If I were a real critic I could title this review something like, “The Seventh Seal sure hits harder after you’ve lived through a plague.” But I never saw the whole thing sober until after the plague came, when I suddenly found myself with oodles of time, like Dr. Lecter has in jail. To keep from going completely mad (citation needed), I figured I’d continue my critical education. After all, learning is a life-long adventure you can start anywhere, even stuck in your own home. So I pulled up the Criteron Collection list on wikipedia and started working my way down.
I can already hear some true snobs groaning, so let’s get the obvious out of the way. Yes, Criterion is a private company whose business model revolves around home video releases of movies Serious Film Critics and Scholars(tm) consider the Definition of Good, but obviously they have no more real standing to make this claim than you or idea. The idea that one company could possibly have a monopoly which films are “classics” is more “dysptopian cyberpunk” to me than both Blade Runner movies combined. But having mastered both Knee-Jerk Snark (my Birth Element), Avante Garde Pretentiousness and Poptimist Enthusiasm (all the early twenty-first century comic book movies, both corporate and “indy,” let me knock those last two out at once), it was long past time I mastered my natural opposite element, Classical Snobbery. Criterion is a readily accessible source of Widely-Considered Classic films, so here we are. And there I am: watching The Seventh Seal during an actual plague. That’s still on going, much as we’re supposed to pretend otherwise.
The reputations of Designated Classics proceed and, far too often, overshadow them, as if these emerged fully formed from their creator’s heads or thighs and were never, once upon a time, just another New Release on the marquee. Watching them has an aura of doing one’s intellectual (if not moral) chores, and the films are all too easily dismissed as the irrelevant artifacts of a bigone eras, of historical interest only. Both can be true, but neither is true often enough to pass for a general rule. Sometimes – more often than not, it turns out, at least in my experience – the Film Bros are actually right and the films their forebears Designated Good do, in fact, still kick mucho ass. Personally, I was surprised how many films in the Criterion Collection I’d already seen. Even if one of them was Armageddon, another one of them turned out to be RoboCop, and I take that as a sign my cause is still a righteous one. Which is more than The Seventh Seal‘s protagonist can say.
For those who don’t know, or only know through osmosis, The Seventh Seal is about Antonios Block, a knight fresh off the boat home from the Crusades, returned to find a Sweden ravished by the bubonic plague. I’d forgive you for watching the opening, where Antonios and his squire Jons waking up on a beach, and thinking the same thing we all thought during the first season of Lost: “Oh, okay – they’re already dead and this is Purgatory…right?” Even before Death himself shows up, talking like that co-worker you haven’t seen in awhile. “Oh, hey – how’s it going?” “You know – same shit, different day.” “Yep…hey, hold up. You play chess, right?” In one of the film’s better historical ironies, Antonios knows Death plays chess “From paintings and folks songs,” the same way we know Death plays chess from this film…even if we haven’t seen it. Every Sims player knows all you need is a high enough logic skill, a board, and a dead sim’s life to wager with “Grimmy,” as they call him.
And why not treat Death as a co-worker if you’ve just come home from a war that accomplished so little future generations are just gonna lump it into a single collective noun with other wars from hundreds of years before you were born? To a home that’s demonstrably worse than when you left it? Where the churches are full of Danse Macabres, flagellants roam the streets, insisting on harshing everyone’s buzz, and the taverns are full of assholes who can’t even get a buzz without inflicting some petty cruelty. Where the guy who talked you into joining the crusades ten years agor is now a roving, rapist grave robber, indistinguishably from all the others. Where all the signs and portents point to God having abandoned the world, for good fucking reason. Sometimes I look at my own self-satisfied, prideful country, dotted as it is (and, to an extent, has always been) with towns that are now just as dying or dead as the one where Jons rescues his “housekeeper” from a seminarian-turned-bandit, and think very Seventh Seal thoughts. Like, does not God’s silence in the face of it all this horror speak volumes? What kind of God would grace so obviously cursed a place anyway? And I say that as someone who goes back and forth, on any given day, between 2006-Era Performative, Positivist Atheism and full-on, no really, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods pantheism.
This is far from the only 1950s film to deal with the multiple, overlapping existential crises World War II brought about. Just to pick another, completely random example from the Criterion Collection, there’s this obscure Japanese film you might’ve heard of, called Godzilla. Ishiro Honda set his meditations in the then-present day and incarnated that crisis in a giant radioactive dinosaur. The bubonic plague, and the High Middle Ages, are supposed to create narrative distance between viewer and subject…but I still felt The Seventh Seal reaching out through time and space to grab me by the short and curlies. It paints a world-picture that could pass for my own present with only minor changes to fashion and transportation. When critics use the cliché “a timeless film” that’s what the best of them mean. That’s how classics become true Classics…even if they debuted to reviews that basically went, “It’s pretty…but is it art?” My favorite is the anarcho-syndicalist newspaper that called it “a horror film for children.” That’s what I – an occasional anarcho-syndicalist raised on the horror films of John Carpenter and my Fellow David, Cronenberg – call a ringing endorsement, as far from the sick burn it was probably meant to be at the time as I am from success, or sinners are from the face of God.
