Everybody dies. The great mystery, the question people ask, is what happens after death. How you answer it (or, in many cases, ignore it) might be the most defining trait of how you see and think about the world. It certainly is for the characters of The Seventh Seal. They live in a world where death faces them at every turn: in the arts, in plays, during long campaigns in the crusades and in their own country as The Black Plague spreads down the coast.
In the midst of all this death is a man who wants to know what lies beyond death. His name is Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), a knight returning from the crusades. He meets Death (Bengt Ekerot) on his way home and when death says it is Block’s time, he finds a way to bargain for a few more days of life by challenging Death to a game of chess.
Throughout his journey, he encounters characters that have their own answers to the question but none of them seem to satisfy Block’s questions. His squire, Jons (Gunnar Björnstrand), holds there is nothing after death, only the void of nonexistence. No God, no devil and hence life is just a fleeting existential moment. While Jons seems to bitterly relish his answer as an act of defiance against the cruelty of the world, Block finds it too terrible and dreadful a possibility, desperately hoping that there is something.
For other characters, mortality is not a concern. Lisa (Inga Gill) and Jonas (Erik Strandmark) are too caught up in the quick pursuit of pleasure to give much consideration to the death that surrounds them. Lisa’s husband, Plog (Åke Fridell), is so concerned with this that he cannot even begin to consider the possibility of death. These characters are oblivious of their own finiteness, unaware that death comes to all and on its own timetable.
Then there is the traveling family Jof (Nils Poppe), Mia (Bibi Andersson) and their young child. Jof’s acute religiosity grants him visions of a supernatural world. Other characters see Death when their time has come, but Jof is the only character who sees Death and is able to elude him, taking his family with him as well. In a similar vein, there is an unnamed character, known as Girl (Gunnel Lindbloom), who speaks only when she faces Death, repeating the final words of Christ, “It is finished,” with a smile on her face.
If we can see death coming, can we avoid it? Given the power Death shows in the film, it seems more likely that Jof and Mia have more time on this earth and their close scrape with death enlivens them to relish those moments of life before them. Mia comments on how particularly ordinary life is, but she says it not as one weary of life, like Jons, but like a lover commenting on how wonderfully average the object of her affection is, smitten by the consistent joy it brings her.
Writer/director Ingmar Bergman presents these views of death and leaves the audience grappling with who is right. The film ends with the characters in chains being led by Death, and what happens beyond that is unknown. Like the character of Block, Bergman is persistent in his questioning, but he seems uncertain that an answer can be attained. At times, the biting words of Jons seem the only way to make sense of all the cruelty and death in the world, but amid Jof’s family, the world seems like a wondrous place. If they said a better life is waiting after death, one might believe them.
But Block is our conduit through the film, and we’re left with nagging questions, ones that people have grappled with for centuries and will continue to grapple with as long as there are humans on earth. Bergman may not have answers, but he certainly has advice: Never stop asking questions, and consider the weight of death, because one day you will face it.