Block: It can't be so!
The Seventh Seal (Det Sjunde Inseglet) is a classic Swedish film from director Ingmar Bergman, said to be his personal favorite of his own. The film is highly symbolic and explores many philosophical and existential concepts, including death and the meaning of life.
Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) is a knight returning from the Crusades with his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand). Death (Bengt Ekerot) appears to Antonius telling him his time has come. Antonius proposes that they play chess, and if he wins, Death will let him go. Antonius travels through the land to get back home during the breaks in the game and witnesses the effects of the black plague, while struggling with his doubts that there is a God or an afterlife and trying to find meaning in life.
Intended as a change of pace for Bergman after his successful comedies (like Smiles of a Summer Night), it unexpectedly became a Breakthrough Hit for him among international audiences, in many ways exemplifying the archetypal European art film. It's still probably his most famous film among the general public. It also launched Max von Sydow and Bibi Andersson into stardom.
This film provides examples of:
- The Ace: Ten years at war have made both Block and Jöns this compared to the soldiers back home. At one point, Jöns casually wonders if they should just kill the eight soldiers guarding the witch, but deduces that it wouldn't make a difference.
- Adaptation Title Change: The Seventh Seal was adapted from the play Wood Painting.
- Affably Evil: Death. He seems to genuinely enjoy his conversations with Block.
- All Are Equal in Death: The film ends with the deceased characters — from a range of walks of life — forming a Danse Macabre on the horizon.
- Anachronism Stew:
- Block's chainmail armour suggests a date no later than the 13th century, before the days of widespread witch burning and before the Danse Macabre became a popular artistic motif. (Both of these only took off in the 15th century.)
- Flagellantism never really came to Sweden.
- Albertus Pictor's presence as a Historical Domain Character would also place the story in the late 15th century.
- It's sometimes thought that the references to the plague are also anachronistic, as the disease supposedly didn't arrive in Europe until 1348. Modern medical historians believe, however, that plague has always existed in Europe as a low-level simmering endemic disease which flares into epidemic status when a new strain of the bacteria arrives from Asia. The earliest plague epidemic known to history was in 541 CE, but that was unlikely to have been the first.
- Anti-Hero: Jöns, who freely admits to having raped women until "it got boring." While he does save Jof the actor during the tavern scene, he's certainly not a nice man. If anything, this serves to contrast between the two. Block aims to rise above the nihilism that surrounds him, while Jöns seems to embrace it and rolls with it.
- The Anti-Nihilist: Laps over with Desperately Looking for a Purpose in Life, in Block's case.
- Anyone Can Die: And nearly everyone does.
- Bittersweet Ending: The majority of the established characters meet their appointment with Death, but Jof, Mia and Mikael walk into the sunset, alive. Antonius Block's questions about God and the afterlife are never answered, but he does manage to perform one last meaningful act in saving Jof and his family.
- Black-and-Gray Morality: The knight and his squire are anti-heroes of differing flavours. Most of the people they meet are thieves, murderers, religious zealots or complete idiots, and Death is a largely impersonal entity patiently stalking them at every turn. The only ones who are neither black or grey are Jof, Mia and their son Mikael.
- Black Comedy: Believe it or not, but this movie does have more than its fair share of laughs, for a little levity. Jöns and the surprisingly sardonic Death have great quips, Jof has a couple of Slapstick moments, and Plog the blacksmith is a memorably comedic hothead.
- The Black Death: The plague is slowly spreading through Sweden throughout the story.
- Burn the Witch!: A young woman accused of consorting with Satan is blamed for The Black Death and gets put to death. She claims to be able to see Satan, but that could just be the result of torture and Gaslighting from the priests.
- Cessation of Existence: What Block fears most. Death himself offers no comfort, claiming that he is unknowing, and his only purpose is to claim the lives of the living. Anything else that might lie beyond is of no concern to him.
