchant for calling out individual sinners does have a salient point: you all might die before the sun rises tomorrow, and then where will you be. It’s that second part which tortures Block, who admits to Death that his flesh is fearful but that he, separately, is not afraid. It turns out that Death is pretty tight-lipped about a pair of personages one would expect him to know about in God and Satan or, worse, he himself doesn’t know if they’re real. Block cannot bring himself to trust in God. He calls it humiliating that he still believes in God, laments that he must go on the words of other people rather than having the knowledge of God that he can have in tangible things. When the world is collapsing, perhaps even nearing an end, as some patrons of a tavern believe, it is no comfort to simply think God is real.

In that way, everyone in The Seventh Seal must envy Jof (Nils Poppe) above all others, for he can see what other men cannot. What brings The Seventh Seal above the level of Smiles of a Summer Night and The Magician for me is the way that Bergman manages to hit on what to do with his comic underlings. The little people of Smiles of a Summer Night, excepting Harriet Andersson’s Petra, fail to shine through. The Magician never does manage to wrangle its huge number of servants and bureaucrats into a story that only has four important characters. But The Seventh Seal carves out enough time for little people like Plog (Ake Friedell) and his buxom wife, Lisa (Inga Gill), who have a fairly hilarious tiff with Skat via some cues from Jons; it turns Jons’ vengeance against Raval or Block’s pity for the young witch into ways to develop its conflicting protagonists. But more than anything else, it makes Jof, who is a funny character, into an essential piece of the story. Our first interaction with him shows how he can see divinely; we do not even have to take his word for it that he saw the Virgin Mary teaching the infant Christ how to walk, for the camera depicts such a scene for us. From then on, we come to trust the juggler and acrobat. Other Bergman movies will suppose that certain individuals are granted this second sight; it’s at the heart of Through a Glass Darkly and it helps to resolve Fanny and Alexander. No image, however, burns into the mind quite so brightly as the image that Jof sees at the end of the film. With wonder, he describes to his wife, Mia (Bibi Andersson) how he can see Death marching his little group of departed in the dance. He has sight, but perhaps not understanding; he gives no sign of recognition that Block threw himself on the sword to save the charming little family from Death’s long reach. Jof is a simple man, and alone among a group of philosophizers he does not attempt to reconcile what he sees with a reason why.

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