If you’ve heard anything about this movie you’ve probably heard the title’s from Revelations 8:1. “And when the lamb opened the seventh seal there was silence in Heaven for about half an hour.” Back in the late-1st century CE (or whenever Revelations’ cave-dwelling mushroom addict author wrote down his bad trip) that referred to the silence of God right before the Apocalypse really gets to the good part, with the all the rains of blood and fire and collateral damage. In the last half of the 20th century it took on a broader meaning as nearly every “Western” philosophical discipline, secular or ecclesiastical, struggled with the fact that all the all their preceding centuries of work had either done nothing to combat fascism, or led straight to it. The survivors of an apocalypse looking around and going, “wait..what the fuck?”
Still, life goes on. As embodied by the traveling actors Antonios and Jons meet along the road: Jof, his wife Mia, their baby Mikael, and their manager Skat. Gotta make a living, put food on your family, and maybe even entertain some people…give their brains something to chew on other than the ambient, abject misery, even if for only a few seconds. Antonios and Death play their game throughout the film in a kind of liminal space, separate from the rest of the action…but not quite totally cut off. It’s a space of ideal forms only Jof seems capable of peering into because Jof – a professional comedian in a death-touched world – has what we might as well call “the shine.” And why not? He’s got a hot wife, a cute kid and a job he doesn’t outright hate – a trifecta so rare and coveted by we moderns that it might as well be the source of a superpower. He speaks of silence too, but it’s the silence he hears after he sees a vision of Mary teaching baby Jesus how to walk. The silence of inner peace, of stillness…of grace. Far more transcendentally powerful than the abstract, theological bullshit that weighs Antonios down, or the disillusionment with said bullshit that turned Jons into a cynical bastard.
Not that Jons isn’t my spirit animal. I love this world-weary piece of shit dude. He is both a modernization of the Sancho Panza tradition, and the Anti-Panza, too over it to even play pranks on his idealistic noble master. Even moreso than Antonios, Jons has been ground down by the world into a dude who just wants to get day drunk and occasionally fuck. Whom amongst us, am I right? Wouldn’t want him dating my mom, but he might be fun to hang out with on my mom’s porch. As veterans of foreign wars who’re self-medicating their undiagnosed PTSD go, he’s pretty chill. He finds meaning in fending off that would-be rapist ex-seminarian – and later, carving up the dude’s face after he finds him menacing Jof in a tavern – because he sees it as life coming full circle. Like the flagellants who interrupt our actors with what is, quite frankly, a better show, Jons figures God sent he and Antonios on that crusade as punishment for lifetimes of complacent self-regard.
I feel like Jons a lot of the time. “Some people don’t appreciate my art, and I don’t wish to torment anyone.” But I worry indulging that thought would turn into just another type of flagellant – barging into other people’s lives to completely harsh their vibe. I don’t have Jofs optimism, or Mia’s pragmatism. All I have is the hope for a moment like Antonios gets by the roadside, eating wild strawberries at dusk with his new actor friends. A moment of peace, where all the concerns of life are rendered temporarily insignificant. I look for signs that are greatly fulfilling. Sometimes I even find them…though there’s almost always a cost. Death almost always pops up right afterward.
By the end, having tried what little else is available to him, Antonios decides that protecting this little actor family from Death is at least one good thing he can do, right now, in the present. If he can do that then his life will not have entirely been for naught. And that, for me, was the final surprised of The Seventh Seal: that in its moral core, it is nearly indistinguishable from the superhero stories that are this channel’s bread and butter. And why not? We live in a post Seventh Seal world, and comic book protagonists – either in print or at the movies – have walked the path of Antonios Block for my whole lifetime…often to the same conclusion. One small act of self-sacrifice won’t make up for years of selfish bullshit…but it doesn’t have to if you believe the act is significant in itself.
Life is mad, and I can’t take Jons’ advice and just “not think about it.” But going forward, I’m going to try to be less of a flagellant…or at least leaven the doom with a little more humor. Like when Death cuts down Skat’s tree, this little squirrel pops up on the stump, and it’s as funny as Skat trying to squirrel out of dying with a reaper who, while he looks grim, isn’t above a good banter-session. All my life I hear how bleak and morose Bergman movies can be – like the spirit of a Swedish winter, condensed into something shelf-stable – only to find this one at least as full of easy humor and spirited life as…well, as the real Sweden undoubtedly is itself. Yes, Jons “housekeeper” only speaks when she see Death come for them at last, and her only reaction is the same thing Jesus said when He finally died. But the way I heard the story, you’re supposed to feel good when you get to “it is finished.” The “it” in that case being the bad old world. Finished now, it can make way for a better, new one. Or not. Life may be mad, but even in its madness it can still surprise you with how beautiful things are. And that surprise – our capacity for it – is always going to be funny.
I’m gonna try my damndest to carry that lesson forward. Not in my dumb hands, but in my heart, where I can put some real protection on it. No promises…except this one: The Seventh Seal will kick your ass and make you like it. Watch it if you haven’t. And I’d highly recommend watching it again if you haven’t seen it since before the plague. The Seventh Seal really does hit harder after you’ve lived through a plague.