Contrary to its reputation as a one-sided morass of sobriety, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal is prismatic in its consciousness, a fitful and lithe creature that can crawl on its belly like a dark acolyte of existential Swedish woe one minute and cartwheel to celestial fields of comic (and cosmic) foolishness the next. Although accruing the dredged-in reputation of a stilted monolith afforded to only the most holier-than-thou, protected-by-the-Vatican masterpieces, Bergman’s film is a Janus-headed creature that matches its bristling dread and ability to turn terror into torpor with a spontaneous brio and elastic mood permissive to sparks that constantly disturb any tonal equilibrium. The film’s detractors conveniently fail to notice its many appetites, such as how it leverages it doleful imagery for its more amusing undercurrents, or how it teases out symbols that are as cheekily self-reflexive as they are morbidly pious. And, although Bergman’s representation of Death has been parodied too many times to count, none of them match Bergman’s Death and his statuesque, unwavering anti-charisma for sly suggestion. The film’s detractors are more-so trapped in a state of arrested development than the film.
Of course, mentioning Death opens the spiritual can of worms Bergman addresses, and The Seventh Seal certainly is not low-brow, humor aside. Pathologically intellectual at times, Bergman’s highly abstract film does of course center on a chess game between death and Antonious Block (a prematurely pallid Max von Sydow). On the verge of dying, Block manages to wheedle Death into finishing the game as if to stave off time, at least initially. When he meets traveling circus performers Jof and Mia (Nils Poppe and Bibi Andersson), Block finds at least a moderately renewed purpose in playing for the souls of the traveling performers. Their personalities – protean – are more than mere pawns for the film though, and they are the subject of Gary Giddins’ wonderful piece on the film, entitled “There Go the Clowns”, upon which this review draws grounding and purpose. It is their lifeblood, their sense of amusement and improvisational curiosity about life and preference for the fluxional energy of being rather than the pious immobility of stunted worship that animates Block’s game altogether. This is the secret of Bergman’s film: as solemn and abstract as its demeanor may be, the film’s transcendence is a spirituality found in the messy instability of the living and breathing human rather than the stoic stubbornness of the sacrosanct warrior for whom belief in a higher-power is more important than finding solace in good deeds of incongruous humor and the eternal lift of spontaneity in the here and now. Block’s remarkable sense of belief and commitment are only one side of the equation for life. Play, in The Seventh Seal, is not limited to Block’s fastidious and noble game.
Nor is the game of chess limited to the chessboard, permutations of which can be decoded throughout the film. An early dissolve superimposes a spectral chessboard over the background, mutating the world into a ghost of a board that suggests a pervasive, perennial sense of competition that has infected humankind for centuries and millennia. (This is all the more prescient in light of the Cold War brewing around Bergman as the film throttled into production, an external reality he was well aware of by admission). Block’s game is less a trite and unmoving obelisk of a symbol than a liquid satire of the scores of apocalypse films released in the ‘50s that tasked iron-willed protagonists with playing for their lives (albeit more abstractly than a literal game of chess). As Bergman sees it, most popular media turned life and death into a game anyway, so why not beat these films at their own game? The game’s literal nature reflects Bergman’s Nordic humor at its driest.
On the subject of competition and personal agency, Bergman’s film also has choice words for the “agency narrative” so prevalent in cinema. With Death clad in all-black garb abstracting him of humanoid features and recasting him as a black knight himself (and Block extremely pasty himself), Bergman slyly compounds player and pawn and suggests that Death and Block are not the limits of the world here, that agency is not only theirs and that they too may be pieces in an unthinking world. At one point, the white knight kneels before the board, positioning himself at the level of the pieces to suggest a kind of divine force (be it God, nature, cosmic impulses) at play beyond either of them, as though he is piece rather than player. With its ambivalent and often intangible interplay of divinity and moral choice, Bergman’s film stands in stark refutation to either the divine predestination of many mythopoetic narratives of ancient lore or the gung-ho personal self-definition and individual free-will agency of modern rationalism. (Or the antithetical return to a lack of individuality evidenced in certain strains of modernism). The polarities of white and black, life and death, good and evil, are superseded by the knottier and more rewarding tensions, for instance between the depths of annihilation and flickers of transcendence.
