In 1957, Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman made the film he is perhaps best known for, The Seventh Seal. It’s a standard when discussing film history and film theory because it if you want to show what “expressionism” is The Seventh Seal is the very definition of expressionism. Most people, however, are familiar with this shot.
Yes, this is the movie where a knight plays chess with death. Perhaps the most well-known parody of this is Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey where Death (played by William Sadler) says “You sunk my battleship!”
Most people are familiar with the image and concept of playing chess with Death, but not a lot know the context or the story behind it. So what does it all mean?
It’s the middle ages and a knight named Antonius Block (Max Von Sydow) is returning home from The Crusades. He is greeted by Death (Bengt Exerot) who informs this knight that his time is up, time to go. The knight uses a game of chess as a means to delay the inevitable. He knows he’s going to die – but why? What was it all for? Sure he would like to achieve one decent thing before his time is up but mostly he has a lot of unanswered questions about God, faith and the nature of existence. So he uses this game of chess, played in more than one sitting across a few days, to allow himself time to see if something in this world can answer his questions
The film isn’t actually about a man playing chess with death – it’s merely what starts the story, a MacGuffin, which then serves as a framing device, a sort of timer to let Antonious Block know how much longer he has on Earth. Death doesn’t have the answer to any of the knight’s questions – he is going to need to go out and talk to others abut God and death and faith. He’s going to need, in the span of this game, to go have some sort of experience with other people to hopefully give him an answer about why do we live, struggle and die.
The Conundrum of Religion
Historians and film scholars will say that The Seventh Seal is the first of a series of Bergman’s films which tackle “the conundrum of religion.” I wouldn’t go so far as to say The Seventh Seal and later works are a series; they are just movies that have similar questions and themes where were issues important to Bergman. Ingmar Berman was the son of a rector, he came from a very strong religious background but not a particularly happy one. The Seventh Seal, and many of Bergman’s films, address the questions he had all his life of: Why? Why God? Why religion? These questions are what constitute “the conundrum of religion.”
Bergman uses death as not an ever present villain but as an inevitability – everyone is going to die. Death is a presence, a framing device, the first phase of the film’s thesis statement: We all die so what’s the point of life? The conundrum of religion enters the picture as faith is a way we create meaning out of a meaningless existence. Really, the movie could take place anywhere at anytime – but Bergman specifically chose the Middle Ages or, a more more fitting title given his portrayal of it, the DARK Ages. It’s a rather anachronistic mash-up of the Dark Ages; the Crusades, the Black Death, torturing and burning suspected withers, movements of religious flagellation – these all happened at different times during the Middle Ages. For the sake of simplicity and to create a portrait of how miserable this act of “living” is, all of these things take place during the same era.