Continuing to wend my way through the Sight and Sound Top 250 Greatest Movies of All Time. This week, it’s #085 on the list,. For a longer introduction to this series and a look at the full list, just click here. And if you want a heads-up on what I’ll be watching for next week in case you want to watch along, just head on over to the Facebook page or follow me on Twitter (both of those links are in the sidebar) where I’ll generally be posting that info later in the day.
And when the Lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour
That seems to be one of the many questions that writer/director Ingmar Bergman is attempting to answer in his deservedly iconic film The Seventh Seal.
I call the film “deservedly iconic” because it is one of those films that “everyone knows”. Its signature motif, that of a knight (named Antonius Block and played masterfully by Max von Sydow) playing a game of chess with Death (as personified by Bengt Ekerot) , has become one of those images that pervades our consciousness, whether through direct exposure to it, or though various homages/parodies over the ensuing years.
However, no matter how often a person may have seen the image, one of the questions that is perhaps not often asked is: Just why is the knight playing the chess game in the first place? Is it that he has hope that he can actually defeat Death and thereby save his life – of course, this is the assumption that one automatically jumps to – or is there something else going on?
Actually, in the course of viewing the film, it becomes apparent that the latter is actually the case. Because the chess game is not being played to win. The knight, who is just returned to his home country from the crusades only to find it ravaged by the Great Plague, has seen so much of death, has dealt with it (and dealt it himself) so much that he knows there is no real hope of actually defeating it.
(In their first conversation, Block asks Death if He has come for him. The Reaper’s reply of “I have long walked by your side.” is met somewhat stoically by the knight who simply says “So I have noticed”.)
So the question then remains. If Block already knows that he is playing a game that he cannot win, then why challenge Him at all? What can he possibly hope to gain?
One of the things that I did not know going into the film is that the ocean-side chess game which provides so much of the iconography of this film is not, as one might expect, the climax of the movie. Instead, that particular confrontation actually opens the film, and the game continues in intervals as he makes his way from the seaside back to his home.
Why the delay? What does Block hope to gain?
In the middle of the film, there is a scene that takes place in a church confessional. Death is actually masquerading as the priest who is hearing Block’s confession. As he is speaking, the knight begins to explain himself, stating “Death visited me this morning. We are playing chess. This respite enables me to perform a vital errand.” to which Death responds “What errand?”. In his response, Block sums up at least a large part of the motivation for his challenge:
My whole life has been a meaningless search. I say it without bitterness or self-reproach. I know it is the same for all. But I want to use my respite for one significant action.
What is that “one significant action”? One gets the sense that even Block is unsure, and it is a question that remains unanswered until the final moves of the chess game are played out, at the true climax of the film, where the knight both literally and figuratively attempts to “cheat Death”.
I said above that the question of whether there can be hope even in the face of death is only one of the questions that Bergman asks in the film, and that is true. There are also many other questions that the film asks, some of which it answers, some of which it does not. But to this one at least, the answer appears to be “yes”. Though that answer does come in perhaps a rather unexpected form. Many other questions, such as the meaning of Faith, and the reason that God seems to be inactive and even invisible in the face of mankind’s suffering in general and the knight’s in particular are given at best answers that are only partial, or are not really even answered at all.
Still, it seems that both Block, and Bergman himself find value at least in the asking of the questions, even if certain answers may never actually be found.
Because, perhaps, it is when mankind finally quits asking these questions, quits wondering about and challenging the universe around him, God, Death, and even himself, that Death will win his final victory.
So what are your thoughts on The Seventh Seal? Is it a movie that you’ve seen or would like to? If you have seen it, is it one that would make your own Top 10 list? Or would it not even crack your Top 250? Also, I’m curious about what you think about my argument that some movies simply have to be seen on the big screen before one can even really judge them. And if you agree with it, what films you would put into that category. Let me know in the comments below.