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.