Sometimes reputation doesn’t tell you anything. Art-house movies are a classic example of this, especially when they’re old and no-one remembers the movie itself. The Seventh Seal is defined in the popular imagination by a static image of a man playing chess with Death. It’s an iconic image – dark, brooding, fantastical. But while it tells us what the movie is about, it doesn’t tell us what the movie is. After the chess match – what then? The action of The Seventh Seal recedes in the popular imagination, it becomes “a film about death” by Ingmar Bergman. Agonisingly long takes seem inevitable; people imagine a movie that’s austere, cerebral, opaque… I’m not about to say it isn’t. But while those qualities might describe the movie, they really belong to the movie’s reputation. The Seventh Seal is about death, but it doesn’t play out the way you think.
It starts on a beach. A knight and his servant have washed ashore. Death comes to claim them. The knight, unwilling to die before he’s rid himself of “indifference”, asks Death to play him at chess. Amused, Death accepts. For as long as the knight resists Death, the knight lives. If the knight should win the game, Death will grant him a reprieve. The bargain struck, Death vanishes. The knight and his servant head inland. They are going home. They have been away for many years, fighting in the crusades. But the country they left behind has been beset by plague during their absence, and the nearer they draw to home, the more death encroaches.
Hope enters The Seventh Seal tentatively. It resides in a troupe of actors. On the morning the knight wakes to find Death waiting for him, an actor wakes to a vision of the Virgin Mary. He is a fool, but he has a loving wife. He tells her what he’s seen and she believes his sincerity (if not his eyesight). The fact that a religious vision is given not to a priest or a devout believer might lend credence to the idea that Bergman views religion with scorn, but there is never any conclusive proof that visions in the movie are fantasy. On the contrary, the fool and his wife may well be the movie’s heroes.
Fate brings the knight and the actors together. The knight’s servant saves the fool from a mob stirred up by a fallen priest, and blinds the priest for his transgressions. Bergman called The Seventh Seal a “road movie”, and what follows in a medieval variation on movies of that type. The knight and the actors and several other lost souls all journey to the knight’s castle, with Death trailing in their wake.
What makes The Seventh Seal more than an exercise in nihilism is the fact that it doesn’t treat religious faith as a delusion. Though death is ever-present, and religious figures seem corrupt or unhinged, Bergman tempers his assault on religion through his depiction of the knight and the fool. These characters are not ciphers, but nor are they arbitrarily concerned with belief. The knight seeks God while fearing God doesn’t exist. The fool sees God without questioning what he sees. Both seem to find the answer they expect at the movie’s end, but only the fool lives. This might suggest that Bergman sees death as final, and faith as a palliative for the living (with no here-after), but such a reading makes the film sound didactic – as though Bergman thought there was only one reason for God’s silence – and I don’t think his mind was made-up. Great works of art are often ambiguous in meaning, even to their creators. Is it possible the movie’s final lesson is hope?
Before the knight and his servant meet the actors, the servant comes across a girl about to be raped and murdered by a priest. The servant intervenes to save the girl, and brings her with him. When the knight and others meet Death, this girl is present too – and worth watching. The knight looks at Death and cries out for God (without hope of answer). His servant has resigned himself to facing the abyss. But the girl – who says almost nothing in the movie – faces Death at the end with something approaching calm. “It is finished,” she says. Is she calm because she has accepted nothingness, or because she sees Heaven? Bergman doesn’t give us a definitive answer. We have only her expression; unlike the others – so not showing the same fear as the knight – but something else entirely? Hard to say. She stares directly into the camera, looking to us; the great agonistic, fingers-crossed masses, who look back at her knowing the movie she’s in, and hoping it exceeds its reputation.