Perhaps Bergman’s most famous film (but certainly one of Woody Allen’s favorites) The Seventh Seal still remains powerful and relevant. A Crusades-era knight (the wonderful Max Von Sydow) comes home to Europe a disillusioned soldier. He is visited by Death; Block challenges it to a game of chess. If he wins, he lives — if not, Death can take him. Over the course of the film, Block slowly comes to realize not just the inevitability of death, but comes to peace with the hypocrisy of The Church. More important, he realizes the power of love and familial bonds against misery, corruption, death and destruction.
I’ve heard many people describe this film as stark, depressing, futile, and nihilistic – how else to describe a film that ends with a medieval Dance of Death? But it is not death that engenders these descriptions. What is stark is the futile quest for meaning which is not fulfilled. What is depressing is The Church’s use of the fear of death to retain power over the masses. The fact of death itself is not as terrible as the fear of death; in this viewing it became more apparent to me the ways in which Bergman stirs our sympathy for the figure of Death against the fact of The Church.
What also struck me with this particular viewing is how funny it all is. Death himself has a wonderful and compassionate sense of humor; he cracks jokes to put the humans at ease. He doesn’t threaten, cajole, or wish his subjects harm; he is simply there to simply end them, and quickly. Even as he tricks the Knight into revealing his chess moves, it is not because he wants to hasten his death. Rather, he wants to tell the knight, in the kindest manner possible, that Death, like chess, can be straightforward and meaningless. All the jokes – whether about death, God, or sex – are written and delivered in a way which leaves no doubt as to their medieval significance and their contemporary meaning.
It is easy to laud The Seventh Seal (as many before me have done) for its formal power, style, and cinematography, but here I applaud it for its humanity – here, love is the only true force to be reckoned with.
The Seventh Seal won the Special Jury Prize at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival.
The Seventh Seal (Det Sjunde Inseglet), dir. Ingmar Bergman, 96 mins. Svensk Filmindustri (SF), 1957. In Swedish.