Block’s faith shaken, he loses the game. Yet Bergman preserves hope not so much through the white knight’s masculine agency, his ability to defeat an opponent, but through his determination as well as his humility, his receptivity to the beauty of Jof and Mia and their performative interplay with life. His final realization is that the ultimate sublimity is not found in the obstinate submission to dogma but the multivalent joy of personal expression. Men like Block embalm time in the vise of scripture – not unlike the film scholars aimlessly committed to the unerring scripture of allegory, a hopelessly limited way to understand Bergman. Death, the other side of the same coin, is much the same: unwaveringly subsistent to his principles, shackled to pillars that sediment his body in a prison of personal commitment to duty. Jof and Mia, however, infuse mass death with an air of the carnival-esque, countering corporeal suffering not with a bodily purity bordering on exsanguination of the soul but through bodily expression, through bodily fluidity and fun. Living the life of circus performers liberated from any essential self, free to ennoble the body through receiving new roles and adaptable personalities by the day, they transform life into a stage of play whose only permanence is its wonderful ephemerality, the understanding that roles will always come and go. The visionary white knight must die so that the ineloquent and lively traveling companions, Jof and Mia, the film’s true livewire spirits, can live, but that is because only they know how to live in the first place. They are, in the Thoureauvian sense, artists of life, people who treat life itself as a creative work of art.
We know where Bergman’s sympathies lie, or at least that he is willing to entertain more expressive and jocular sympathies, because his film – far from dryly regurgitating scripture – is itself a parade of monstrous laughter and shock, bodily awe and facial wonder. It takes opportunity after opportunity to latch itself to the human face in hopes of gleaming the possibility of primordial emotion uncontained and unleashed from the repressive atmosphere of restraint. (The film’s surprisingly modernistic sexual mores have seldom been discussed in this regard; the body, The Seventh Seal knows, is used for many purposes). And as supposedly dispassionate and cold as the reputational enamel around the film is, the tone and style actually bear a resemblance to the hot-headed lust prisons Douglas Sirk was cultivating around this time. Specifically, The Seventh Seal’s endless recurring to the same game – its circularity –subliminally refutes the agency narrative of most masculine goal-oriented films, rejecting a sense of time that flows toward conquering and completion. If, as some scholars have noticed, Bergman’s film bears thoughts on the traumatic bodily and mental violence of WWII and the subcutaneous tension of the Cold War, it also ripostes, however obliquely, the capitalistic personal and national narratives that underwrite most of the more heated flares of late-capitalism. It defines achievement not only by setting goals in your direct crosshairs over time but by looking to the periphery for a weird, oblong moment every now and then. Bergman replaces time with the distinctly melodramatic, Sirkian quality of slowly observing faces and imbibing in the anxiety-ridden gap between free-floating, untamed personal expression and rationalist society’s strictures that enforce self-policing and bodily and mental calcification. The pollution of messiness and carnality is a kind of purification for Bergman.
Which is where humor returns us. Heretical in the best, most philosophical sense, Bergman’s work porously interweaves high and low brow, pushing toward a noble release of personal energy rapturously interacting with the ecstasy of the moment. The Seventh Seal is not simply funny as a circumstantial aside or a consolation prize for those willing to suffer through its solemn symbolism. Humor – by which I mean incongruity more than laughter– is embodied not only in Jof and Mia but Block’s risque squire Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand) who similarly uses his disreputable songs not as a marker of indolence or immaturity but as a worldview, a way of seeing the world experimentally when he mutates classic religious edicts into his own personal idiom. Playing the fool – being receptive to the tragicomic absurdities of life, upending rationalist precepts dictating work over play – is a, maybe the, guiding light for poor sinners aware that they are damned but choosing to laugh with life anyway. His film is macabre and exultant in one, a film that not only performs Death as a character but performs against death by performing with death when our real protagonists – Jof and Mia, who can be neither hero nor villain – take the act of acknowledging death ever-seriously by accepting it comically. They, and Bergman, embody the specter of the unknown, mocking it not to diminish its eventual arrival but to play with its power in the moment, in the here and now. Thus does The Seventh Seal retain an ineffable quality, still rolling around and shaking off the moss of poor readings to this day, continuing to inspire, vex, and perplex in equal measure.