In my quest to fill the many holes I had in my film education, I don’t think I’d yet approached anything so iconic as Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. The movie is so well-known that The Simpsons makes jokes about it at leisure, the chess game with death is imitated and riffed upon (at some length in one of my favorite movies, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey), the back of the Criterion blu-ray extols it as “…one of the benchmark imports of America’s 1950s art house heyday, pushing cinema’s boundaries and ushering in a new era of moviegoing.”
I think, like a lot of people, I was expecting a grim vista, an allegory of Man’s search for meaning and God in the midst of the Black Death. Well, there is a fair amount of that. What I was not expecting, given the movie’s reputation, was the sweep of emotions, the comedy, the rapid switching of audience allegiances with the characters.
In other words, I was expecting good, but I wasn’t expecting something that would swing in on my Top Ten and start bashing other movies out of the way, like Aragorn and Gimli on the bridge to Helm’s Deep.
(Was that last reference nerdy enough? I worry sometimes.)
Sure, Bergman starts us right off with the chess game with Death. Knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) is sleeping on a rocky beach, along with his squire, Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrad). Up crops Death (“I’ve been at your side for a while.” “I know.”) and Block, since his chess board is curiously already out and set up, proposes the chess game. What I didn’t know, in my filmic ignorance, is that the chess game is ongoing throughout the movie; Block has a reprieve so long as he manages to hold checkmate at bay, or wins.
Block has just returned from a decade spent in the Crusades, a decade during which his faith has taken a severe beating, and his life’s course has become a quest to qualify if God actually exists, or not. He has been through such horrors that he requires physical proof, even resorting to asking a condemned witch how he, too, could see the Devil, because he has some questions for Old Scratch. These are, of course, questions that will not be answered – even Death is not forthcoming on the subject. The fact that he has returned to his home country to find an ever-spreading plague isn’t helping his demeanor any.
That I had expected. What I was not expecting was to become so involved with the character of the Squire. Jöns has similarly lost whatever faith he had, saying “Our crusade was such madness only a real idealist could have thought it up.” His is not the way of questioning; he has come to believe that all that remains after death is emptiness, and moves through life with more of an air of acceptance, of proactivity, as it were. If there are any examples of what would one consider knightly duties, saving a young woman from a rapist, or putting a scoundrel down, it’s Jöns that does it. It is beneath Block. Jöns has his bad moments – he’s far from perfect or even heroic – but he remains my favorite.
Then we begin spending some time with a traveling troupe of actors: a family of three, Jof (Nils Poppe), the juggler who sees visions like the Virgin Mary walking the toddler Jesus; Mia his wife (Bibi Andersson) and Mikael, his one year-old son; and Jonas Skat (Erik Strandmark), who is more than a bit of a rogue.
Now, I was getting into the travels of Block and Jöns, and found myself a little impatient with the juggler sequences. Was this going to pay off? I should have know better. Of course it was going to pay off.
Block, Jöns, and the girl he rescued (Gunnel Lindblom) wind up at the same village where the jugglers are doing a show – which will be interrupted by the Flagellants, a group of people going about the countryside, singing hymns, carrying lifesized crucifixes, and haranguing everyone that they’re going to die because God thinks they suck and generally killing any hope for the actors passing the tip hat. Also, Jonas runs off with the local blacksmith’s wife, which is going to propel the plot for a while.
There will be a point where Block and Jöns join the jugglers – Jonas is still MIA with the wife – and they share a simple meal of wild strawberries and fresh milk, while Jof plays his lute. It’s a quiet, peaceful setting, and Block speaks of how the memory of that afternoon will sustain him. It’s a beautiful moment, made all the more poignant as one realizes that if Block was truly looking for the existence of God, it was never more obvious in that moment of peace on a sunny hillside.
There is a scene of almost Shakespearean comedy in the local tavern, where the blacksmith Plog (Åke Fridell) is sobbing into his ale over his lost wife. He and Jöns have a back-and-forth scene about all the things that are wrong with women, and why he is better off without her, and each one just makes the blacksmith sob harder. Later, when Block, Jöns and Plog are escorting the jugglers through a scary wood, and they find Jonas and the wife walking about, there is another marvelous scene where Plog and the actor trade insults, with only a little help to the slower blacksmith by Jöns.
Later, camped in the woods, Jof, with his talent for visions, is the only one that can see who Block is playing chess with, and quietly gathers his family and sneaks out of the camp. Block sees this, and remembering that Death has said some things about the trip through the woods with typical Death-style foreshadowing, knocks over some of the chess pieces to distract Death while the actors escape. It is one of the most knightly things we have seen him do, but it will cost him. Shortly after, Death wins the match.
I hope I haven’t said too much, as I leave you here, still ten minutes before the end of the movie. As with all movies that I like, or love, I want you to experience it for yourself. And probably the greatest recommendation I can make is that, while writing this, I have been urgently seized with the need to watch it again. Fabulous filmmaking, all the more remarkable considering Bergman was using equipment left over from World War II, and filming in a very small studio – apparently it is possible to see apartment lights in the background of one nighttime shot – and still produced a movie, that while epic in subject matter, still manages to feel small, intimate, and wholly believable.
At the very least, I haven’t spilled any plot points the trailer didn’t:
(You might want to hit the YouTube logo and watch it on their site – I couldn’t find one where the burned-in subtitles didn’t turn to mud)
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