Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 The Seventh Seal has become so deeply ensconced in the cultural picture library that almost everyone hearing the title will conjure up instantly the film’s most memorable image – blanched-faced, black-cloaked Death playing chess with Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), a Swedish knight recently returned from the Crusades. At stake is not just the knight’s life, but his afterlife, because his faith has been deeply shaken by his experiences. Behind and above the game, there is a stripped-down Nordic landscape ravaged, like Block himself, by disease and despair. Von Sydow’s angular physique, bleached coloration and depressive personality are the perfect personification of hyperboreal manhood – now as much as then. He is no Block but a thoughtful and hag-ridden man, who wants desperately to believe that there is more to life than the merely mundane. At his core there chews a terrible emptiness, as if the chilliness of the septentrional zone has entered into his bone marrow.
With his practical esquire, Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand), who still prays daily (although he is only going through the motions, as he has probably always done), Block zigzags across Scania towards his castle and his waiting wife, during the course of a single dreadful day. Wherever he goes, he cannot escape either Death or, what is much worse, Disillusion.
Along the corpse-strewn way, he comes across cynical churchmen, flagellants and a witch being burned by panicky soldiers – and makes confession to a priest who is really Death in disguise. He asks the ‘priest’,
Why must He hide in a midst of vague promises and invisible miracles? How are we to believe the believers when we don’t believe ourselves? What will become of us who want to believe but cannot? And what of those who neither will nor can believe? Why can I not kill God within me?
He also encounters Raval (Bertil Anderberg) the man who originally persuaded him to become a Crusader – but Raval is now a looter of bodies and a would-be rapist.
The only slight relief in the otherwise unrelieved misery is when Block and Jöns come across a family troupe of strolling players whose moral tales and religious tableaux are much in demand from a panic-stricken populace. The players are (for the moment at least) healthy, happy and with a young son, Mikael, who absorbs all their thoughts. Jof (Nils Poppe), a juggler who has visions of the Virgin, and his wife Mia (Bibi Andersson) represent for Block an innocence and beauty that are for him unrecoverable. He and Jöns rapidly develop a deep solicitude for them, with Jöns rescuing Jof from persecution by Raval, and the knight eating wild strawberries with them all in a glade, forget- ting his desolation for a sunlit moment. “I shall remember this hour of peace”, he says –
…the strawberries, the bowl of milk, your faces in the dusk. Mikael asleep, Jof with his lute. I shall remember our words, and shall bear this memory between my hands as carefully as a bowl of fresh milk. And this will be a sign, and a great content.
On a generous impulse, he kicks over the chess board, enabling Jof, Mia and Mikael to make at least a temporary escape while Death is picking up the pieces. But it is too late for him, his wife, Jöns and many others. Death infiltrates the castle as Block entreats God for mercy and his lady recites Revelations.
The following morning, as he and his family jolt along the roads out of the plague district and out of danger, Jof has a different kind of vision – of the silhouetted knight and his followers being led away over the hills in a dance of death –
They move away from the dawn in a solemn dance away towards the dark lands while the rain cleanses their cheeks of the salt from their bitter tears.
Few films are so beautiful or literate, and fewer have so well captured a mood. Although anti-Church messages, irreligion and the fear of death have always been with us, the combination of these messages with newly fashionable existentialism and Bergman’s starkly arresting iconography crystallized the then emerging but now everywhere evident crisis of faith and confidence which has become a contagion coursing across all the countries of the North. For Westerners now, as for Block, the spectre of extinction has become a guest at our every feast – and our countries are becoming as strange and unwelcoming as Bergman’s sickness-strewn Sweden. But the losing game is not yet played out, and if we choose to, there is time for us to kick over the board and change the rules.
This article first appeared in the Quarterly Review in Autumn 2008