PSA: The Seventh Seal (1957), or I Am Broken In Faith; Why Does God Not Heal Me?

5 03 2009
In a way, we all gamble with Death. It is only a matter of finding oneself in happiness before defeat.

In a way, we all gamble with Death. It is only a matter of finding oneself in happiness before defeat.

Hello, friends! Today is a wonderful day! The PSA is here, and I watched one of my favorite movies of all time! I love this film so much, and I think that it is because of its content. Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal pushed the boundaries of cinema by taking life’s ultimate undoing and incarnating it. Here we have no subtle Bergmanian metaphor, no slight poetic tinge on the screen. We have Death itself personified, and it is such a stark image that one cannot help but feel moved.

So, for the uninitiated, let me fill you in on this classic’s plot. A weary knight is returning from the Crusades after ten years away. His name is Antonius Block, and he has traveled for many leagues to see his wife and his home again. With his darkly comedic and loyal squire Jöns in tow, he comes back to his homeland of Sweden to find it a changed place, filled with fear and suffering after the Black Plague swept through. As he travels back to his home, unsure of anything in his life, he is visited by that which every man or woman fears in their heart of hearts; Death itself. Death, clad in a black cloak and a pale white visage, announces to the knight that his time is up. Block is crushed at this idea, of never seeing his wife again. No matter how he pleads, Death is unswayed. But he is also a sporting creature, as Block comes to find, as he accepts a rather strange agreement. The two will play chess throughout his journey. If Block can win, he will stave off Death’s advance. But if Death wins, well… So, occasionally Death comes and plays the knight along his quest to return to his home, and its skill is notable indeed. but Block does not relent. During this existential battle, questions keep nagging him; questions about himself, questions about God, questions about the meaning of it all. His squire Jöns is very much an atheist and tells him to disregard these foolish questions, but the knight is a man of faith and wants there to be something, anything that will stave off the emptiness he has felt in him since the Crusades. As Block rides through plague-scarred Sweden, he meets a number of people that both test an affirm his belief, and all of them add to his confusion. Will Block find his wife at the end of this road? Can he win his game of chess with Death? Can anyone win such a game?

What a perfect movie. I have watched this movie so many times, sometimes consciously looking for a flaw (I don’t mean continuity, all you picky people out there), but I don’t think it exists. It is the ultimate existential question put into the form of the ghostly visage of Death incarnate. Antonius Block is all of us, secretly asking questions to nobody, hoping that someone will answer. Whether you believe in God or not, although I hope you don’t, this is a movie that challenges you in every way. Try to watch this one with a friend if you can to discuss all the questions brought up, and if you have no friends willing to watch this with you I highly recommend making a friend who will.

A young and handsome Max Von Sydow stars as Antonius Block, and he endows the character with a very interesting nuance. He is a conflicted character who is also endearing. Conflicted heroes tend to be very indecisive and very repellent to an audience. Hamlet, for example, is a classic example of a conflicted hero who is torn to the point of agony, to the point where we cannot even identify with him anymore. Block, while constantly divided in mind, never grates on the nerves. His cynical squire Jöns, played by Gunnar Björnstrand, is the comic relief and the foil for Block, and he is great. He is an atheist smart-ass who disregards his master’s goofy superstitions, even as he follows him loyally to oblivion. Every line he is given is gold. Bengt Ekerot if Death, and he plays the reaper with a warmth unexpected of such an apparition. He is distant, but he is not totally inhuman and monstrous. He smiles, he talks in jest; he is not some grim horror to fear. He is merely an inevitable visitor, one who takes no joy or delight in his task but knows that there is a time for all things to wither.

Director Ingmar Bergman is one of the greatest directors of all time, and this might be his greatest directorial effort. Every shot is captivating, every situation is memorable. He shoots with an urgency in this picture, which is appropriate considering the plot involves running from Death, in all but a few scenes. We are taken on a journey through a strange land disfigured by disease and religious fanaticism, and Block doesn’t want to be here any more than we do, so Bergman lingers only a while at each place the knight finds to make his business at home more pressing. I enjoy the shots where he charges face-first into horror, much like the knight we follow throughout the journey. A scene in particular occurs in the beginning, when Jöns tries to get the attention of a man sitting on the ground by touching his shoulder. When he does, the man slumps over to reveal that he has been dead for ages. Bergman does not recoil. He sits for a moment on the visage of a man long gone, and we are gripped by it.

Ingmar Bergman also wrote this story, in true auteur fashion. His biting gallows humor is seen throughout, as well as his thoughts on existentialism. There are so many memorable lines, but the one that stands out for me is when Block comes across a “witch” about to be burned at the stake. As they watch, Jöns asks his master, “Who will take care of that child? God, the Devil, or nothingness?” Block, with clenched teeth, has no answer. Bergman pours himself into the process, and that is why a movie written and directed by the same man is always such a different experience that a director and a writer working together. They each have their strengths and weaknesses, but for a smaller, more intimate picture like this I think an auteur is best.

Truly one of the greatest films I have ever seen. I love every single scene, every shot, every line. It is flawless to me. I hope this helps at least one person to go and see this film. It will definitely ignite a love of international cinema, a rich treasure trove indeed. I give The Seventh Seal 10 men of broken faith out of 10. My highest recommendation!