The Seventh Seal

Spoiler alert: In the end, everybody dies.

There’s this phase people go through—it happens differently for each person, and some people never get it, and some people never really get out of it. But for most of us, it’s a phase. It isn’t just that you’re suddenly aware of death; it’s that you suddenly feel as though you can see through everything, like realizing that the whole world is made up of atoms playing at being solid, only instead you’re seeing corpses everywhere that don’t have the dignity to rot. Like Peter Boyle (10/18/1935–12/12/2006) in that X-Files episode where he knew how everyone will die just by looking at them. 

One of my best friends told me she spent years so caught up in the certainty of her mortality that she’d have awful panic attacks. She said what scared her the most were all the ways she could possibly go, because while we all want to pass away in our sleep, after the best meal and the best sex of our lives (hopefully not simultaneously, because ew), most of us won’t. Being human means being vulnerable to a near-infinite number of horrible, terrifying injuries, and it’s paralyzing to realize that there is no real protection against that vulnerability. Or against pain. To lie in bed in the morning and hear the traffic outside your window, and think of cuts, bruises, breaks and sprains and concussions and internal hemorrhaging and poison and choking and cancer. 

My friend found some way to soldier on through these fears. Most of us do. Because as frightening as the knowledge of our impending doom is, it’s also a truth so universal as to be banal. If you were in a crowded auditorium and saw flames and screamed “Fire!” you’d be a public hero, but if you start accosting strangers with shouts of “There’s a death curse!” or “The maggots are coming for you!” or even something as straightforward as, “Someday, you will get your last piece of good news,” no one gives a damn. The questions and the horror don’t go away, but you have to make some kind of peace with them, or risk getting buried prematurely. 

It takes bravery, then, to keep on asking what the point of it all is, even as an adult, and it takes artistry to make the asking appear fresh. There’s a lot going on in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, with its striking imagery, bawdy humor, and grim suffering; it’s a humane film about the inhumane inevitability of death. I’m still not much of a cinephile (this is my second Bergman film, and I only watched The Virgin Spring so I could compare it in an essay to The Last House On The Left), but I’m coming to realize that the difference between a good movie and a great one are those moments of intense personal connection where it seems like the filmmaker is reaching out to you through the screen and whispering (or yelling, or cajoling, or demanding, or pleading) in your ear. As if there is no real distance between you and the director, time has changed nothing, and the moment remains as pure as it was on the day it was filmed. There are lots of moments like that in Seal, between the jokes (which are great) and the religious symbolism that admittedly sort of flies over my head. 

I wasn’t surprised by those moments, but I was surprised to find that Seal has an actual plot. It isn’t complicated, but it is logical in its way, and oddly suspenseful, even if the movie is constantly going out of its way to remind us that even if a character survives the current apocalypse (in this case, the Black Plague, the pandemic that laid waste to the medieval world in the 14th century, and inspired the “dance of the dead” motif that forms the centerpiece and conclusion of Seal), they’ll wind up in the ground sooner or later. 

I’d watched the first scene of the film years ago, and had memories of a windswept beach, pounding surf, a knight playing chess with Death, and lots of gloomy, thunderous music cues. All clearly Serious Art, and certainly intriguing, but it left me with the impression that the movie which followed would be nothing but a series of desperately grim tableaus, strung loosely together in such a way as to inspire suicide, but not demand it. I love a good wrist-cutter as much as the next goth, but you have to be in a special mood for that sort of thing, to savor the depression without seriously indulging in it. What better time to get caught up then the fall? It’s not as soul-sucking as winter can be, and autumns in Maine (where I live) balance their dwindling light and dropping temperatures with an explosion of color and pumpkin-related activities. In late October, I believed myself well-prepared to experience The Seventh Seal in full. 

Thus I discovered the plot: Max von Sydow (4/10/1929–) is a knight returning to his home after the Crusades. He and his squire, Gunnar Björnstrand (11/13/1909 –5/26/1986), wash up on the shores of Sweden, where von Sydow meets Death (Bengt Ekerot, 2/8/1920–11/26/1971). To buy himself some time, the knight challenges Death to a game of chess—if the knight wins, Death will leave him alone. (Spoiler: the knight doesn’t win.)

In addition to following von Sydow and Björnstrand across the countryside, we also get introduced to Nils Poppe (5/13/1908–6/28/2000), Bibi Andersson (11/11/1935–), and Erik Strandmark (9/14/1919–1/5/1963), a troupe of actors making their way from town to town with songs and tricks. Poppe and Andersson are happily, almost idyllically married, with a young son, while Strandmark spends his time making eyes at the locals. In addition to writing songs and juggling (not very impressively; anybody can juggle two balls), Poppe also has the occasional vision, like the one he sees of the Virgin Mary leading the baby Jesus on a walk. His wife greets this information with a sort of genial apathy, and the contrast between the beatific image and Andersson’s grinning, “Yeah, pull the other one” is a tool Bergman uses throughout the film. He never really undercuts the seriousness of his themes, but he also never lets them become too intellectually distant from earthly concerns. Poppe and Andersson’s child is a symbol of the coming generations, of the unending circle of life that shall continue long after we are gone, and even still, he has his ass in the breeze throughout.

The Seventh Seal plays out as a fable, once you pull back far enough: The knight plays chess with Death, and he and the squire meet up with the actors. The knight invites them to the castle, but on the way, Poppe, whose visions aren’t entirely superfluous, sees von Sydow vying with Death, and flees with his wife and their son. What I love most here is that von Sydow watches them escaping, and uses the chess game to distract Death long enough to make sure their escape is successful. Von Sydow, consciously or not, must realize he’s doomed (and Death defeats him soon after), but he manages to help his friends, at least. There are all sorts of possible lessons to take from Seal, but this is the most practical one: We cannot escape our end, but we can do what we can to help others escape theirs.

The religious dialogues here are often fascinating, but I’m not sure I have the background to parse them properly. Once the quotes from Revelation pop up, I start fidgeting, because I all hear is “Grrr! Doom! Sin! Repent! Lamb! GOD!” which does no justice to the text, and sounds more like the last words of a priest who’s been struck by some kind of large, cranial-cracking object. Not to be too flippant, because the talk about the meaning and possible absence of God in the world really is powerful and important, and managed to reach even my heathen brain, but what it all boils down to in the end seems to be, “So what else then?” The passage about the seventh seal that gives the movie its title has deeper meaning, but it mostly seems to be a more complicated, poetical version of snapping your fingers in the darkness. But in my tremendously insulting, painfully reductive view, that’s always what the Bible has been. Part history, part tract, part exhaustive genealogy, it really comes down to needing better reasons for what happens when the sun sets and the fire fades away. Because for all its warnings of Armageddon (and of course a country beset by something as comprehensively fatal and ugly as the plague would turn its thoughts toward the end of the world), Revelation at least promises a purpose behind the suffering, a logical progression of disaster that, if not completely explicable in human terms, at least has a conscious will behind it. 

It would be such a comfort to have that as a promise kept, to go toward dissolution with the surety that existence isn’t all some grand coincidence of physics and genetics. But we aren’t allowed that, and even if we managed to catalog every atom in the universe, there’d still be all that space between them left unspoken for.

Thankfully, Bergman leaves us with some hope. Poppe, Andersson, and child don’t go to the knight’s castle, and they don’t die with the others, so while they’ll end up as worm-food eventually, they have more time. And I love the scene roughly halfway into the picture when von Sydow and the others first meet up, and have a meal of milk and strawberries. It’s pleasant and tranquil, and while the chessboard is nearby, it’s off to the side, and it’s of no great importance in the moment. None of the cheerful conversation here takes any of the sting out of that final shot of Death leading the knight and the others across a hilltop, dancing the only steps left to them. But it’s something. We may all be the punchline in some cosmic joke that no one will ever hear, but we can still be kind to one another. Just because the connections and passions that make life worth living are also what make us fear death doesn’t make them any less joyous. For right now, as I type these words and look out to the morning, that’s good enough for me (5/31/1979–).

More Better Late Than Never?