Bergman’s The Seventh Seal is a demanding film. Often times that’s a euphemism to describe a film that is obtuse or just plain boring, but in the case of the Seventh Seal it is a film that challenges the viewer to look within, which is part of what made it so enduring over the decades. It challenges one to look at your fears, to consider what you treasure most in life and what you might lose or try to preserve. It also challenges a viewer to test whether or not a scene can lose its impact once it’s part of the cultural zeitgeist.
The Seventh Seal encapsulates the pain, passion, hope, and misery of the human condition. Block returns from the Crusades, disillusioned, losing his faith, and only to find that his homeland is beset by pestilence and ruin. The Crusades can be a representative for any place where the human spirit goes to die: Berlin, Hanoi, Fallujah, Newtown. We cannot know ourselves exactly how Block suffered during the Crusades, but the weight on him is not unlike others carry in our lives. Traveling actors, Jof (Nils Poppe) and Mia (Bibi Anderson), embodying innocence and resilience respectively, travel alongside Block and his world weary squire (played by Gunnar Björnstrand). While the imagery and setting of the film is certainly based heavily on a very nordic world view, there is still a universality to its stories of suffering and hope. And when you boil down this film, that is what you are left with: suffering and hope.
The opening scene of Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) doing battle in chess with Death (portrayed by Bengt Ekerot, who brings a wry charm to the role) has been lampooned in pop culture countless times. My first (unwitting) exposure to the motif was in the 1991 cinema classic, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (in which Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves sink William Sadler’s Battleship in lieu of chess), and from there on out in countless movies, cartoons, comedy skits, and assorted pastiches that the imagery had been woven into my brain long before I had actually seen the film. You would think that after being bombarded with parody interpretations for nigh on decades it would dull the impact of this film, but it doesn’t. Parody and tribute have sort of placed the scene on a pedestal and the very nature of the scene borders on the absurd, but Bergman approaches the chess match between Block and Death in a matter of fact way that doesn’t wink at the audience. Bergman invites the audience to a seat at Block’s game, because we are all playing it ourselves as we live our lives. So decades later, this simple game has not been dulled by its place in the pop cultural landscape.
And so, much like the dance of death at the film’s climax, The Seventh Seal holds hands with one generation of moviegoers to another. From film reel, to bulky VHS, then slim DVD, and now ethereal streaming (you can watch it on The Criterion Channel streaming service along with plenty more cinema greats).