Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman this Swedish Arthouse film tells the story of a battle weary knight, Antonius Block (played by Max Von Sydow), and his squire, Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand), returning home to Sweden after ten years fighting in the Crusades. Set during the Black Death a disillusioned Antonius struggles with his faith during their journey as they make their way to his estate to a reunion with his wife.
The title refers to a passage from the Book of Revelation – ‘And when the Lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour’ (Revelation 8.1). The reference to silence in this passage refers to the silence of God which becomes a recurring theme within the film.
Arriving on a stony beach with his squire, Antonius is greeted by Death (Bengt Ekerot) who has come to claim him. Antonius challenges Death to a game of chess with the caveat that Death cannot take him until the game is finished or Antonius loses. Death agrees and the game continues over the course of the film. The other characters cannot see Death and when the chess board comes out at various points in the film they believe he is playing himself.
During their journey Antonius and Jöns pass a sleeping troupe of actors consisting of Jof, his wife Mia, their infant son Mikael, and their actor/manager Skat. Jof has visions, seeing the Virgin Mary teaching an infant Jesus to walk, however his wife is skeptical and doesn’t believe him.
As they continue their journey Antonius and Jöns arrive at a church, entering Antonius sees a monk in the confessional booth and tells him – ‘I met Death today. We are playing chess. My life has been a futile pursuit, a wandering, a great deal of talk without meaning. I feel no bitterness or self-reproach because the lives of most people are very much like this. But I will use my reprieve for one meaningful deed.’ After giving away the tactics of his chess game he discovers that the monk is none other than Death in disguise. Leaving the church the pair continue on and arrive at an abandoned village, whilst there Jöns saves a girl from being raped by a corpse robber who turns out to be Raval, the priest who convinced Antonius to go to the crusade in the first place. Jöns threatens to brand Raval’s face if he ever sees him again and the girl joins them on their travels. Riding in to town the acting troupe of Jof, Mia, and Skat are performing, after introducing the other two Skat heads backstage before running away with Lisa, the blacksmiths wife. During their performance they are interrupted by a procession penitents carrying crosses and censers, flagellating themselves and others in an effort to prove themselves worthy for God to save them from the plague.
Jof heads to the inn whilst Mia sets up camp outside of the town, whilst at the inn Jof is approached by the blacksmith, Plog, looking for his wife and spurred on by Raval the two torment him, forcing him to dance like a bear. Jöns arrives and steps in and saves Jof then, true to his word, he cuts Raval’s face. During this time Antonius and Mia have met and enjoyed a picnic together and when Jof and Jöns return Antonius invites the two to his estate where they will be safer from the plague. The group continue on their journey through the woods joined byPlog who apologises for tormenting Jof. During the journey they encounter Skat and Lisa who, dissatisfied with Skat, returns to her husband and, in order to avoid a fight with the blacksmith, Skat confuses him with words before pretending to kill himself. After the companions leave Skat climbs a tree for the night which Death then proceeds to cut down, when Skat pleads Death responds that his ‘performance is cancelled on account of death’.
As they travel on through the darkness they encounter a group of soldiers taking a young girl to be burned for consorting with the Devil. Antonius speaks with her and asks her to summon the Devil so that he may ask him about God, the girl claims to have done so but Antonius sees nothing so gives her some herbs to take away the pain.
Continuing on Antonius and his companions camp for the night where Death once again visits to conclude their chess game. Jof awakens and sees Antonius playing chess with Death, telling his wife they decide to slip away whilst he is preoccupied. Noticing the young family leaving Antonius distracts Death by knocking over the chess pieces allowing them to make good their escape, Death places the chess pieces back on the board and then wins the game telling Antonius – ‘When we meet again you and your entourage’s time will be over’. Before leaving Death asks Antonius if he has completed his ‘meaningful deed’ yet to which he responds that he has.
Antonius is re-united with his wife and they enjoy one last supper before Death arrives to take them all. In the mean time Jof, Mia, and baby Mikael have been sitting out a storm in their caravan and the next morning Jof informs Mia that he has seen Antonius and his followers being led away dancing by Death.
The Seventh Seal was developed from Bergmans own play ‘Wood Painting’ written in 1954 and was the seventeenth film he directed. Shot over 35 days and with a budget of $150,000 it went on to help Bergman cement his reputation as a world-class director when the film won the Special Jury Prize at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival. The image of Death as a pale man dressed in black robes who plays chess with mortals became an iconic image and has been parodied many times including in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Young Ones and Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey.