Skip to main content

Empire Magazine Greatest Movies List - #335: The Seventh Seal


Unless you are a film student or a fan of all cinema, when you hear the name Ingmar Bergman odds are you think boring European films in black and white. Or maybe you have never heard the name at all. Yet his 1957 classic “The Seventh Seal” is not only filled with profound ideas about faith, religion and mortality but it also some rather funny scenes bordering on slapstick. Then of course there is that iconic scene at the beginning where knight Antonius Block (Max Von Sydow) is playing chess with Death (Bengt Ekerot) to delay his demise.

Before watching the film I had seen that particular image parodied plenty of times in pop culture, most notably in an episode of Animaniacs, only Yako convinced Death to play checkers instead. Still, before watching it the first time at the University of Sherbrooke’s film club I didn’t really know what to expect. It was part of a double feature with “Persona,” another classic, which I found more difficult to follow. On the other hand, I found “The Seventh Seal” thoroughly engaging from the iconic chess game to the final shot.

The chess game begins when Antonius Block and his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) return to Sweden after a disappointing crusade. Instead of coming to home sweet home they find the country suffering from the Black Plague. Even worse for Block, Death is waiting for him in the form of a pale man wearing a black cloak and sporting a scythe. Accepting the challenge of the chess game, Death lets Block and his squire leave until their next encounter, or until the game is over.

During their travel to Block’s castle, the knight and his squire meet a group of actors, Jof (Nils Poppe), his wife Mia (Bibi Anderson), their baby son Mikael and their manager Skat (Erik Strandmark). Jof claims to have visions, much to his wife’s scepticism, but she eventually changes tunes when Jof sees Block’s chess partner.

Whereas Block is searching for meaning in his life before Death can claim him, his squire Jöns has become bitter and sarcastic following the crusade. When he finds Raval (Bertil Anderberg) the theologian who had convinced Block to leave for the crusade in the first place, he promises to slice his face should they ever meet again. It doesn’t help that when Jöns finds him, Raval is busy trying to rape a servant girl.

These moments of death and despair are interrupted by moments of comedy such as when Skat the manager sneaks into the woods with Lisa (Inga Gill) the blacksmith’s wife. When the time comes for Skat’s appointment with Death, he is hiding up in a tree. In a scene that feels like a gag from a Bugs Bunny cartoon, Death saws the base of the tree with his scythe.

Given the presence of Death throughout the film, it is understandable Block is searching for meaning in life. His journey to the Holy Land did not give him any answers he was looking for and back home he finds people dying from a plague. He asks a poor girl condemned to burn at the stake to summon Satan so he can ask him about God. She says she has already done so, but all he can see is her terror.

The only certainty seems to be there is no escaping Death, even if you try to beat him at chess. I am not good at it anyway. However, Block does find a silver lining when he shares a picnic with the actors. He has a meeting with Death, yet nothing can take away his memory of that good moment in his life. Death can wait.




Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #70: Stand by Me

Another clear influence on Stranger Things, Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me (1986) portrays American kids from a lost era in which they could go on an adventure away from home. Nowadays if children go missing for more than an hour parents try to locate them using cell phone apps, but in the story written by Stephen King four boys in 1959 Oregon go walking in the woods during a long weekend to look for, of all things, a dead body. Their lives are sometimes at risk, they have no way of communicating with their parents, but they will definitely have a story to remember for the rest of their lives.
For many North Americans adults this movie fondly reminded them of a time in their childhood despite the inherent danger. Not so for me since, first of all, there was no time in my childhood when I could possibly go out of the house for more than three hours without my mom getting in her car to go look for me. The there is the fact that I spent a good chunk of my childhood living in Chile and Peru, an…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #77: Spartacus

Spartacus (1960) is an interesting movie in Stanley Kubrick's filmography because it doesn’t really feel like a Stanley Kubrick movie. I don’t exactly know why, but his signature style doesn’t seem to be present unlike in classics such as The Shining, A Clockwork Orange, or Dr. Strangelove. It does however feel like one of those big sword-and-sandals epics in which you have British thespians acting as Roman politicians with the occasional big battle sequence. In that respect it is spectacular and features Kirk Douglas at his best as the titular hero.
The story of the rebel slave Spartacus has inspired a bloody and sexy TV series (so far unseen by me, but I hear it’s great) and the story behind how it was made is one of those cases of life imitating art. The Bryan Cranston film Trumbo tells how screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was blacklisted in Hollywood during the 1950s for his communist beliefs and had to rebel against the system by writing screenplays for cheap movies under a fake nam…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #79: The Thin Red Line

I once saw an interview in which Christopher Plummer said that what Terrence Malick needs is a writer. He was referring to his experience shooting The New World, which saw his role considerably reduced. The same happened to a much greater extent with Malick’s war movie The Thin Red Line (1998), which saw the screen time of many movie stars reduced to mere minutes amid a 170-minute running time. However you have to hand it to the guy: he knows how to make anything look beautiful, including the carnage of war.
Malick’s movie came out the same year as Saving Private Ryan, so I think that year I had my fill of ultra violent war films and was no too interested in seeing it. Sixteen years later I finally caught up to it on Netflix, but in hindsight the big screen might have been a better option since this is a very visual story. The plot is pretty loose, following one American soldier and sometimes some of his brothers in arms as they make their way through World War II in the Pacific theat…