Swedish cinema titan Ingmar Bergman’s mopey/earthy 1957 breakthrough The Seventh Seal may have done more than any other film to popularize and demonize the notion of world cinema as the boutique of the cultural intelligentsia. Neither Bergman nor the Grim Reaper’s fault, per se, especially when their collective Black Plague-set tumble into postmodern nausea is actually a great deal more laughable (in both senses) than Bergman’s most popular previous film, the morose and largely mirthless sex comedy Smiles of a Summer Night (to say nothing of the myriad Woody Allen bummers inspired by Bergman). The laughs are hard-earned, though, as the entire film showcases pre-enlightment souls coping with the finality of death, the meaninglessness of life, and the difficulty jesters have attracting an audience when organized religion puts on such a galvanizing show.
At the center is the knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow, a Nordic tree stump hollowed out by an infestation of repressed doubt) and his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand), who have just returned from the Crusades, or a decade spent telling everyone at sword’s length what a friend they’d better have in Jesus. Antonius is approached by Death at the film’s onset, and uses the remaining running time stalling and unwittingly inviting a number of bystanders into his mortal wager: a trio of tomato-stained actors, a mute peasant girl, a monosyllabic sledge-man and his temptress wife, and, fleetingly, a pixie accused of unleashing the bubonic plague with witchcraft. Antonius and Death’s framing game of chess is a working meta-metaphor for Bergman’s own calculated cast of characters, carefully and with great futility maneuvering their way through a death-prone era. The chess game is one of the only two images (both transposed from medieval artwork) that have truly endured through the decades, along with the resulting dance-of-death tableau. Death and games, games and death.
The Seventh Seal, assisted by cinematographer Gunnar Fischer’s richly overexposed images, operates as though it contains the undiluted essence of life’s fueling dialectic formula. Occasionally it does, most notably in the terrifying arrival of the self-flagellants to a weak-willed village. But the road-trippers in Bergman’s follow-up, Wild Strawberries, achieve a far greater grace and clarity with only a fraction of the heavy lifting.