It’s been a while since we last visited with the Swedish master of existential crisis, but we’re returning with what is probably his most famous, most iconic work. Mention Bergman’s name, and what do people think of? Max von Sydow on a desolate beach playing chess with Death, probably.
At the same time, while that image is practically the Bergman cliché, I’ve often found it difficult to see The Seventh Seal as the quintessential Bergman film. It seems to reflect the stereotypes, but for every Bergman trope that the film undoubtedly displays there’s an angle that is distinctly different. Having seen more of the director’s oeuvre over the last year or two thanks to Criterion, I wonder if it represents something of a turning point in his filmography, pointing foward to his films of the 1960s about neurotic men and their crises of faith as much as backwards to the lighter, less tortured films.
Looking at two of the main male characters of The Seventh Seal, the knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow, playing a mean game of chess when he isn’t gullibly revealing the killer moves he’s planned to his opponent) and his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand), their concerns prefigure characters from later films such as the pastor Tomas from Winter Light or even good old Johan from Scenes from a Marriage. In The Seventh Seal, the struggle with God and faith more typical for Bergman’s later films is split into two distinct types, represented by Antonius Block and Jöns.
Block is the one struggling with his faltering belief in the face of what he’s seen in the Crusades and what he finds when he returns to his native Sweden, but his crisis of faith is countered by an innate hope and a belief that the knight can alter the fates of the people he considers under his care. After all, he plays a game of chess against Death (Bengt Ekerot) in the hope that he can save at least the young couple, Jof (Nils Poppe) and Mia (Bibi Andersson), that he and Jöns come across, where the men in the later films would have found sardonic, pithy phrases to express why any such struggle against fate is pointless and how much they hate themselves for their own weakness. Meanwhile, Jöns is the one who always has exactly those sardonic, pithy phrases at the ready, but he is not a neurotic Bergman intellectual. He seems to have made his peace with what he considers to be the meaninglessness of the world, and while he is an atheist and a cynic (and perhaps the most anachronistic of the film’s characters), we nonetheless find him acting in ways that belie his cynicism. He is certainly not heroic, but at times he finds himself to be something of a humanist in spite of himself and the hard-nosed, scoffing persona he affects.
What is missing from The Seventh Seal compared to the later films is the mordant sense of disappointment and existentialist neurosis that so many of Bergman’s characters and especially his men display. Tomas from Winter Light, David (another Gunnar Björnstrand character) from Through a Glass Darkly or Johan from Scenes from a Marriage: they are never far from despair and carry their disaffection with what seems at times to be a hostile, perverse pride. Such prickly antagonism against the world that has disappointed them and made them failures in their own eyes isn’t found in The Seventh Seal. In the medieval world of the film, Jof can wake up to a vision of the Virgin Mary teaching the infant Jesus to walk, and while it is absolutely possible for the audience (and indeed for Jof’s wife Mia) to doubt or even reject the reality of the travelling actor’s vision, the film itself leaves the question unanswered, not least because this is a film that is open to some kind of metaphysical reality, even if we read if metaphorically. After all, The Seventh Seal has an actual personification of Death stalking the countryside and reaping souls. Who’s to say that Jof’s vision is any less real – especially since Jof, Mia and their own baby are the ones that actually escape the Grim Reaper’s clutches (for the moment) and are the only ones who do not join his dance at the end of the film?
The Seventh Seal has more to offer besides these metaphysical, existentialist questions, obviously. It is gorgeous to look at, it is engaging, surprisingly warm, even funny at times, and yes, even if it has become something of a cliché, Block’s game of chess against his black-clad, ironic opponent remains endlessly fascinating. But it is the surprising lightness in the face of its weighty themes that keeps me coming back. If The Seventh Seal is anything to go by, hope and indeed faith are still possible – not necessarily faith in God, but in the possibility that a person’s fate can be changed for the better and that the struggle to do so can be meaningful and worthwhile.