Life, Death, and The Seventh Seal

Max von Sydow in The Seventh Seal. (Svensk Filmindustri)
What a decades-old Swedish film about death can tell us about how to live.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE W hen actor Max von Sydow died at age 90 earlier this year, it was not the first time he had faced death. In the famous film role that launched a career of them — The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Exorcist, Hannah and Her Sisters, Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens, and many more — the legendary Swedish performer portrayed a medieval knight who plays a chess match with a personification of Death (Bengt Ekerot), in a bid to extend his own life at its appointed end.

The profile image of an eerie, black-clad figure and a young knight sitting at a chessboard has become an iconic shorthand for The Seventh Seal, the 1957 film by Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. A classic of world cinema, the film has been referenced and parodied in pop culture, inspiring notable pastiches in Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey (in which Death instead plays modern games, such as Twister and Battleship), two Monty Python films, and elsewhere.

But The Seventh Seal is far more than the source of an iconic image or amusing parodies. It is a timeless work, one whose background story of plague — with characters lamenting business losses from plague, desperately maintaining “social distance,” and fleeing plague-stricken areas only to bring the disease to where they have fled — has unexpectedly made it even more relevant for our own time. Though ostensibly about death, The Seventh Seal is in fact a transcendent meditation on life, and how one ought best to live it.

One reason that The Seventh Seal is timeless is that the period in which it is set bears only a loose, imaginative relation to history. The film shows the journey of Antonius Block, Sydow’s knight, on his way home from fighting in the Crusades, accompanied by his squire, Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand), and sporadically continuing his match with Death throughout. The last of the Crusades ended in the late 13th century. Yet as they travel, they are dogged by signs of the Black Death, a plague of the 14th century. And witch-burning, which appears in the film as well, did not become a notable European phenomenon until the late 15th century. So The Seventh Seal is not an attempt to re-create the Middle Ages. As medieval historian John Aberth wrote, “the film only partially succeeds in conveying the period atmosphere and thought world of the fourteenth century.”

Not that this is a strike against it. Aberth added that “Bergman would probably counter that it was never his intention to make an historical or period film.” These deliberate anachronisms represent a sort of psychological composite of a period spanning centuries. Using the most psychically distressing aspects of a time when people would be far likelier to interpret their experiences in a religious manner, Bergman explored modern-seeming questions in the same way without arousing the suspicion of a more secular audience. Befitting the director’s devoutly Christian upbringing, the specter of faith looms in the film at least as strongly as the specter of Death. A passage from the Book of Revelation provides the title and appears at both the beginning and the end: “And when the Lamb broke the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about the space of half an hour. . . .”

The film’s central questions revolve around faith. Block is desperate for proof that God exists in a world full of tragedy. Though Sydow was only in his late 20s, already he expertly embodied the world-weariness that marked many of his roles as an older man. “I want God to stretch out his hand, uncover his face, and speak to me,” he laments. “No man can live faced with death, knowing everything’s nothingness.” Block seeks some kind of solace throughout his journey, finding just a taste of it in a pleasant meal with companions, and coming up short when he discovers that a woman who claims to be in league with the devil (and therefore possibly knowledgeable about God) is simply insane. He comes closest in what is revealed to be his motivation for his game with Death in the first place: He seeks “one meaningful act” that he might perform and thereby justify his temporarily prolonged existence. That turns out to be an act of self-sacrifice, disguised as a distraction that leads Death to claim him and to pass over a family he has come to know. Though Block doesn’t receive the certainty he seeks, he approaches it by looking outside himself.

Block’s is not the only possible way of living in the face of Death’s inevitability. The Seventh Seal offers several others. Jöns, the squire, faces reality with nihilism. Having “either read, heard, or experienced most of the tales that we people tell each other,” he considers himself “meaningless to heaven, of no interest to hell.” His only morality is to be a man of his word, which at one point demands that he engage in retributive violence against Raval (Bertil Anderberg), now a thief, who years ago had persuaded Block to embark on the Crusades in the first place. He also has a code, announced when caught stealing (and attempting rape): “It’s everyone for himself; it’s as simple as that.” Later, stricken with plague, Raval begs for help as he dies but gets none, adhering to his code to the last. There is also the blacksmith Plog (Åke Fridell), a simple man who only wants his wife returned to him after she went off with the performer Jonas Skat (Erik Strandmark). Skat is devoted to seeking short-term pleasure in life, but that does not save him; though almost all the principals end up dead by the film’s end, Skat is the first to go, sought out by Death when he thought he had managed to trick him. All of the alternative moralities presented in the film come up short, one way or another.

Only Block’s, and one other, have some transcendent power. While playing his game with Death, Block knocks over the pieces in the hope of making it last longer. Death remembers their positions, however, and replaces them. But as he does, Block sees that some of the companions on his journey have escaped: a married couple of actors and their newborn child. The cheery Jof (Nils Poppe), is given to what his wife Mia (Bibi Anderssen) considers fanciful visions, including one of the Virgin Mary and her Child. Jof had become convinced that he and Mia must leave, as one of his visions had revealed Death in Block’s company. Block’s distraction enables their escape, and Death passes them over, for now, while visiting all those who had returned to Block’s home at the film’s end. What this means exactly is open to interpretation. I think that it not only suggests that Block’s self-sacrifice is redemptive and therefore “meaningful” but that it also endorses a life lived in acceptance of the reality of the transcendent and in behalf of others, such as new parents — or a small child.

I could be completely wrong about The Seventh Seal. Part of its staying power after many decades is not just its striking imagery but also its ambiguity. But if I am right, it offers a moving message for our own plague-ridden time. What a harsh monk leading a procession of penitents shouts in a powerful moment of the film is true not only during times of pestilence:

Do you know, you insensible fools, that you shall die today or tomorrow, or the next day, because all of you have been sentenced? Do you hear what I say? Do you hear the word? You have been sentenced, sentenced!

The reality of death is an inescapable part of life. But it does not consign us to a life that is meaningless. We merely earthly beings can connect ourselves to something greater. If you don’t believe me, how about Max von Sydow himself? At the time he made the movie, he recounted that he was “a great doubter” and “searching.” Between takes, he would discuss religion with Bergman. “Well, this eternal life, I don’t believe in this,” Sydow said. “We die, and that’s it.” Bergman, the director, disagreed. “No no no no no, I promise you you’re wrong there,” he said. Many years later, Sydow was no longer a doubter. Asked why, he said that “life changes all the time. And you lose things, and you get things, and you meet people . . . and meeting with somebody else can totally also totally change your perspective, the angles of your perspective, and your outlook.” In a twist worthy of The Seventh Seal itself, Sydow even claimed that Bergman, who promised to visit him after death to prove the existence of an afterlife, had actually done so. “Well . . . I’ve heard from Bergman,” he said. “Many times.”

Maybe Block got his proof after all.

Jack Butler is an associate editor at National Review Online.

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