Antonius Block, a disillusioned knight, and Jöns, his squire, return to Sweden from the crusades, to find a land of fear, ignorance, and fanatical religion, as the black death decimates the population. When Death comes for the knight, he challenges the black robed figure to a game of chess, to delay the inevitable. During a break in the game, Block meets Jof and Mia, and offers to escort them to his castle. Their party grows to include a simple blacksmith, his runaway wife, and a seemingly mute girl, with Death always nearby.
Bergman’s masterpiece has withstood its key moments becoming cultural icons (read: clichés) as well as numerous parodies, remaining one of the most powerful works ever put on film. Thoughtful, engaging, and emotionally complex, this is what cinema is all about. An old fashioned allegory, without old fashioned ideas, The Seventh Seal asks: how do we live in a world devoid of God? And it answers: very well indeed, for a very few. For the rest, believers and skeptics alike, there is suffering.
After ten years of pointless warfare on behalf of The Church, Block has lost his faith, but not his need for it. The empty belief of the blind is no longer enough for him. He’s seen too much, and not enough of the supposed works of God: “Why must he always hide behind unseen miracles, vague promises, and hints about eternity?” He wants knowledge of God, but he’s been in enough churches, and gone to the Holy Land, and has no place left to look. He is now just a tired observer of life, anguishing over the idea that it may all be meaningless.
Jöns, on the other hand, revels in the meaninglessness. He is the intellectual voice of the film; the one who understands the universe. There is no afterlife, and there is no magical old man in the sky. There is life, and that should be enough for anyone. In the end, Block whines and pleads before Death, while Jöns stands boldly. He jokes and laughs and insults what he sees, but like his master, he’s tired, and seen too much suffering to be happy.
The people they meet tend to be either ignorant and vicious, or ignorant and thoughtless, which makes them act cruelly. The world of man is not a nice place. Raval, an ex-man of the cloth who persuaded Block to go on the Crusade, now robs the dead, is capable of murder, and abuses a man in an inn with fire and a knife. The crowd’s reaction is to laugh at the man’s pain.
The exception is Jof and Mia, traveling performers who believe in Heaven and Hell, but don’t put much thought into what it all means. Jof claims to have visions, though except for the figure of Death, they are likely to be nothing more than products of his imagination. Real or not, it doesn’t matter since they have no influence over the pair, but are just something else pretty to look at. Visions don’t supply meaning any more than the teachings of the church. The couple enjoy each other and their young son, and a warm spring day, and in that, Bergman says, is the answer to all life’s questions. It is no accident that they are named Jof and Mia (Joseph and Mary), but they are not images of Jesus’ parents. Just the opposite. They suggest a replacement for religion. The only peace Block can find is an hour sitting with them, eating wild strawberries and drinking fresh milk. But it isn’t a peace he can hold onto. He wants more then everything you could ask for, and of course, he doesn’t find it.
The Church is monumentally unhelpful to Block, or the citizens dying or in fear of death. flagellants scream and moan and wave their whips, but God doesn’t respond. Huge crosses with ghastly twisted Christs are carried through the muddy streets, and the plague continues. The priest yells that all will die, which is the closest thing to truth he ever says. Block ignores them and Jöns comments on how ridiculous it is for The Church to think that anyone would believe such rubbish in this modern day. Unfortunately, more believe than don’t. It should be no surprise to anyone familiar with religion that a poor deranged girl is blamed for bringing death down on the world, and she is tortured as a witch and taken to be burned. Block, hoping that there is some truth to it, asks the girl where the Devil is, because the Devil would know about God. Of course, she knows nothing. There is no God, and there is no Devil.
However, there is Death. He’s not particularly frightening, nor is he kind. But then we’ve already seen the world isn’t kind, and disease certainly isn’t, so why should Death be pleasant? He is approachable, and willing to chat. He can’t be put off forever, nor can he be fooled (Block thinks he has done a good deed in letting a couple escape while Death was busy with the game, but they avoided death by simply staying out of a plague-filled castle). Death is the lone supernatural entity of the story. Block is sure that he must have secrets and know God, but Death makes it clear it’s not the case. Death has no reason, and no master. He simply is.
For insight into the working of modern religions, you need go no further than Jöns conversation with a church painter, who is creating images of death and pain at the request of the local priest:
Painter: Why should one always make people happy? It might be a good idea to scare them once in a while.
Jöns: Then they’ll close their eyes and refuse to look.
Painter: They’ll look. A skull is more interesting than a naked woman.
Jöns: If you do scare them…
Painter: Then they think.
Jöns: And then?
Painter: They’ll become more scared.
Jöns: And fall into the arms of the priest.
But a skull isn’t more interesting than a naked woman. And with that woman (or a naked man), and some strawberries, and green grass on a hillside, you can find something far better than any god. Bergman’s view on what gives life meaning may be anti-intellectual, but it’s hard to argue with.