Within the canon of classic cinema there are a relatively modest number of titles that have come to define the medium. These enduring and oft-cited works form the foundation upon which is built our understanding of the cinematic language. Established masterpieces, from Citizen Kane (1941) to Apocalypse Now (1979), become cultural touchstones, repeatedly recognised and referenced in classroom and casual conversation alike. It’s ironic, however, that in once having earned an exalted and timeless status, the idea of an iconic film begins to exist outside of - and eventually overwhelm - the movie itself.
Consider Ingmar Bergman’s dark 1958 masterpiece, The Seventh Seal. Despite many years as an enthusiastic amateur cineaste, a frustrated writer, a brief period at art school and an even briefer period as a mediocre artist, I somehow never managed to watch The Seventh Seal. Of course, I knew of it. I knew what it was about. I knew it was important. I’d even confidently referenced it a number of times in essays or articles without feeling the slightest twinge of guilty duplicity.
The prevalence of such unqualified casual referencing is a defining feature of any artistry that manages to have a wider impact beyond the confines of its medium. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) is often held up by people who haven’t seen it as being a bloody high watermark in gory splatter cinema – it’s not: it’s intense and visceral, but virtually bloodless. The music of Leonard Cohen is often referenced by people who’ve never really listened to him as shorthand for any dour and depressing dirge – it’s not: he may explore dark places but has a playful wit that often belies his themes. So how do we think we know what we don’t know – and how does Bergman fit into all of this?
Popular work in any medium attracts a vigorous gallimaufry of conversation, study, analysis, parody and homage in such exhaustive volume that it almost becomes the work in itself. Think of The Seventh Seal and you will likely recall the famous scene of Max von Sydow’s noble Knight playing his literal and metaphorical game of chess with the white faced and black cowled figure of Death. You might recognise the story of the Knight, his squire and friends from the opening track of Scott Walker’s seminal 1969 album, Scott 4. Perhaps you have seen Woody Allen’s most direct homage to Bergman’s movie in his 1975 satire on Russian literature, Love and Death (1975). Bergman’s Death has also made innumerable cameos as a solo artist. I suspect my first meeting with him was in the less auspicious but far more explosive Last Action Hero (1993) – where he stepped out of the cinema screen, freshly reincarnated as Sir Ian McKellen and ready to face Arnold Schwarzenegger’s meta movie cop. You could also find Death appearing in Bob Burden’s Flaming Carrot Comics and later joining Bill and Teds Bogus Journey (1991), which left me thinking that Death really didn’t seem to have much else to do in the 90’s and it was a wonder that anyone managed to die in the decade at all.
When I finally watched The Seventh Seal for the very first time about two years ago, I was surprised to find that while the story did indeed seem familiar, it was not in the way I was expecting.
The Seventh Seal concerns Von Sydow’s disillusioned Knight, Antonius Block and his Squire, Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) returning home to Denmark after many years fighting the Crusades. They find their country ravaged by plague and the population hysterical and terrified that the world as they know it is coming to an end. Death (Bengt Ekerot) has come to claim the Knight but first acquiesces to a final game of chess. The longer that the Knight can stall the game, the longer he will be allowed to live. As the game progresses, the Knight and squire travel through the embattled land to reach the Knight’s castle home, where Block’s wife waits and where they hope to be safe from the plague.
The chess game is a fabulously elegant conceit; the sparring dialectic of the conversations between Death and the Knight are as important as the moves of the pieces themselves. It’s clear from the outset that this is a game the Knight can never hope to win, but the implication is that the longer he lasts, the closer he will be to making peace with his faith, his purpose and his own mortality. In believing he can cheat death, the Knight is a cypher for the hubris of all humankind. We need to believe that there is a meaning in the dark chaos of life and that we are in the service of some greater truth. Luckily, in between all this strategic supernatural gaming, the Knight and squire also encounter a series of allegorical vignettes on their travels that serve to elaborate on Death’s bleak treatise.
Along the way, the Knight sees many things that challenge his faith in an absentee God who allows such horror and suffering and in the value of the ‘humanity’ that perpetrates these acts on themselves. They encounter a witch burning, an apocalyptic procession of flagellants, rape, murder and corpse robbing. In amongst the misery, the only glimpse of hope in the gloomy and oppressive tableaux is found in the company of the simple Squire and a quirky group of travelling actors. They are led by a young family in whom the Knight sees a good-natured honesty and simple innocence. It is in his recognition of these qualities that Block finds some form of salvation for humanity, placing them first under his protection and eventually making a final sacrifice to allow them to escape Death.
The influence exerted by this most singular movie is surprisingly broad. The sophisticated iconoclasm of Bergman’s style established a template for modernist arthouse cinema, the brutality of the Middle Ages is reawakened in the portentous atmosphere of Hammer Horror, whilst the oft overlooked dark comedy has clearly been revisited by the Monty Python team. However, despite the embrace of genre cinema, The Seventh Seal never feels anachronistic or synthetic. What makes the film compellingly timeless – and appear so comfortably familiar - is that between the thematic tangles of religion, mortality and existentialism, it is also a story about the power of the story itself.
The Knight believes that immortality can come through great achievements, such as the noble Crusade or the grand hubristic act of cheating Death. But Block comes to realise there is nothing noble in the grandiose narratives of religion or power. Those are stories that have led only to death and destruction. Instead, Bergman seems to be suggesting that if there is any God at all, it is artists and performers, painters, storytellers and clowns – possibly even filmmakers - who are nearer to any truth than either those they depict or those who lead them.
If the story seems peculiarly familiar it is because, like the folk tale or oral histories that have shaped our culture and identity, it is designed to evoke that same sense of anamnesis. It does not feel like a new story, instead it is more like a tale we have unforgotten, one that has always been there, evolving and changing as it is shared. Although clearly inspired by a deep history of literature, drawing on elements from the Old Testament to Faust to Don Quixote, it’s almost a surprise to discover it is a wholly original contemporary script.
The Seventh Seal remains a powerful yet accessible film, as relevant today as it was almost 50 years ago. On reflection, it’s appropriate that this – above all Bergman’s canon – should be the movie that has most entered the collective consciousness because it was calculatedly designed that way. It embraces the notion that the story can and should transcend its medium, which in turn celebrates the unqualified commentator in us all. This is a reassuring reminder that, should you ever again find yourself stumbling into an unqualified opinion on art, politics or history, this is not a bad thing at all; rather you are just contributing to an extension of an essential storytelling tradition.