What's it like watching Bergman's 'The Seventh Seal' during an actual plague?

Antonius Block walked so that Bill and Ted could run.

Antonius Block walked so that Bill and Ted could run. Promotional still

What I’d forgotten is that it’s a movie about waiting.

Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal is set in the 14th century, as the Black Death cuts a swath across Europe, leaving corpses rotten with boils and survivors haunted with visions of judgment day. Since our current pandemic had made this old favorite of mine potentially topical, I wondered if it wouldn’t be “fun,” in that perverse way things are fun these days, to see what additional resonance Bergman’s allegory might have in a time of genuine plague and pestilence—not to mention doubt and hopelessness and fanaticism, and, most of all, endless waiting?

What are we waiting for in The Seventh Seal? Following an ominous choral blast and the no less ominous sight of an eagle slicing through biblically stark skies, an opening epigram from the Book of Revelation intones: “And when the Lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour." What we are about to witness, then, is what happens during that silence, in the last relatively calm few moments on Earth, after the seals have been broken on six previous scrolls, unleashing preliminary devastation upon the world, but before the effect of the seventh seal’s opening, which will lead to blasts from the final trumpets and the true, final horror of armageddon.

This is a world experiencing what Amanda Mull referred to in the Atlantic back in March as “plague dread,” that “mixture of anxiety, terror, and disorientation” so many of us experienced as we barred ourselves indoors and waited for… what exactly? Something terrible to happen? Or to pass? Or something worse to follow? Watching Bergman and recalling our springtime uncertainty as contradictory messages filtered down from distant authorities—as we debated the utility of masks and dutifully microwaved our mail and wondered whether to count our time in isolation in days or weeks or months or years—I thought of Max Read's prediction that technology will soon render us all as bewildered and powerless as medieval peasants.

Just as Bergman’s characters parse the rumors of “evil omens and other horrors,” we scanned contradictory reports to learn how deadly a pandemic we were enduring, going to sleep each night with a different answer, and watched as our landscapes burst into flame, first in political uprisings for justice, then in manifestations of climate change. And is burning a mixture of blood with the bile of a large black dog to drive away evil spirits, as a Bergman soldier suggests, more irrational than suggesting that Americans inoculate themselves with bleach?

Yet compared to the past six months of 2020, the world of The Seventh Seal feels shockingly alive. Humans gather together still, to drink and juggle and fight and fuck and tell bad jokes and eat strawberries. They also burn a girl alive, believing that her witchcraft is the source of the plague, and fall to their knees in ecstasy when a crew of self-mortifying zealots marches through, bearing crosses and whipping themselves and one another and calling for repentance. Extreme circumstances draw out the widest range of human behavior.

Only the film’s central figure, a knight returning dissipated and disillusioned from the Crusades, stands aloof from these passions and pastimes. “My indifference to my fellow men has cut me off from their company,” he confesses, wallowing in an isolation, spiritual as well as physical, that’s not unfamiliar to anyone who’s ever tweeted after 3 a.m. Antonius Block, this knight is called, and that’s nearly less a name than a description: Max Von Sydow inhabits him as a carved wooden chess piece of a man himself, gaunt and angular, impossible to envision being filmed in other than black and white. "I live now in a world of phantoms, a prisoner of my own dreams," he tells Death, and you can see why that embodiment of our mortality might enjoy chatting with this sullen seeker of truth.

Ah, yes, Death. The Seventh Seal is one of those cultural landmarks an American kid is almost certain to encounter in parody before ever seeing the actual movie, largely because a puffy and pasty and amiable fellow shows up early in the film to announce, with much less pomp than you’d imagine, “I am Death.” The image of the grim knight seeking to outwit the Grim Reaper in a game of chess passed from arthouse to pop culture so thoroughly that even the Muppets and Bill and Ted could riff off it. The unfortunate side-effect of parody, though, is that it makes the mocked original feel comparatively self-serious, a rep The Seventh Seal has been trying to live down for over 60 years. So if I tell you that Death literally saws down a tree to claim one of his victims, after drolly taunting him, then a little rodent scurries curiously onto the tree stump to see what’s up, will you believe me that Bergman’s got jokes?

