“The Seventh Seal” (1957)

This film from the legendary Swedish director Ingmar Bergman can be rented on Amazon for $3.99.

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Courtesy of the British Film Institute

Knight Antonius Block plays Death in a game of chess in Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal." Bergman used the production of this film as a way to come to terms with his own crippling fear of mortality.

This film, which earned highly acclaimed Swedish director Ingmar Bergman his spot in the cinema pantheon, follows the story of a knight who just returned from the crusades to find his country ravaged by the plague (so much for escapism). To make matters worse, he finds Death, personified by a pale hooded man, waiting to take him. He makes a deal with Death: if he wins a game of chess he will remain alive. They play the game over an extended period so the knight has time to wander the countryside and question the existence of God, the meaninglessness of life and other fun things alongside his sarcastic squire. 

Now all that may sound boring but trust me, it’s not. Bergman weaves humor and humanity into an otherwise bleak story. The knight may be outrunning Death and lost in a world where faith has been perverted and God remains silent, but there are plenty of witty remarks and tender relationships (the knight befriends a family of actors along the way) to keep the audience from spiralling into darkness. Bergman balances desolation with occasional lightness to create a more realistic vision of life and death for us, one that acknowledges both suffering and joy. 

In a certain sense, “The Seventh Seal” is almost a buddy roadtrip film; the knight and squire meet a ramshackle cast of characters in their travels. There’s the aforementioned happy family, an oafish smith and his unfaithful wife, a philandering actor, a silent housekeeper and an unscrupulous scoundrel. On paper, it could even be a comedy.

It isn’t, however. Between the jokes, the film is really about death and what it means for life. The only thing the knight knows for certain is that he will die someday, even if he wins the chess game. He plays Death in order to find meaning in life before he goes; he wants to perform a good deed after years of aimlessness. He questions the role God plays since He never responds to the knight’s pleas. He describes faith as “torment. It is like loving someone in the dark who never answers no matter how loud you call.”

The squire, on the other hand, accepts that he will not find any basic meaning in life before the void that is death. This is where I think Bergman’s sympathies lied when he made the film. He was associated with a philosophy known as Absurdism that basically holds that life is inherently meaningless and humans cope with that in three ways: suicide, religion and acceptance. Famous Absurdist Albert Camus believed the first two were not viable and the only valid way to face the Absurd (the lack of meaning) was to accept it. Once you accept that there is no basic meaning in the universe, you can begin to find your own meaning.

The knight glimpses at this personal meaning during his journey. He enjoys wild strawberries with the actors and delights in their friendship and the beauty of their family. He reunites with his wife after a long separation. God never answers him, but he finds moments of contentment elsewhere. Bergman, like Camus, suggests that the lack of a grander purpose in life actually empowers us to find our own way.

That’s not to say this film is completely atheistic though. Believers can still find characters to relate to and will not necessarily see their beliefs rejected on screen. Therein lies the true power of “The Seventh Seal”: it holds a mirror up to your own views of life and death but it also questions them. Anyone can watch this film and feel affirmed in their worldview and simultaneously be forced to ponder it more deeply. As a result, Bergman creates a near complete portrait of humanity’s struggle with its core condition: impermanence. Oh, and he does this all in the space of an hour and a half.

Now that all the heavy stuff is out of the way, I would be remiss not to mention the visual aspects of this movie. The cinematography is gorgeous and the images are not only beautiful but thought provoking. Bergman combines personal close-ups and cold wide shots to create a tension between humanity and the Absurd. The compositions of certain shots are just as haunting as they are thrilling to watch (keep an eye out for the chess scenes and Death’s dance).

While “The Seventh Seal” might not be much of an escapist film in a time as deadly as ours, in some ways I find it comforting. Maybe there is no reason we are here and maybe the coronavirus is just a cruel accident. Either way, I can still find meaning and joy in this world. For the knight, it was wild strawberries in the midst of the Black Death. For me, it’s movies in spite of another plague.