The Great Villain Blogathon: Death in The Seventh Seal

the-seventh-seal_eCan the personification of death really be considered a villain? Or, is the personification of death the most relevant villain of all? In Ingmar Bergman’s iconic film The Seventh Seal (1957), Death (Bengt Ekerot) is the ultimate adversary against which each of the characters resist; particularly the knight Antonius Block, played by Max von Sydow.

We first see Death on the beach at the very beginning of the film, after Antonius and his squire, Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand), have returned to their native Sweden from fighting in the Crusades. Antonius is watching the sun set over the ocean, and after a time, notices Death watching him. Death asks Antonius if he is ready to go with him. He informs Antonius that he was walking alongside him during all of his time at war, but now is the appropriate time for him to die. Having an understanding that death is inevitable, but at the same time wanting to delay it a while longer, Antonius asks Death to play a game of chess with him. If Antonius wins the game, Death cannot take him. But if Death wins, Antonius must accept the fact that he is to die.

It is with this chess game in mind that Antonius travels across the land, meeting an assortment of companions, and seeking answers to questions about death, life, and the existence of God.

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Thus begins our relationship with Death in The Seventh Seal. The act of playing a chess game with Death is one of the film’s most iconic images, and a very apt metaphor for the trials and tribulations of the characters in the film. Death regularly enters the universe of the film as it progresses to play chess with Antonius, and we watch as chesspieces are regularly taken or threatened; a knight, a queen, a king in check. After each chesspiece is removed, Death progressively claims the life of Antonius and of those who surround him. In The Seventh Seal, life is a chess game in which the characters either advance across the board, or fall back, or are eliminated entirely. We see the power of Death over the lives of other characters as a young woman is burned at the stake, and people afflicted with the plague fall dead where they stand, among other creative death scenes.

We also watch as Death attempts to cheat Antonius out of the remaining time that he has. When visiting a church on his journey, Antonius confesses to a priest, who is actually Death in disguise, that before he dies he wants to see evidence of God. He wants to know God is listening, to witness a sign to know that all of his fighting in the Crusades, and his faith throughout everyday life, had meaning; because despite being so devoted, he has seen and heard nothing. Here is where we see the tricky and manipulative nature of Death – acting as a priest, Death has no answers for Antonius’ dilemma, but further reinforces the inevitability of death and encourages Antonius to accept it as well. Death eventually reveals himself, but only after learning Antonius’ chess strategy in order to get the game over and done with more quickly.

In The Seventh Seal, all of the characters are forced to confront the inevitability of death, particularly as they witness the Black Plague ruining the lives of everyone it touches. However, only Antonius Block constructively attempts to bargain with the concept itself in order to stretch out his time on earth. Death eventually tells Antonius, “Nothing escapes me. No one escapes me”, further enhancing the macabre, existentialist message of the film. Despite Antonius trying as hard as he can, even if he could beat Death at this chess game, he would never be able to outwit him forever.

seventh-seal-360

Symbols of death are littered throughout the film, but nothing is as disturbing as Death’s stern white face and black cloak, and his direct way of speaking that bluntly acknowledges the time-limited nature of life, that people might prefer to otherwise avoid. The character of Death is a shrewd social politician who acknowledges human frailty and need for a deeper meaning, but also is assertive in the fact that he has a job to do. You get the feeling when watching him that he is mildly annoyed by the time delay in having to play a game of chess with Antonius, but you can also feel the smug superiority in his understanding that, ultimately, Antonius will lose the game no matter what.

As with death in real life, there’s no epic showdown with Death in The Seventh Seal. Death is never defeated or conquered, and there are no battles or fight scenes that give the audience a sense or closure or triumph over the character, nor the concept. In this way, Death is really the ultimate ‘villain’ as he is unconquerable and unstoppable. At the film’s conclusion, one might feel slightly insecure or uncomfortable at the fact that the main threat of the film was not defeated, and that the actions of characters in the film were all for nought. But by addressing this discomfort in film format, Ingmar Bergman is forcing his audience to confront their own existential angst. There is no greater character than Death to address such discomfort and hopefully cause viewers to value their time on earth a little bit more.

*****

This post is part of the Great Villain Blogathon hosted by Ruth of Silver ScreeningsKaren of Shadows & Satin, and Kristina of Speakeasy  — see the whole list of movie baddies at any of these three blogs. There are some amazing character picks for this blogathon, so I would highly suggest checking them out!

Watch this film at Amazon!

32 comments

  1. Great in depth review! I was fascinated by this film when I watched it on Hulu, So I went out and bought Criterion’s blu ray release of this film. I am very excited to watch it again after you reminded me how profound of a film this is by the incredible Bergman.