But back to Block. As his squire, Jöns, Gunnar Björnstrand embodies the reality principle that clashes with the knight’s high-minded deliberations about faith and God. It’s Jöns who stops to ask directions from a man at the side of the road, revealed on closer examination as a corpse whose face is rotten with plague. It’s Jöns who asks an artist why he’s adorning a church wall with the Dance of Death—an image of Death leading his victims in a grotesque parade—and who dismisses his answer (to scare people and make them think) as nonsense. It’s Jöns who embraces nothingness with lusty cynicism and throws his lot in with what little life has to offer.

The pair encounter a troupe of actors touring the countryside, including a young family: Jof, a kind if scatterbrained juggler given to mystical visions, his good-natured wife Mia, and their baby son Michael. When Block settles alongside them for a countryside picnic and feasts on fresh cream and wild strawberries, he glimpses what human camaraderie might be like. Like many an estranged truth-seeker, Block has to relearn the obvious: that pleasurable things bring pleasure. And he has to extrapolate a meaning of life from that, rather than simply enjoy the moment—he consecrates the memory of their gathering to defend him from moments of despair in the future. Mia is intensely amused by his earnestness.

What keeps The Seventh Seal fresh after repeated viewings is there’s a dialectical tension—between intellectual rigor and sensual immediacy, between aching for truth and nihilistic acceptance, between the ecstasy of artistic visions and the satisfaction of material pleasures—that’s never settled. Despite its medieval setting, the characters never seem like merely stock figures, but they are, like us all, stuck within modes of being and acting, patterns and habits, so you’ll respond to them differently depending on where you are at the moment.

The knight’s demand for certainty, the perpetual questioning that is his curse, always felt poignant to me but, as I matured, could seem, well, high-strung, even adolescent in its extremism. Yet now, as we’re each faced with our own inability to live with uncertainty, I find myself drawn to his plight, and where I once felt his isolation on psychological level, I now experience it in a very real material sense too. On the other hand, the squire’s cynicism, which once struck me as a fine existentialist response to absurdity, reminds me how quickly sarcasm can yield to a hollow acceptance of the world as it is.

Yet both men, in different ways, ultimately allow human life to survive the plague. Jöns saves Jof from a tavern full of murderous bullies who demand that he dance for them like a bear. (Does any great director dramatize public humiliation more viscerally than Bergman?) And more significantly, Block distracts Death during their chess match just long enough for Jof and Mia to escape his notice—the “one meaningful deed” he’d hoped to accomplished before he died. Their carriage makes its way through a storm-ridden forest as Death calmly collects the rest of the souls.

The film culminates, famously, in Bergman’s own depiction of the Dance of Death—a distant silhouette of Death leading Block and the other fallen. Only the mystic Jof glimpses this sight over the horizon, and he describes it earnestly and poetically to Mia.

But The Seventh Seal doesn’t close with that image, nor with Jof’s eloquent monologue. Bergman quietly deflates this elevated moment, just as Jöns had chided the artist who’d painted his version of the dance. This time Bibi Andersson’s Mia gets the last word. “You and your visions,” she teases her husband, dismissing the non-material world without condemning it.

As the clouds part, it’s clear that, despite his justifiable reputation as a dour gent, Bergman has actually given the apocalypse a happy ending. Jof, Mia, and Mchael escape; some small remnant of humanity, at least, has survived the plague. Implicit in that hopeful final scene is the notion that, for all its stupidity and wickedness, humanity deserves to survive.

More than half a century later, we are less likely to blame God for the suffering and destruction that we know humans themselves cause. With each news story, we’re more likely to see ourselves purely in negative terms—our greed and stupidity and evil—and more prepared to face down Death like Jons and say let’s get it over with. At such a cynical time, our challenge is greater than Bergman’s: not just to imagine the survival of humanity, but to imagine that the survival of our species would be a happy ending. In 2020, Ingmar Bergman is an optimist.

The Seventh Seal is playing at the Trylon from Friday, Sept. 11, through Tues., Sept. 15. Complete showtimes here.