- Chess with Death: Trope Namer, although the concept is an ancient one. Most media depictions of playing a game with Death are based on the film.
- Chiaroscuro: Ooh boy, big time.
- Crapsack World: It's Medieval Sweden ravaged by the Black Death, what did you expect? On top of that, men and women — driven into despair — believe it's the end times, so they've taken to roaming around the countryside flogging themselves. They also accompany other religious zealots who burn innocent young women suffering from mental illness. Our two (anti-) heroes are shown to be too ineffectual (as in as ineffectual as normal mere human beings are) to change things and the best one can honestly hope for is to live as long as possible. It's a mad, empty, horrible world.
- Crisis of Faith: Block. He desperately wants to believe in God, but is troubled that it requires having faith in an invisible presence.
- Dark Is Not Evil: Death might be a Manipulative Bastard, and he is the closest thing to a main antagonist this movie has, but he's not a God of Evil out to destroy the world. He's part of the natural order of the universe, merely carrying out his assigned duty to usher mortals into the land of the dead. He can be reasoned with, at least to the extent one can invite him to a game of chess and stretch out their lifeline for a slight reprieve.
- The Dead Can Dance: An iconic example at the end of the movie. Also lampshaded earlier, with a church painter painting one.Pictor: To remind people that they're going to die.
Jöns: That won't make them any happier.
Pictor: Who the hell said you have to make people happy?
- Deadpan Snarker:
- Jöns. A grade-A medieval jerkass.
- Even Death sports shades of this, particularly when he comes to collect Jonas.
- Desperately Looking for a Purpose in Life: Block regards his life up to the start of the movie as a series of aimless wanderings. Throughout the story, he tries to find some way to bring meaning to his life before he dies.
- Did You Just Scam Cthulhu?: What Block hopes to achieve if he wins his game with Death. While he fails to prevent his own demise, he does manage to distract Death while Jof's family escapes.
- Does This Remind You of Anything?:
- It's set in the Middle Ages, but the subtext of life in the Western World after World War II is very obvious. Block, the world-weary knight returning from war, represents the soldiers who struggled to rebuild their lives after the war. The threat of The Black Death is analogous to the threat of nuclear war and annihilation. And the attitudes toward religion of the various characters reflect postwar attitudes: you have Block trying to reconcile faith and doubt, Jöns taking a skeptical view towards it all, and the rise of fundamentalist Christianity echoed in the flagellants and the fiery sermon their leader gives.
- Mary and Joseph—or, make that Mia and Jof, and their baby Mikael (a name that means "Who is like God?" in Hebrew). That Jof has a vision of the Virgin Mary only adds to it.
- Don't Fear the Reaper: Death seems like a reasonably amiable fellow, even postponing someone's death to play a game with him. It can be argued that it is not Death itself that is the antagonist during Block's and every other man's journey but rather the philosophical questions and fears that rise from it, the despair and the madness that takes over so easily and the emptiness within that may ensue because of the lack of any reassurance.
- Even Evil Has Standards: Jöns may be a man of a sordid past, and he isn't the nicest bloke in Medieval Europe, but even he finds the unjust burning of an innocent — though deluded — young woman an atrocity. He goes as far as to try to — in his own, small way — help his sire cope with the horror of the execution.Jöns: That little child... I can't be bothered, I can't be bothered...!
- Face Death with Dignity:
- Even in his last moments, Jöns does not stray from the same mocking tone he's held throughout the entire movie, and even takes a minute to make fun of Block for his last, desperate prayer.Jöns: Feel in this final minute the triumph of rolling your eyes and moving your toes.
- Block is himself resigned to his fate, and when he sees Death at the end, he simply prays for God to receive his soul, and those of the others with him.
- The Smith as well, who tells his wife to curtsy for the "high lord" (den höge herren) Death. Dying or not, they are Swedish, and there are certain social proprieties to acknowledge. The scene loses a lot due to cultural translation, but to a Swedish audience its very relatable.
