When it comes to films that try to tackle man’s struggle with death, few are as renowned as Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal. It is perhaps Bergman’s most iconic film – no small feat when one observes the Swede’s filmography. Even those who have not yet seen the film will likely recognize the image of a crusader named Antonius Block (played by a young Max von Sydow) playing a game of chess against death himself. It is a powerful metaphor for the human condition, and how our own lives often involve us trying to outsmart death. Using the dual backdrop of the crusades and the black plague makes this message all the more powerful.
The summary for the film on imdb is: “A man seeks answers about life, death, and the existence of God as he plays chess against the Grim Reaper during the Black Plague.”A review by Variety summarized it as a film about “a returning crusader in the 14th century who keeps death at bay, via a chess game, while he tries to find out the meaning of life.” Both of these are good bare-bones summaries for the film. The setting is medieval Sweden, where death has started to consume all. It would only make sense that such a character would start to grow curious about the topic as it surrounds him daily, reminding him of his own impending fate.
The way in which characters respond to death is intriguing. There is the joyous distraction embodied by the entertainment show. People laugh away the fear only to have reality of mortality rear its ugly face with the approach of a religious procession that criticizes their lack of seriousness and draws the now-repentant and hysterical crowd away from the show. Later in a pub, as a man threatens another with death, the drunken crowd cheers and bangs their beer mugs against tabletops as if they share a morbid love for death.
Response to death ranges from ignorance, to fear, to celebration.
The contradictory nature of this film is best demonstrated in a scene involving one of the actors interacting with death. After faking his own death, the man climbs into a tree. Death approaches with a saw and begins to cut at the trunk when the man takes notice. A brief, and almost comical, dialogue breaks out between the two. The actor even asks death if an exception can be made for actors, which death denies before cutting through the trunk of the tree and sending the actor to his demise. This point marks a tonal shift, as the film becomes far darker with a greater sense of doom. Death now falls directly upon the characters. A girl suspected of being a witch is burned at the state, a man collapses dead from the plague, and, finally, Antonius Block loses his match with death.
The playful nature present earlier in the film does not reappear until the very end when death dances off with Block and the rest of the camp. This group of people no longer bear the burden of fear as they have embraced the death that had been following them since they entered the forest. The Variety review cited above also notes that death has accepted the people, as they are the only ones who do not perish at his arrival.