The longer this lock-down carries on for, the quicker I exhaust my film reserves, which is the special fuel I require to pass my spare time; the antidote I need to prevent me from going absolutely stir-crazy.
As the reserves have depleted further (the DVD well is drying up), I recently foraged through a book I own in which the author lists all the notable movies of the past; I then proceeded to check whether some saint has uploaded any of these films onto YouTube. During my expedition through the YouTube archives, I had quite a bit of luck unearthing many good and old black-and-white films, which has allowed me to expand my ‘viewing-list’ to better weather the storm of social distancing. One such discovery is the object of this review: The Seventh Seal – and what a find it was.
The plot follows the story of a knight, Antonius Block (played by the late Max Von Sydow), along with his squire, who return to their homeland of Sweden after a gruelling crusade, only to discover that their native land is being ravaged by the Black Death. In the opening scene, Block is greeted by Death (who takes the expected form of a pale figure in a black cloak) on the shoreline, with Block defending himself by challenging Death to a game of chess; if Block wins, Death leaves him be, whereas if Block loses, his coming will be immediate. The chess game is not finished in one sitting, however, as both players frequently depart at certain points of the contest, only for Death to interrupt Block on his travels home so the competition can progress, which plays out over several scenes throughout the film.
Meanwhile, as Block and his squire move closer to home, they encounter the devastating effects of the Bubonic Plague; in one scene, they enter a church to find someone painting several grisly scenes onto the wall, displaying the arrival of the plague as an apocalyptic event. In addition, Block bows before the confession box, where he questions the very existence of God due to the intolerable suffering in the world which any divine authority responds to with silence, and also divulges his masterplan to win the chess game. Unbeknownst to Block, the hooded figure he has sold his secret to is Death himself, cunningly placing himself inside the confession box ready to intercept Block’s thoughts, causing the weary knight to respond with a look of horror when Death reveals his identity. Just a few words may have cost Block his life.
This exchange between Block and Death perfectly showcase the two core themes of the film: the fragility of human life, and the test of faith.
In another scene shortly after, a stage performance in a small village is disrupted when an ominous group of preachers and flagellants approach, holding full-size crucifixes whilst bearing whips to strike those marching in front, in an act to show that the arrival of the Black Death is a punishment from God. This is intended to warn the villagers that, despite the enjoyment they are receiving, death and despair is near.
This theme is present throughout the film, as the fate of all the characters hangs in the balance, and death is always a whisker away. There is, of course, the chess game fought between Death and Block, which begins to resemble a cat-and-mouse chase, as well as talk of the Bubonic Plague in multiple scenes. This serves as the bedrock for the film’s tension as the continuous stalking of Block by Death adds a certain level of suspense; the audience grows to fear the presence of Death in the film, anxiously and uncomfortably waiting for his return in the next scene. The Black Death also hangs a dark cloud over the storyline – with each mention of the disease, it becomes more likely that its trail will interlock with that of the characters, further heightening the tension. The audience does not wish to see the end of the story out of excitement, but to relieve the sense of discomfort. Will Block beat Death at the game of chess?
The other side of the plot coin – the test of faith – also becomes more prominent as the film progresses. Starting at the confession box, the night’s search for any sign of certainty of God’s existence only grows more desperate, forcing him to turn to his opponent, Death, for answers, but even Death is incapable of providing an adequate response. Block’s actions run contrary to faith as he is requiring the external proof of God’s existence, rather than internally believing in a higher power which adds to the story as the audience, like Block, nervously wait for a definitive answer, but this also shows that Block is beginning to lose hope, which serves as great character development. In one of the final scenes, Block – a warrior on the side of God (albeit disillusioned at this point) – openly speaks to a condemned ‘witch’ to ask for information on how to reach contact with the Devil. This happens in full view nearby guards, already under orders to capture and slaughter those who engage in this practice, which further reveals Block’s hopelessness.
In conclusion, the combination of Block’s collapsing faith, along with the looming and increasingly dominating presence of Death, best exemplified by each interval of the chess game, makes for a rather unsettling experience.
I will not call this a horror film – far from it – but it is enough to make the viewer’s hairs stand on end from start to finish. Whatever the film’s messaging, it is certainly explicit that death is inevitable, having the ability to come at any point and through any means, regardless of the faith one possesses, because this world is easily capable of snuffing out human life.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.