    1. Thank you! The film is so fascinating. Every time I watch it I notice something new! 🙂 Bergman is a very profound filmmaker indeed.

  2. Damn straight Death is the ultimate villain. Without Death, none of the other bad guys matter.

    Great review, by the way. I love this film.

    1. Thanks Jordan. 🙂 Good old Death! What a champ.

  3. Great post, the chess scene is so iconic.

  4. This sounds so great, I’ve been wanting to see a Bergman film for a long time now, maybe I can begin with this. I love portrayals like these, so eerie and inevitable. Wonderful review, Anna!

    1. Thanks Elina! 🙂 I’d definitely recommend getting into Bergman, and The Seventh Seal is the perfect place to start! Some of his other films are more slow-moving than this one so it’s a good introductory film. I watched all of his films over the span of a couple of weeks some years ago and came out with a huge appreciation for his filmmaking style and themes. He’s amazing!

  5. I haven’t seen this but after reading your review must seek it out 🙂

    1. Definitely, it’s amazing! 🙂

  6. lassothemovies · · Reply

    I don’t think anyone could argue about the greatness of Death as a villain, especially in this picture. You’re absolutely right, you know he’s gonna win in the end, and it doesn’t matter how hard he is fought along the way. The smug way he accepts the challenge of a chess game, let’s you know how certain he is that things will end up going his way. He is so powerful and dominating.

    Thanks for such a great addition to the villain blogathon. I enjoyed it tremendously.

    1. Thanks so much, I loved taking part in this blogathon! 🙂 Have been loving everyone’s posts. It’s so much fun to see villains front and centre.

  7. Emily Crawford-Margison · · Reply

    Lovely well written review. I love seeing death as the ultimate unconquerable villain. But you can also make peace with him, and play a lovely game of chess, if u can accept that he will have to take you some time. Nothing personal, lol

    1. Thank you! 🙂 It’s funny in the film because we see some characters saying they’ve made peace with death, but then when Death shows up, they beg for their lives. Just another example of Bergman nailing the complexities of existence!

  8. You have convinced me – I must watch this film!

    1. You absolutely must! 🙂

  9. “…unconquerable and unstoppable” Truly the nature of villainy. A most thought-provoking review.

  10. I’ve never seen this film, mostly due to circumstance and not avoidance. However, the figure of death is so iconic, you feel you know this character without having seen the film.

    Terrific review! Thanks for participating in the blogathon and featuring the villain we all fear – whether in movies or in real life.

    1. Thank you! 🙂 I’m loving everyone’s posts in this blogathon. What an excellent idea!

  11. Sounds interesting, I want to see this now!

    1. You should, it’s one of those films that sticks with you for a really long time!

  12. I have absolutely no desire to see this movie, but what an excellent write-up. Really good stuff.

    1. Thank you! 🙂 It’s an excellent film but definitely not for everyone!

  13. I’ve never seen this film. I’ve meant to for years, but never have. I know it’s a total classic, one of the best films ever made, but…will I be bored?

    1. I don’t think you’d be bored! It’s not one of those slow, overtly philosophical films that’s dull and dry. Bergman puts characters and situations in there from all across the spectrum – stoic, comedic, sympathetic, unsympathetic. Amazing ending as well. If you’re in the mood for a big old thriller it’s probably not the one, but it’s a good film for a quiet evening in.

  14. Interesting. I didn’t see the personified Death as a straight-up villain when I watched this; it’s an act that is an inevitable conclusion and is unavoidable, unlike a villain whom you might to choose to mingle with. Thanks for opening my eyes to a new reading of this movie, I’m going to give it a re-watch with your post in mind.

    1. Thanks! 🙂 Its funny because when I first watched this I didn’t see him as a villain either, but yet he was the first character to pop into my head when reading about this blogathon! He’s way too sinister to not be villainous in some capacity. But perhaps any perception about the character is really all about the individual’s level of acceptance of the inevitability of death. Typical Bergman causing us to contemplate existential themes!

  15. I haven’t seen this one yet but those scenes are so iconic they still feel familiar. This depiction is so influential too, reaching all the way into comedy. Thanks for an excellent contribution to this event

    1. I felt the same way before I watched this for the first time – the image is so ubiquitous in pop culture. Thanks for organising such a great blogathon! 🙂

  16. […] seventh seal is… I would argue that the ‘bad guy’ in The Seventh Seal (1957) is Death himself. But other people might argue that there is no bad guy in the film except for the evils of man and […]

  17. […] manner, with very similar direction and cinematography. We also see a bit of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) coming out, in the form of a man bargaining with God/Death to avoid the […]

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