The only image I recalled ever seeing from The Seventh Seal was of Max von Sydow playing chess with Death alone before a sea, and I actually had the idea that it was just an hour thirty of exactly that. For this reason I thought I would really enjoy this movie. Turns out it is not that! It is about a fairly large group of people trying to avoid the Black Plague in medieval Sweden. It’s still as allegorical as that famous shot indicates, but actually more about the absence of God than the concept of Death, I’d say. The characters sort of vaguely move from incident to incident—that the Knight has a castle they can head to and try to shelter from the contagion is introduced surprisingly late, for instance, for a primary action motivator—and overall I honestly found it a little rough as a film, though I can’t say that detracts from what it’s trying to do. It’s one of those movies that seems more interested in using art to explore a grand thought than it is in making a grand piece of art that is itself thoughtful.
As often happens with classic movies, my experience of watching this was maybe overly informed by my dawning recognition of what later works I’ve seen were referencing this one. Most striking to me was Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life, which also contains a metafilmic scene of a character having a conversation about faith & suffering & God and artistic depictions of same with an artist painting murals on a church wall. Also, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.
The Seventh Seal was made in the 1950s and set in the Middle Ages and it is definitely thinking about gender politics, I’ll give it that, but at the same time, boy a lot of this movie sucks to watch! Oh I don’t know, I’m just tired of having to talk about sexist female archetypes—they’re all here, basically. I mean I’ll admit I did get mildly invested in the health & well-being of the cute little acrobat family who loved each other, but I am unsurprised, for all the reasons mentioned so far, that my favorite part was easily the opening scene, when it WAS just Max von Sydow and Death on a rocky beach in high contrast black & white.
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