Last Updated September 5, 2023.
In The Seventh Seal, filmmaker Ingmar Bergman uses a medieval setting to create an allegory of twentieth-century existential concerns. Often considered a commentary on Sweden’s World War II neutrality and the postwar reconstruction of society, the film examines the relationships among Christian belief and challenges to maintaining it, illness as personal affliction and social malaise, and individual choice. Instead of a soldier home from fighting the Nazis, Bergman offers a knight back from a crusade. The noble, even holy cause to which he devoted himself has left him psychologically and spiritually damaged. At home, instead of a warm homecoming, he encounters the casualties of a plague.
One of the film’s most original and memorable elements is the prominence of Death personified. Rather than confronting either the idea of death in the abstract or dead bodies as all-too-concrete reminders of mortality, the knight Antonius Block interacts with a charming, duplicitous, and mysterious black-robed figure. The image of Death, the character, is drawn from medieval depictions, and Bergman also incorporates a scene about painting just such an image in a church.
Because Block has lost his faith (or so he claims), his attempted conversations with priests or God himself are thwarted. Death intervenes to trick him into confessing his doubts. In that respect, Death also represents evil, or Satan. The filmmaker sets up an elaborate set of exchanges as games—albeit deadly serious ones—in which the two participate. Block knows he cannot avoid Death or even ultimately outwit him. Despite his protestations that he is no longer a believer, into his life comes a family that brings him back into intimate connection with the basic tenets of Christianity—and even with an infant Christ figure. Block is reconnected with his faith when he intervenes in Death’s plan. Despite Death’s threat to come after him, the knight disrupts Death's plan by sweeping away the chess pieces and saving thes couple, Jof and Mia. Bergman implies that by saving them, Block has also saved himself—not in this life but in the one to come.