Death is the only certainty in the world but The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957) seeks not to prove this, as the order of everyday life has already established such, but instead the film seeks to establish the occurrence of death as a reassurance. The characters of the film have faced the occurrence of death countless times prior to their final encounter, and by the time this encounter is reached almost all of these characters welcome their respective demises. The Seventh Seal does not fill its runtime solely by detailing the various encounters with death that these characters have experienced, but instead it follows their final days and the various events contained within them. Whether it be the disillusioned knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) and his squire Jons (Gunner Björnstrand), or the blacksmith Plog (Åke Fridell) and his wife Lisa (Inga Gill), all must face death and as a part of their everyday lives. But it is the different approaches to death that defines each of these characters, though ultimately these approaches do nothing to save them from their fates. Death is inevitable after all, but the film maintains that life does not lose its value just because of this fact. The Seventh Seal mediates on life and death, and while it is sure to show the inevitability of the latter it does not establish the former as futile or worthless. Instead, the film cites death as a rite of passage of sorts that must be experienced in order for the world to be fully understood.
As the film begins, Antonius Block has not yet reached his acceptance of death. Though he and his squire are certainly disillusioned by their decade spent crusading, they both still harbor questions about their lives and the nature of the world. In the case of Block, he harbors enough vigor for the answers to these questions that he bargains with Death (Bengt Ekerot) in an effort to prolong his life. Block never truly believes that he can escape the inevitable, but he does believe that in the time that he has gained he can answer some of the mysteries that still haunt him. And ultimately, this strategy proves to be at least partially successful. Block gains extra time, only a few days, but it is enough for him to determine that he cannot gain all that he seeks in his life. By the conclusion of the film, Block has truly accepted death, and he even welcomes its arrival. But in order for him to reach this point, Block must first experience the state of his homeland, which is suffering from the Black Plague to the extent that many believe the end of days to be upon them.
Block seeks answers about God, life, and death. In the case of God, Block must examine his actions, as many of his actions in the past decade were in the name of God, and also the current state of the faith in his homeland. As he travels towards home, Block encounters various holy men and believers. Most of these harbor the belief that the end of the world is upon them, and they vigorously declare this belief to those around them. In addition to these proclaimers of doom, Block and his squire also face the presence of Raval (Bertil Anderberg), whom encouraged Block to join the crusade ten years prior. But though Raval once was considered a man that was close to God, he has now fallen to the status of a thief that steals from the dead and will kill those that might get in his way. Though it is Jons who deals with Raval the most directly, all of the central characters witness his demise as he succumbs to the Black Plague.
As Block seeks for the answers about his questions concerning God, he also seeks answers about life. This proves to be a more difficult prospect for the disillusioned and weary knight as the land he traverses is so wrought with death that life can nary be found. But this does not mean that answers are impossible for Block, as he is eventually able to put his mind at ease on this subject. To Block, life is represented by the actors Jof (Nils Poppe) and Mia (Bibi Andersson), and their infant son Mikael (Tommy Karlsson). As he travels with this trio, Block grows attached and even protective of them as he values their innocence and their lust for life. Ultimately, it is the fates of this family that provokes Block to somewhat clumsily further delay his chess game with Death, as he seeks to ensure their safety. But like his own fate, Block does not harbor any illusions that this family of actors can ultimately escape death, but he does harbor hope that he can delay their inevitable meeting with the being whom he now plays chess with. His efforts prove successful, for as Death resets the chessboard following Block’s efforts, the actors flee into the woods and ultimately survive this brush with death.
In the end, having satisfied his questions about God and ensuring the safety of those that he can, Block must face his queries about death itself. But in this he recognizes that his answers cannot be found without experiencing the event of death itself. In addition to this, Block harbors the belief that his questions about God cannot be fully answered in his life, and that the answers can only be found in death. As the chess game nears its conclusion, Block becomes increasingly accepting of his fate. Though he did not fear his own death when the game started, he did fear leaving his life with so many questions left unanswered. But as Death puts him in check, Block’s fears subside as he recognizes that death is the only avenue remaining by which he can continue to answer the mysteries of his life.
Death comes to Block and it claims him and his entire household. Though those that face their end in this moment may fear it, they soon reach acceptance of death. As they dance with Death, they are observed by Jof, whom has escaped his end for the time being. But this end is not treated as a tragedy by the film or those within it. Jof does not so much mourn those that have died as he is more entranced by their motions. The Seventh Seal, in the same way, does not mourn for those that have died and instead focuses on their journeys to their ends. Block reaches his end knowing that there is nothing else he can gain from his life. Though he began the film as a disillusioned man, he still harbored enough energy for his life that he was eager to hold off Death until he felt that the time was right. Those that die with him may not be as content with their deaths as Block, but by the time Death appears to them they have witnessed enough of life to not try to escape him. But The Seventh Seal does not use this fact to argue that life is so futile that death should be readily accepted, but rather that the ends of its characters have simply been reached. Those that Death takes at the film’s conclusion know that they time has come, and because of this they do not fight their fate. Death cannot be escaped, but the film uses the character of Block to argue against the possibility that life is futile because of this fact.