Thoughts on The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet 1957)

Editor’s note: This piece is part of a series on the Golden Horse Bergman Centennial Retrospective.

At first glance, the two parts of The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet 1957) don’t seem to have much to do with each other. One is the famous story of a knight, Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), playing chess with Death (Bengt Ekerot) for his eternal soul. The other is the picaresque tale of a ragtag group of travelers who band together for protection and, having nowhere else to go, follow the knight’s squire, Jons (Gunnar Björnstrand), to the knight’s castle. The A plot is existential, somber, and symbolic; the B plot is witty, satirical, and socially conscious. They don’t seem to fit together at all.

But they do. In a good example of my long-held belief that tonal inconsistency in a film isn’t a drawback when well-justified, The Seventh Seal uses the B plot to flesh out the argument of the A plot: When the world is full of merry folk such as these, how can God bear to let suffering and Death roam the Earth? This question, originating first in the biblical Book of Job, here finds a more comprehensible answer: It’s precisely because the knight is attuned to this existential wavelength that he can see the value of that one evening of peace eating strawberries and drinking milk with the family of Jof (Nils Poppe), Mia (Bibi Andersson), and son Mikael (Tommy Karlsson). Having known peace and contentment, however fleeting, he finds life of enough worth to aid them in their escape from Death, who will ultimately come for them, but who can never negate their joie de vivre in the meantime.

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