NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE T he Seventh Seal is famously one of the most dour, humorless, glum, and forbidding movies ever made. I’d say it’s the longest 90 minutes in cinema if it weren’t for all of the other dour, humorless, g. and f. 90-minute movies made by Ingmar “Chuckles” Bergman. The other day I cued up the movie, fell asleep, cued it up again, fell asleep again, rewound to the falling-asleep part and fell asleep again. Did I mention I made a point of watching it at noon, after drinking three cups of tea, because I remembered all the previous times I fell asleep when I tried to watch it at night? I’ll say this for Ingmar: His films were mostly not good, but they were certainly restful. (I like Smiles of a Summer Night and Fanny and Alexander, however. The latter is five hours long and not at all dull.)
The Seventh Seal (which is streaming on TCM through April 24) has no story to speak of, its characters wander around in a fug of existential dread, and (as Jack Butler writes) it’s frustratingly “ambiguous,” which is the fancy term for “vague.” A pulse-pounding thrill-ride it is not. In its opening minutes, it brings up an absolutely sensational idea, only to waste it: A clever knight (Max von Sydow) just returned from the Crusades staves off the stroke of the Grim Reaper by offering his Royal Deathness a chess match instead. Death loves chess, Death is maybe a little bored by reaping grimly, Death isn’t used to being offered something he actually likes, and Death can always cheat if things don’t go his way anyway. Death agrees to the opportunity, and we all settle in for a master allegorical showdown. And then what happens? There’s a cut, it’s later in the day, the knight wakes up his squire, and the two of them spend the rest of the movie trudging along encountering random people until Bergman finally gets back to the chess match we’ve been awaiting the entire movie.
I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say The Seventh Seal is not a comedy. But it should be. I am in earnest. Like Kate McKinnon putting on a white pantsuit and posing as Hillary Clinton morosely singing “Hallelujah” as a requiem for herself, it takes itself so seriously that it requires only the slightest of tweaks to be hilarious. And if it did so, it’d be a much more powerful film. It’d be something like Monty Python’s Life of Brian — a brutally unsentimental exposé of the human capacity for self-delusion.
The Seventh Seal is a study in how people respond to plague, but Bergman’s cosmic joke is that plague life is really no different from ordinary life because death awaits either way. (Given our ongoing real-life experiment, I disagree: If plague life were the same, these pants would still fit me.) In the Plague-ravaged Middle Ages, people fear death. In non-Plague-y eras, people . . . fear death. Bergman casts his eye over how various types of people respond to living under the ever-present threat of extinction and discovers your basic cross-section of humanity.
One group of villagers decides that a random girl is a witch who started the Plague, and they vow to burn her to death. Another are fanatical Christians who scourge themselves, fall to their knees screaming for forgiveness, and reenact Calvary. The squire Jöns figures that since life is meaningless, it’s best to just ignore the prospect of death and have some fun. The one character with a really measured, reflective take on existence is the knight, who has just spent ten years in mucky violence fighting righteously for God but is not entirely convinced that the Crusades were anything but a waste of time. He’s been a good boy, hasn’t he? Couldn’t God just throw him a little clue, just the slightest hint, that He exists? Hello? The Seventh Seal makes the case that God doesn’t really care whether you’re devout or blasphemous. He’s going to take your life either way.
In my vastly superior comedy version, Steve Carell plays the miserable, put-upon knight, Seth Rogen is his party-boy squire, Adam Sandler is the guy who explains why burning a random girl at the stake will save everyone from the Plague, Margot Robbie is the caged girl who can’t believe what’s happening to her, Kathy Bates and Christopher Walken are the traveling religious zealots beating themselves raw with knotted ropes, and Chris Pratt is the dim actor who hides from Death in a tree only to discover Death sawing the trunk out from under him. One thing that might need to be updated, though, is Bergman’s character names: They’re too silly. “Jof”? “Plog”? “Skat”? I’m not sure people will take me seriously if I keep those. Maybe I’ll retain “Block” for the stodgy Steve Carell figure.
At the end of The Seventh Seal (or so I’m told), everyone joins hands for a blood-chilling Danse Macabre across the hilltop, but in my version the characters split into teams (saints vs. sinners) and convince themselves that the way to salvation is to win a hip-hop dance-off, like the one at the end of Daddy’s Home. Then everybody dies anyway. Bergman’s take is that man’s search for meaning amid God’s silence is absurd and futile. My version would make the same point much more potently, and people wouldn’t sleep through it.