Even if you have never seen The Seventh Seal, you are familiar with the key scene. It’s been homaged, referenced, and parodied dozens, even hundreds of times since the film came out in 1957. The knight playing chess with Death has become one of those pop-culture touchstones that everybody is familiar with (although the movie itself indicates the idea of playing chess with Death is even older, as the knight brings it up as something he has heard of.) Since Hulu briefly made this Ingmar Bergman classic available for viewing, I thought I would take the opportunity to see the source of all these references for myself.
The knight in question is Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), who has just returned home after ten years in the Crusades. And it is clear from early on that Antonius is a troubled man. If he were alive today, he would no doubt be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder; certainly von Sydow has perfected the thousand-yard stare for this role. When Death (Bengt Ekerot) meets him on the beach, Block is unafraid of dying, but is afraid of what comes after — or more precisely, what might not come after. His faith has been shaken, and he desperately wants it restored, but Death is revealing nothing. So Block challenges Death to a game of chess, planning to use the reprieve — the game is to take place intermittently, as both are busy men — to find something to believe in, and to hopefully perform one last, unambiguous good deed before he dies.
The chess game represents man’s defiance of oblivion.
The beach represents a bunch of sand near water.
Block is contrasted with the other characters on his journey, most particularly his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand). Where Block has reacted to the horrors of war with a quiet desperation to renew his faith, Jöns has cheerfully abandoned his faith in God, goodness, and basic humanity. He seems to have some standards, defending a few innocent people here and there, but then again he at one point says he isn’t raping a young woman (Gunnel Lindblom) because he has become bored with it. The knight and squire thus form two sides of a similar coin; both are broken by what they’ve seen, but Block defies it while Jöns embraces nihilism and refrains from doing terrible things only because he has seen so much it has become passe for him.
A stronger contrast is shown with the acting troupe the pair encounter along the way. Troupe leader Jonas Skat (Erik Strandmark) is a scoundrel, perfectly willing to steal the wife (Inga Gill) of a hapless heartsick blacksmith (Åke Fridell). In that trio Block’s high standards are contrasted with basic human flaws: envy, lust, vanity, pride, and wrath. Between the three of them they comprise five of the seven deadly sins; it may be coincidence, as the other two don’t factor largely into the characterizations of anybody, but as Block seems to have been a very devout man before his trauma, the general contrast against sin is no doubt intentional. The other trio the troupe adds to the caravan is juggler Jof, his wife Mia, and their infant son (the former two played by Nils Poppe and Bibi Andersson). Where the other characters in the film show mankind’s faults and flaws, this trio display innocence and joy, and even a man as jaded as Block finds himself delighting in their company.
The film is shot well, and the acting is solid in all corners, most especially from von Sydow. But, though I can’t dispute its place as a classic film, I also can’t say I enjoyed the film greatly. The film has a tendency to plod its way along. There isn’t much of a through-story other than the chess game and Block’s journey home, and even scenes which ought to be exciting, such as the burning of an accused witch, are approached in such a low key manner they feel a little tedious. There are moments of levity here and there, but not much to actually engage the audience. The plot is mostly an excuse for character exploration, but other than Block himself, the characters have little depth to them, and it’s hard to care about them.
The Seventh Seal is very well done, but it’s not a film for everyone. While it’s not a film that requires a great deal of cerebral thought, it is one that requires some patience. The event that has the most interest is the chess game itself, and that only on the conceptual level; truthfully, if you’ve seen the references elsewhere, you’ve seen all you need to know.