Film Score: Erik Nordgren Cinematography: Gunnar Fischer
Starring: Max von Sydow, Bengt Ekerot, Gunnar Björnstrand and Bibi Andersson
The Seventh Seal has earned its reputation over the years for good reasons. For one thing, it’s a beautiful film to watch, rich black and white that, far from diminishing the scenes of nature, actually seems to enhance it. The acting is wonderful as well. Max von Sydow, in one of his earliest roles, is vibrant and full of life, as is the couple Nils Popi and Bibi Andersson. But in this case the story is the star of the film. Ostensibly about the Black Death in the middle ages, the obvious allegory for all of human existence is undeniable, and the layers of allegory are wonderfully woven together, the knight and his struggle with his inner self, juxtaposed with the squire and his commentary on life as little more than a play, an act, be it comedy or tragedy.
The opening has a knight returning from the Crusades, Max von Sydow going to the water to wash his face while his squire sleeps. When he returns he sees death waiting for him. Unafraid to die, he nevertheless challenges death to a chess match with his life as the prize. They begin to play, but when the squire wakes up it’s as if none of that has happened, the implication being that the match is not part of Sydow’s conscious thoughts, but a struggle within himself to know what is real, if God is real. When the scene shifts to the troupe of players, there is the same scene recreated, with the leader of the troupe playing death and the “fool” playing the human soul. So, in the context of the film the knight playing with death for his life is an allegory of human existence, but only a representation of life, as demonstrated by the troupe’s act. It’s a play-within-a-play worthy of Shakespeare, but going the Bard one better.
The imagery is also incredible. At one point early on the squire enters a church, with the opening of the door from inside the very image of death’s scythe cast in light. Yet another representation of life and death awaits him there in the form of a fresco being painted of the plague. At the church Sydow ponders the existence of God, unknowingly speaking to death the whole time. And in a philosophical end-around I first read in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, Sydow asks a condemned woman outside the church if she’s really seen the devil, a way of proving god’s existence by inference. When the flagellators come by, however, it’s simply another allegory of the way religion destroys people rather than helps them, which is also reflected in the way the squire believes their trip to the Holy Land was a complete waste. Once the two groups meet they travel through the forest toward the knight’s castle, implying the path of life, which is in reality a journey that inevitably ends with death.
Peter Keough’s essay in The A List focuses on the black comedy of the piece, death cheating at chess and gleefully cutting down a tree to kill the actor. He also makes a comparison of the film to The Wizard of Oz that is rather thin. What I like best is his emphasis on “life as a game, and death is a player.” But rather than focus on the times he wins, my take on the film is that he can’t win every game. While people take their inevitable journey into the void, life keeps on propagating itself. In the end, death is a very good player but he’s never going to beat the house. This is signified by the escape of the biblical trio of Jof (Joseph) and Mia (Mary) and their son. The blatant religious symbolism is not the takeaway, though, it’s continuation that is the point. Be it life or religion, neither seems to be giving up the ghost any time soon. And in that view The Seventh Seal would seem to be just that, a final unwrapping of layers of meaning that have an infinite variety of interpretation.