- Jöns's housekeeper is all too ready to go with Death; as Death closes in, she speaks up for the first and only time, to calmly say, "It is finished."
- Even in his last moments, Jöns does not stray from the same mocking tone he's held throughout the entire movie, and even takes a minute to make fun of Block for his last, desperate prayer.
- FaithHeel Turn: Raval, the seminary student who inspired Block to join the Crusade, obviously lost his faith sometime over the past ten years, since he's now a full-time criminal who robs dead bodies and is also implied to be a rapist and murderer.
- Five-Man Band: Not really a formal grouping, but Block is The Leader, Jöns is The Lancer, Jof is The Smart Guy, Mia is The Chick and Death is The Big Guy.
- Foil: Jöns serves as Block's foil.
- Foreshadowing: Skat talks about how they've been hired to put on a passion play to "scare decent people". He'll be playing Death, and tells Jof he's so stupid he'll have to play the human soul. In the end, Skat is dead and Jof is not only one of the few survivors, but the only one who saw everything and can continue to tell the story.
- Friendly Enemy: Death isn't particularly malicious or even spiteful towards Block. Actually, he's rather affable. For one scene he even acts as a sort of confidante for Block's confession and angry rant against God. That being said, he'll do whatever he can to win the game.
- The Grim Reaper: Actually an influential aversion of the usual archetype, as instead of a horrifying, silent stalker, Death holds conversations with people and seems Affably Evil.
- Hanging Up on the Grim Reaper: When Death comes to take Block, he doesn't accept it; he stalls Death by challenging him to chess.
- Happily Married:
- Jof and Mia, the only ray of decency and hope in a Crapsack World of Black-and-Gray Morality. They genuinely love and support one another, as opposed to the other human characters who are trying to save their own skins during The Black Death.
- Block does love his wife, and she loves him, even though they haven't seen each other for at least a decade while Block was out on his Crusade.
- Heroic Sacrifice: While Block was unable to save himself, he was able to save the family by distracting Death during their game, allowing the three to escape.
- The High Middle Ages; The Late Middle Ages: See above regarding the confusion.
- Historical Domain Character: The church painter encountered by Jöns and Block is Albertus Pictor, a celebrated Medieval Swedish artist who did dozens of church murals. One of his paintings, of a man playing chess with Death, was Bergman's main inspiration for the film.
- Hollywood Atheist: Jöns, to a degree; he's easily the most cynical character. He inverts the trope to some extent by being rather cheerful in his cynicism and far from the most immoral person in the story.
- Humans Are Bastards:
- The scene at the bar, when the patrons cruelly torment Jof the actor, demonstrates this trope.
- Subverted, however, with Jof and Mia, who represent the better qualities of humanity. They're also the only named characters of the film to live and escape Death.
- I Have a Family: Jonas tries to use this to get out of death. Death calls him out on the lie.
- Invisible to Normals:
- Only the Knight is able to see Death. Until the climax that is.
- Jof sees all kinds of visions that he tells his wife, including the final scene.
- The witch claims to have conjured up Satan for Block, who can't see him.
- I Owe You My Life:
- Invoked by Jöns towards the mute girl after he saves her from Raval. His wife is probably dead and he needs a housekeeper, so...
- He is then at the other end of this when Jof very earnestly thanks him for saving his life.
- Knight in Sour Armor: Block. Very much so.
- The Lancer: Jöns effectively functions as this to Block's Hero.
- Le Film Artistique: Averted for many people, often somewhat to their surprise, as the film contains a surprising amount of comedy, isn't too difficult plot-wise, and contains very relatable (if depressing) themes.
- Literary Allusion Title: The first line in the movie quotes the Bible verse from which the title is taken.
- Manipulative Bastard: Death. Is anyone surprised?
- Mercy Kill: Implied. Block feeds the witch something to take away her pain; she's later shown passing out well before they can put her on the fire.
