Max von Sydow

Is The Seventh Seal the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

A few weeks ago after I watched Last Year at Marienbad, I sat with the experience after I finished it. I didn’t like the movie, but I got the sense that maybe you weren’t supposed to like it. “Challenging” is a word that gets thrown around a lot for movies like that, as is “experimental.” It’s certainly the former, with very little narrative structure, frequent inconsistency, and a constantly overwriting central truth. You are supposed to turn it over in your mind and try to solve it for yourself. At least, I think you’re supposed to do that. It’s the only way that movie makes sense to me.

I expected the same to be true of Persona, given the way people talk about the experience of watching it for the first time. People seem to be split on Last Year at Marienbad in a way they are not split on Persona, but both movies really demand a lot of the viewer in a way that a traditional story does not. Typically you see characters grow and change and your experience is determined by how you feel about what they experienced. We don’t interrogate this much because on a basic level it seems to be a stupid question. Asking yourself why you watch movies or read stories isn’t something you feel a need to do because you aren’t “buying into” an idea, it’s just what you do. Persona has a narrative, and arguably the core of it is just a look at personal identity and how we define ourselves. It spirals out from there and it compounds it with a structure that, yes, challenges you, and that’s why I find it so much more interesting.

It’s maybe a given that Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece is a better movie than Last Year at Marienbad, but this intro isn’t just to provide space for me to dunk on a movie I didn’t like or to praise a movie I did. Today we’re talking about The Seventh Seal, a movie that really doesn’t need an introduction. It’s Bergman’s first masterpiece, to reuse the term, and it’s the one where the guy plays chess with death. You are aware of it even if you can’t place it or haven’t seen it. It’s a scene that’s been redone so many times so explicitly that it transcends any space where you’d talk about classic film.

The Seventh Seal is the kind of movie that makes you think about film class. This is one of the starting points, where you go deeper than Pulp Fiction and you get your mind blown about what film can do. I expected the experience to be closer to Last Year at Marienbad than Persona, even though it’s Bergman. There are a lot of films on the lists of great films that are difficult, sometimes nearly impossible, to watch today. A true galaxy brain exploration of death including a literal chess match for your life never seemed like Monday night viewing. Even when you concede something is important or influential, it is sometimes a big ask to sit down and actually take it in. Whether it’s intimidating or you’re just worried you won’t like the original because you’ve seen so many derivatives, if you’re anything like me you put off eating your proverbial vegetables.

It’s not what I thought it was. I considered a few ways to present this information and I’ve decided it’s fine to look stupid. I expected this to be boring and to feel “important,” but not necessarily engaging. It’s anything but, much closer to a true narrative than the reputation suggests. Max von Sydow plays Antonius Block, a knight on his way back from the Crusades. He meets death and decides to play chess with him to delay the inevitable. He makes a bet as a play for his life, but there’s a sense that this isn’t really serious. We don’t know a single thing about Block when he sits down to play chess.

Block’s life becomes somewhat clear as he and his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) wander the countryside and experience what this land is like. They see horrible, unspeakable misery and a world ruined by plague and futile response to plague. We really only see the plague once, as a character screams and dies while other characters remark on being unable to even provide respite. The real tragedy is what happens in response, which feels a little close to home in 2021. In one town, the duo see an extended caravan of characters whipping themselves, dragging crosses, and moaning as they shamble into a ruined town. The message could not be clearer about what degree of hope exists.

I encourage you to experience it for yourself. That’s a simple thing to say about any movie, but I found it remarkable to watch Block’s journey and constant, seemingly reasonable demands for a sign. Christianity is often about resisting this impulse and the reality that the need for a sign is part of the journey, but the acceptance that none will come is part of the destination. Block asks a woman condemned to death due to belief that she has interacted with a demon if she can summon Satan. He is willing to tempt the darkness just to ask about the light. The Seventh Seal is undeniably a complicated story, but scenes like this are very clear. Block is the extreme version of the doubt and uncertainty about forces larger than our world that we all experience.

It’s not really about what it builds to, but I still will try my best to not spoil it. Block’s conversations with death are what remain in the public understanding, but it’s really about how Block sees himself and what he thinks he can do about it. The Crusades brought him only disillusionment and further proof that this world is a dark place. The world after this one eludes him, as it eludes everyone, and that’s not a story that has an ending other than the ending we’re all going towards. It’s not as bleak as all that, really, but it’s about finding the one thing you can control in a world where so much is chosen for you.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Yeah, I’d say it’s better than Rian Johnson’s modern noir Brick. I was genuinely surprised by how watchable I found it. I said in the main section that I’m okay sounding stupid and I think that’s just a risk you need to be willing to take when you barely scratch the surface of something that’s this huge. Brick is a movie I’ll come back to more often, but I’ll really sit with The Seventh Seal for quite some time.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, I prefer Bergman’s examination of identity in Persona more than The Seventh Seal. I think that’s probably a universal opinion, but this is the first time we’ve compared two films by the same director in this section. Obviously The Seventh Seal, and all of the other films, inform what Persona says about who is coming to save you and what you should do about it, but the setting alone of Persona makes it more relatable. The choice to set this examination in the Middle Ages and the set piece of a real chess game with the real, actual figure of death is an enormous swing, but it’s a testament to Bergman that is doesn’t feel pretentious or absurd. It’s a movie about asking questions that everyone will always be asking, so it’s timeless even with that abstraction.

You can watch The Seventh Seal on The Criterion Channel (subscription required). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.