Directed by: Ingmar Bergman » Written by: Ingmar Bergman, 1957 » Region/Time: Swedish, black & white, 96 minutes.

Starring: Max von Sydow as Antonius Block » Gunnar Björnstrand as Jöns, the squire » Bengt Ekerot as Death » Nils Poppe as Jof » Bibi Andersson as Jof’s wife, Mia » Inga Gill as Lisa » Maud Hansson as The Witch » Inga Landgré as Block’s Wife, Karin » Gunnel Lindblom as The Girl

“Love is the blackest of all plagues, but you don’t even die of it and, usually, it passes. Only fools die of love. If everything is imperfect in this world, love is perfect in its imperfection.” – Jöns, the Squire

The day after Ingmar Bergman’s death in 2008, an article by John Podhoretz was published in the New York Post declaring, amongst other bon mots, that Bergman’s art “wasn’t supposed to be easy to take or pleasurable to take in. It was supposed to punish you, assault you, scrub you clean of impurities” and that “such views held sway over the opinions of an educated elite in this country and in Europe for a long time. But you can only tell people to sit down and eat their spinach for so long” and that “In a relentless series of films – one or two a year – made between 1950 and 1982, he punished his audiences with a view of life so dark and foreboding that he made his fellow existentialist artist, Samuel Beckett, seem as upbeat as Oprah.”

Yikes! Harsh, especially when obituaries were still flooding in. However, Mr. Podhoretz expounds on a common misconception – one that I also shared before I had seen any Bergman films. In fact, when the local Cinematheque was showing two Bergman films back-to-back, I went to see them, but with much trepidation. Would it be too dark for me? Would I be able to handle such despair and horror? I was surprised to find the movies were nothing like their reputations (and Mr. Podhoretz has clearly not seen the films he skewers), but are the complete opposite of sterile, pretentious essays. Bergman’s films were funny and heartfelt contemplations of some of the most elementary concerns of humankind. They may come across a tad earnest, but there will come a day when the current style of ironic detachment is seen as old-fashioned and passé.

In The Seventh Seal, a knight, Antonius Block, and his squire, Jöns, return from ten years in the crusades to 14th century Sweden, only to discover the black death has beaten them home. In the opening scene, Death comes for the knight, but Antonius challenges Death to a game of chess, buying himself time to see his wife again and to perhaps discover what awaits him on the other side of life. During the knight’s spiritual quest, he befriends a troupe of actors, encounters the flagellants, witnesses the burning of a witch and finally loses his chess match with Death, but, in doing so, buys enough time for the actors – a husband, wife and child – to escape from Death. Antonius’ search for answers leads him to ask of an accused witch “Have you met the Devil? I want to meet him too…I want to ask him about God. He must know – he, if anyone.” He sees only terror and madness in her eyes, however. In contrast, his squire, Jöns, does not believe there is anything awaiting him after death, and so it only matters how well and fully one lives life, since death is a cruel cosmic joke.

Jöns is the humanitarian conscience of the film. While he taunts Antonius with the futility of life, he is also the most concerned about the people they meet. It is he who saves “The Girl” from the rapist and thief, it is he who saves the actor, Jof, from death at the hands of the villagers, it is he who yearns to save the witch from her fate. Notably, however, it is only the Knight who truly saves characters from death. Jöns is also the source of the wry humour of the film, such as the above quote regarding love, or, when asked about the Crusades, responding: “Our crusade was such madness that only a real idealist could have thought it up.”

In the final scene, the knight is reunited with his wife, but Death arrives to take all the remaining characters. The knight prays to God in desperation, the blacksmith and his wife are courteous, but frightened, while Jöns rails against the coming of Death until the knight’s wife silences him. He quietens, but “under protest and I feel, to the very end, the triumph of being alive!” The Girl, who has suffered the most, speaks her only words of the film with a look of rapture: “It is finished.”

In actuality, the movie is not factually accurate, as the Crusades and the Black Death were not concurrent. Likewise, the flagellant movement never reached Sweden and, funnily enough, the game of chess was not yet played with the current rules: the queen was not yet such a powerful piece. In the final reckoning, the Black Death is estimated to have killed between a third and two-thirds of Europe’s population. Later outbreaks are known to have been caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, which is spread by infected black rats and transmitted to humans by flea bites. Recent controversy suggests that a bacterium from the anthrax family, or even a viral hemorrhagic fever (of which Ebola is a well known example), may have been responsible for the 14th century outbreak, although the majority of scientists still believe it was Y. pestis. If you were unfortunate enough to contract bubonic plague, your initial symptoms would include fever, headaches, painful aching joints, nausea and vomiting. A general feeling of malaise would be followed by swellings (buboes) oozing pus and blood appearing at certain lymph nodes (e.g. groin, neck, armpits). Victims were often covered in dark blotches and up to 75 % of the infected died within eight days. Upon reaching Europe, with initial loci at ports and trading centres, populations were often decimated or more. England alone is thought to have lost up to 5 out of 7 people.

Bergman came from a history of theatre and stage work. Indeed, he would often train and improvise with the actors in a theatre setting prior to filming the movie. As a result, some films have theatrical aspects to them that stand in contrast to the “reality” we are used to today. Jof’s and the Blacksmith’s acting styles seem very theatrical today, while Death’s appearance in the film, also theatrical, is still effective. The Seventh Seal was successful, not only in Sweden, but throughout the world. Remarkably, in the same year he also released the wonderful Wild Strawberries, itself an acclaimed motion picture. The combination rightfully made Bergman a household name. His legacy should not be sullied by misguided attacks on overly pretentious interpretations of his work.

According to Bergman, the image of a knight playing chess against Death came from a Swedish church painting from the 1480s painted by Albertus Pictor, modified below for your edification. Early in the film, the knight confronts who he thinks is a priest with the eternal questions of faith and religion: “Is it so hard to conceive of God with one’s senses? Why does he hide amidst vague promises and unseen miracles? How are we to believe the believers when we don’t believe ourselves? What will become of us who want to believe, but cannot? And what of those who neither will, nor can believe?” The priest turns out to be Death himself. He later declares that “nothing and no one escapes him.”

Up Next in the Film Canon: A melodramatic romp through the world of stage acting, with some dazzling performances and the screen debut of an icon.