When confronted by the possibility of death, most people seek comfort in their faith, the belief that when their mortal bodies expire, the deeds of their lives will have ensured sanctity and salvation for their souls. But for many, doubts may linger. What if there is no god? What if, after death, there exists nothing? That fear can drive a person to despair, and it's these questions and more that director Ingmar Bergman explores in The Seventh Seal (1957).
After 10 years of fighting in the Crusades, knight Antonius Block (Max Von Sydow) and his squire Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand) have returned to Sweden. The Black Plague devastates the land, inspiring religious zealotry and fear among the populace. Block, disillusioned by his experiences, is soon confronted by Death (Bengt Ekerot), who has come for Block's soul. Desperate to learn of God's existence, Block challenges Death to a game of chess to buy time until he knows for certain there is some greater meaning to existence. The game occurs throughout the movie at different points as Block and Jons journey to his castle. Along the way, the men encounter actors Mary and Joseph (Bibi Andersson and Nils Poppe) who have an infant son Michael, the preacher who convinced to take up the Crusade and is now robbing corpses, a blacksmith and his wife, a girl sentenced to be burned at the stake for consorting with the devil, and others as Block searches for and demands answers.
The Seventh Seal is a movie that is almost easy to make fun of. It's so direct, so straightforward, and so stark about it's theme, it could potentially come off as pretentious and self-important. Most movies about faith and spirituality attempt to do so in a more subtle manner or by dancing around the issue, but this film puts it right out there; our protagonist literally wants to know if God exists.
Literally, the film is about how people behave and react when confronted by death. In the feudal age, as we seem by the terror of the plague, we see religion was not much comfort. The religious leaders we see are corrupt, cynical hypocrites or superstitious flagellants driving people into further terror by claiming the plague is God's punishment. This atmosphere of hysteria and fear gives The Seventh Seal an almost apocalyptic atmosphere . Later, when a thunderstorm rages, it feels like the world is falling apart. The use of stark, black-and-white cinematography is the perfect vehicle for this mood. Humanity is a tiny light surrounded by uncompromising blackness.
This dilemma is reflected on an intimate level by Block's encounters with a personified Death. His journey is one of trying to understand the mystery and inherent unfairness of existence. Early on, we see him in a confessional booth of a church. Looking through the grid, Block appears to be imprisoned, an apt metaphor to describe how cut off he feels from comprehension. When Block challenges Death, he tries to defy,subvert, and outsmart him, but it is ultimately futile; no matter who you are and what you do, Death will win and claim his prize. Death offers no respite.
There is some hope. Mary, Joseph, and Michael (naming the baby Jesus would have been too obvious I suppose) manage to survive and escape Death's clutches, at least for the time being. They are not driven by fear, superstition, or confusion; they live and are happy. They are not ignorant; Joseph in particular has visions, is able to see Death (who only interacts with Block and no one else sees), and witnesses a macabre parade at the end, but they are not consumed the same questions, doubts, or fears that haunt Block and others. As long as people like Mary and Joseph are around, there's hope for humanity.