- Mind Screw: If you watch this film, try not to understand it so hard and you'll be fine.
- Nothing Is Scarier: When they're holed up in the forest and Death is nowhere to be seen... But neither is God.
- Oh, Crap!: EVERYONE has this reaction at the climax when Death appears in the dining room.
- Oh God, with the Verbing!: At the end, the actor Jof sees a vision of the knight and his family doing a dance of death. His wife, Mia, turns to him and says: "You with your visions and dreams."
- Peek-a-Boo Corpse: The man Jöns asks for directions is actually dead, his decomposed, eyeless face hidden by his hood.
- Primal Fear: Death is an everpresent companion, who will follow you all your days. And God, or Jesus, or anything else? It's a comforting hope at best, an outright lie at worst. But Death is always there.
- The Promise: Jöns promises Raval that if he runs into him again, he'll carve up his face like they do with petty thieves. He doesn't hesitate to honour his promise when he comes upon Raval tormenting Jof.
- Saved to Enslave: Jöns saves a woman from an Attempted Rape, then remembers he needs a new housekeeper and orders her to come with him. He admits that he could have raped her himself had he not already grown tired of such things.
- Servile Snarker: Jöns to Block, happily, right up until the end.Jöns: I could have given you a laxative herb to purge yourself of all your troubles with the eternal. Now it seems to be too late.
- Sexy Jester: How Mia dresses when they perform on stage.
- Shame If Something Happened: When Death thinks Block is getting a little too confident, he pulls this.Death: You're travelling with the jesters through the forest? The two called Jof and Mia, who have a little son?
Block Why do you ask?
Death: No reason.
- Signs of the End Times: Jöns has heard stories about bad omens such as horses eating each other and four suns in the sky. Another character tells about a woman giving birth to a calf's head.
- Standard Snippet: The "Dies irae" Gregorian chant shows up several times in the soundtrack as well as being literally sung by a mob of religious penitents.
- Stock Shout-Outs: Playing Chess with Death.
- Straw Nihilist:
- Though Block is The Anti-Nihilist, Jöns — as his foil — falls squarely into this role. He believes that love is just "lust and lies" and is convinced that death only leads to emptiness (see page quote) and that nothing remains after death, mocking Bock's faith and hopes to find meaning throughout the film.Jöns (to Block): In that darkness where you claim to reside, where we probably all reside, you'll find no one that listens to your complaint or is moved by your suffering.
Jöns (presenting a ridiculous drawing of himself to the Artist): This is Jöns. He grins in the face of Death, mocks the Lord, laughs at himself, and smiles only for the girls. His world is Jöns' world, believed in only by him, ridiculous to all including himself, meaningless to Heaven and of no interest to Hell.
- The Artist in the church, who holds views similar to Jöns.
- Though Block is The Anti-Nihilist, Jöns — as his foil — falls squarely into this role. He believes that love is just "lust and lies" and is convinced that death only leads to emptiness (see page quote) and that nothing remains after death, mocking Bock's faith and hopes to find meaning throughout the film.
- Tempting Fate: Jonas vocally expresses pride over his last performance; that of playing dead to get away from a jealous husband. When he then mentions he's free and all he'll have to do is hide from anything that might kill him for the next little while, Death appears immediately behind him. Cue a fairly comical exchange where Death takes his time in sawing a tree and chats with a panicked, weaseling Jonas.Jonas: No. My performance!
Death: Cancelled... Because of a death.
- Too Dumb to Live: The plague has killed lots of people. Raval robs the bodies of the dead plague victims. Guess who ends up dying from the plague?
- The Voiceless: Jöns' mute girl. Says one line when Death comes to take them all away: "It is finished."
- Wangst: In-universe example. The village smith is trying to drown his sorrows after the actor and director from Jof and Mia's troupe runs away with his wife. Jöns takes great pleasure in ridiculing him for it.
- Warrior Poet: Antonius Block. His squire Jöns arguably more so.