Is A Skull More Interesting Than A Naked Woman?

(Photo by Albertus Pictor)

The Seventh Seal (1957) is considered one of the greatest films of the 20th Century by one of cinema’s (and certainly Sweden’s) greatest auteurs, Ingmar Bergman. It’s one of the those films that are de riguer on any film school class’s syllabus. Any modern day “white dudes in chainmail” medieval epic, from Monty Python and The Holy Grail to Game of Thrones, owes the Seventh Seal‘s doom and gloom imagery a debt. Hell, just watch it to listen actors speaking Swedish for 90 minutes, always makes me chuckle quietly to myself….

I still find it a thought provoking, disturbing and, at times, beautiful film- you won’t quite walk away from it untouched. Religion, Death, God and The Meaning of Life all get Bergman’s dark, uniquely Scandinavian treatment, leading to few answers by the end of the film. Funnily enough, for such a depressing fellow, Ingmar Bergman lived to be about 89, spending the majority of his life on some cold, windswept island off the coast of Sweden.

The plot of the Seventh Seal centers around a knight, Antonius Block (played by a young Max Von Sydow), freshly returned after 10 years from the Crusades. Plague is ravaging the land. He is sitting on a gloomy beach, playing chess by himself, when Death himself appears to take Block away. Block succeeds in convincing Death to play against him in chess. If Block wins, he gets to live. Death agrees, seemingly knowing that he always wins in the end…

We never see exactly how the game ends, but Death appears again throughout the film to continue the match and hopefully win Block’s everlasting soul. Doesn’t Death look strikingly similar to Death from Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey? Yes, I thought so.

Block, and his cynical squire, Jons, continue on their way home to Block’s ancestral castle. Along the way they pass by some traveling actors, Jof, his wife Mia, their infant son and their actor-manager Jonas. Block and Jons eventually arrive at a small church, inside of which is a local craftsman painting the interior wall with a macabre mural. In one of my favorite scenes of the movie, Jons asks the painter what he’s doing:

Jons: Whats that supposed to be?

Painter: The Dance of Death…

Jons: And why do you paint such nonsense?

Painter: To remind people that they’re going to die.

Jons: Well, that won’t cheer them up any.

Painter: Why try to cheer them up? Why not scare them a bit?

Jons: They won’t look at your paintings.

Painter: Oh yes they will- a skull is almost more interesting than a naked woman.

Jons: If you scare them, they’ll-

Painter: They’ll think. I paint things as they are- people can do what they like…

I think this scene was really Bergman making a subtle, tongue in cheek commentary on his own work. Sure, he could make some amusing, Hollywood-style fluff, but what he really prefers to do is provoke people to make them think. He has no interest in entertaining viewers. I think that’s also what I try to do with this blog too: make people think, and paint things as they are.

In the other more famous scene of the film, Block enters the confessional booth. Suffering from doubts about his faith, and fear of Death chasing his tail, he confides in the priest his story. Block feels that his life was without purpose, and that he wants to perform one last meaningful deed during his reprieve with Death. He then tells the priest about his chess game versus Death and how he plans to beat him. At this moment, Death reveals himself to have been disguised as the priest all along, having tricked the knight into revealing his strategy.

Back to the story: Block and Jons cross paths again with the traveling family of actors in town not far away. Block, is moved by Jof and Mia’s innocent love for each other and their small child. He invites them to weather the spreading Plague at his castle where he believes they will all be safer.

As the caravan of travelers near Block’s castle, Block plays one final game with Death. Jof and Mia see them both and become scared, fleeing for their lives. Block knocks the pieces aside to distract Death, thus enabling the young family to escape. Death thinks Block was merely trying to cheat him at the game, and resets the pieces from memory, then revealing that his next move will be Checkmate. Block smiles ironically to himself, knowing that although he will not escape his own end, he at least tricked Death and performed one last meaningful deed as he had intended.

Death then tells Block that he will be leaving him now, and that when they meet again the hour will strike for him and his companions. “And you will reveal your secrets?” Block asks:

Talk about bleak. Bergman’s philosophy is one of existential angst and ultimately, a futile search for answers in a rather short life here on Earth.

Block and his companions then make their way back to his old castle to be reunited with his wife. But Death is waiting there to take them all away. It is only Jof, Mia, and their baby who escape his clutches, while they see the others, hand in hand, being led away on a hillside in the distance, “dancing with death”.

But in the ending shot, we find that there is some hope after all in Bergman’s world: Love, Art and Family carry on, long after we have danced our way over the horizon…

What films make you think? And is a skull really as interesting as a naked woman?

2 thoughts on “Is A Skull More Interesting Than A Naked Woman?

  1. Great analogies here… That existential angst is powerful and strikes darkness and fear! Reminds me of a short story called The Wall, read it back in college, think it was Kafka, deeply thought provoking piece.

    • Post Author Greg Goldblatt

      Yes, well the Middle Ages were full of darkness and fear- literally. But maybe historians will look on our own age and say the same thing! Haven’t read The Wall unfortunately, is it indeed by Kafka? I should get back into reading more angsty Czech literature myself…

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