“This is my hand. I can turn it. The blood is still running in it. The sun is still in the sky and the wind is blowing. And I, Antonius Block, play chess with Death.”
‘The Seventh Seal’, directed by Ingmar Bergman in 1957, feels timeless. It’s the story of a medieval knight who journeys across plague-ridden Sweden to reach his family, whilst at the same time playing a symbolic game of chess with the personification of Death. It’s one of the more parodied movies, particularly the chilly, windswept chess game, but this distracts somewhat from the other qualities of the film. This seems to approach the middle ages from a different direction to Pasolini or Tarkovsky. Whilst the former took a Rabelaisian approach and the latter an authentic but epic approach, Bergman’s movie is deeply symbolic and internalised. Close to Tarkovsky, Bergman manages to articulate the psychology of the time, rather than just the pageantry and art. Through the central character’s philosophising, Bergman unpacks the complex tensions during the Black Death between the ubiquitous faith and the absence of divine mercy. It’s full of stand-out scenes, from the game of chess itself to the closing scene showing the doomed characters begin lead by Death over the headland in a danse macabre. It also had more humour than I remembered (this begin the second time I’d seen it): the rich, boozy details of village life and the deadpan but sardonic reactions of the Knight’s squire lift this movie from being a stark allegory to being a balanced, more nuanced depiction of the horrors and joys of medieval life. Filmed in the same year as the lighter ‘Wild Strawberries’, these two movies offer a similar theme (the approach of death) but from completely opposite angles. Considered in a double-bill with ‘Wild Strawberries’, this perhaps offers the most complete of meditations on mortality.
Would I recommend it? I’m pretty sure I’ve already suggested ‘Wild Strawberries’ as a double-bill with other movies – so I guess you could add ‘The Seventh Seal’ to this, although it’s probably getting a bit silly now. But of course you should watch this – it’s only an hour and a half long, but the movie’s impact on cinema and television has lasted for decades. It’s also visually referenced in ‘Genesis of the Daleks’, so with Pasolini’s ‘The Canterbury Tales’ it acts as a good primer for the Tom Baker years.