The Corner

Film & TV

In Defense of The Seventh Seal

Max von Sydow and Bengt Ekerot in The Seventh Seal (Svensk Filmindustri/IMDb)

Pay attention when Antonius Block, the protagonist of The Seventh Seal, raises his eyes to scan the distance behind his opponent, Death, in their final outdoor meetup over the chessboard. Forget the chess for a moment. Watch the eyes. They tell the story. The plot has turned. Block has found a chance to cheat Death, who remains unsuspecting.

In interposed shots, we see that the game has caught the eye of the young family whom Block has befriended. Block invited them, for their safety, to abandon their plans for a risky coastal trek and to join him instead on an inland route to his estate. (Plague is ravaging the coasts.)

The family was relaxing in the woods. Seated with his back to them, Death prepares to deliver his coup de grâce: Block is moments from being checkmated. Jof, the husband and father, understands the danger at once. He, his wife, and their infant son are, by their association with Block, implicated in the game with Death.

We see Block looking over Death’s head. Then we see the family picking up and beginning to sneak away.

Block (speaking to Death): Nothing escapes you. Is that true?

Death: Nothing escapes me. No one escapes me.

A few seconds later, Block knocks the pieces off the board. Death laughs lightly as he puts them back in place, saying he hasn’t forgotten where they were: “You won’t get away that easily.”

Did someone say “get away”? Block glances over Death’s head. We see the family’s horse-drawn wagon creep slowly, quietly into the distance, through the brush. Distracted, Death gloats a little. Block’s maneuver appeared desperate and childish. Death fails to guess that Block was motivated no longer by the instinct for self-preservation but by empathy for friends. Or call it compassion. Or tenderness. Or clear-eyed, cool-headed altruism, if you must — if you believe, with Flannery O’Connor, that tenderness leads to the gas chambers.

Death: I see something interesting now.

Block (who can’t be sure that the family’s escape hasn’t by now somehow registered with Death): What do you see?

Death: You’ll be checkmated in the next move. . . . When we meet again, you and your entourage’s time will be over.

Block can’t undo his death sentence. He wins a reprieve for others, however. He alters the composition of his entourage. He enables three of its members to slip away undetected, perhaps to evade Death long enough for the child, Mikael, to grow up and have children himself, saecula saeculorum.

Love the movie or hate it, but appreciate its complexity, which, after all, is not that great. Everyone sees its simplicity, the austerity and elegance of the plot, character development, and cinematography. The Seventh Seal was shot in a month, on a shoestring. Set in the Middle Ages, it has the tone of a morality play. It’s not Proust. It’s not the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It’s a woodcut.

In its broad strokes, we see depicted what we already knew: Death always wins in the end. But does he? The subtle, fine-motor flicker of Block’s eyeballs for a few seconds here and there in the final chess-game scene is our cue to look again. Do you see it? The demonstration of the commandment to love neighbor as self. The proof of the proposition that “love is strong as death” (Song of Songs 8:6). The understatement of the scene means that many viewers miss the message (I did the first time watching) but that, when they do get it, its effect is amplified.

Jack Butler in his piece on the movie uses the word “redemptive” to describe Block’s impulse to look “outside himself.” Jacks adds that he could be “completely wrong,” but I think that his only error was to hedge his observation and bury the lede. I probably won’t persuade Kyle Smith that The Seventh Seal isn’t boring, much less that it’s beautiful morally as well as visually — de gustibus etc.