Can 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.
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.
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 Screenings, Karen 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!
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