As a treat on my 73rd birthday, I went to see The Seventh Seal. Treat may seem an unlikely word in the previous sentence: Ingmar Bergman’s film is almost certainly the most memorable depiction of death in the history of cinema, and death is far closer to me now – its ordinary fact a greater presence in my life – than it was when I first saw the film 50 years ago.
On my way to the South Bank, where the British Film Institute is showing its extensive Bergman season, I wondered if getting older would deepen my understanding of the film, or if its often parodied scenes had worn badly and would now be slightly risible. I remembered that it came from a different age, before the easy and constant availability of moving images – not only pre-digital, pre-Netflix and so on, but also, in my own family’s case, pre-television. I remembered my cinephile older brother saying he had seen a foreign film that “shows you what the middle ages must really have been like”, by which (it turned out) he meant superstitious, filthy, violent, blighted by disease – and utterly monochrome. Until that point, the middle ages had appeared in movies as a Technicolor kingdom of shining armour, pearly teeth and vivid lipstick where everybody spoke American: a genre that Danny Kaye guyed in The Court Jester (“The pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle; the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true!”) but only very slightly. Nothing punctured the impression that the 14th century was equipped with toothpaste, flush lavatories and hot running water.
Bergman made his contrary version in 1957 and shot it in 35 days on a meagre budget – even then – of $150,000. (MGM’s Court Jester, by contrast, cost $2.5m two years before). It was the director’s 17th film, but his Swedish backers hesitated, stumping up the money only after the international success of his comedy Smiles of a Summer Night – made two years before – had clearly turned Bergman into a bankable name.
On the face of it, the new film didn’t promise much in the way of box-office returns. It drew its themes from Bergman’s childhood as the son of a Lutheran pastor, who when accompanying his father on tours of country churches explored a “mysterious world of low arches, thick walls, the smell of eternity, the coloured sunlight quivering above … medieval paintings and carved figures on ceiling and walls. There was everything that one’s imagination could desire: angels, saints, dragons, prophets, devils, humans.” Some of these painted scenes became celebrated episodes in the film. One of them, in which Death sits playing chess with a Crusader, became its central narrative.
The story hardly needs telling. Briefly, a knight and his squire return from fighting in the Crusades to find Sweden being ravaged by the plague. The knight meets white-faced Death on a stormy shore and, to postpone his fate, challenges him to a game of chess, which continues in various locations until Death eventually wins. On their travels, squire and knight encounter all kinds of calamity and despair – a cavalcade of flagellants, a young woman about to be burned at the stake, the dead abandoned in their villages – but also a sweet pair of young actors, husband and wife, who with their young child are touring this hopeless countryside.
In a chiaroscuro film, this little trio are the light. The knight, who can’t save himself from Death, chooses to save the couple and their infant instead, and in this way finds some meaning in his life. Unlike the sceptical and materialist squire, he is haunted by the same questions about God and the afterlife that had once troubled Bergman as a pastor’s son, though when he made the film he was on the road to reconciling himself to a post-death state of “absolute nothingness”.
I’m not sure how much I understood of this when I first saw it. Rather than the moral or religious quandary, what stole our attention was how persuasively horrible the 14th century looked, and how easily the world could look that way again if nuclear war imitated the Black Death and killed a third of the European population, leaving the survivors to roam half-deserted settlements as foul-breathed murderers, looters and rapists. Bergman himself spoke of the analogy, which was easy enough to make during the cold war era of atmospheric nuclear testing and the Cuba crisis. But then, writers since the first world war had seen the 14th century as an instructive, even consoling comparison with 20th-century catastrophe, and did so again in 1978 when the American historian Barbara Tuchman, in her book A Distant Mirror, likened the “violent, tormented, bewildered, suffering and disintegrating age” of 600 years before to a present time “of similar disarray”.
A notable feature of the Black Death was how quickly the bacillus killed and moved on. It was first reported in western Europe in October 1347, when a ship from the Black Sea arrived at Messina in Sicily crewed by dying sailors who had strange black swellings in their armpits; in the following summer it spread north to Paris and crossed the Channel from Normandy; by 1349 it had reached Scotland, Scandinavia and Greenland. Its victims tended to die within five days of the first symptoms, which was often too fast for the living to bury them. The death rate had all kinds of consequences – economic, social, and not least psychological and moral.
“The sense of a vanishing future created a kind of “dementia of despair”, Tuchman wrote, noting that the plague was the kind of calamity that drove people apart rather than pulled them together. Fear of contagion meant that peasants abandoned their fields, stonemasons their cathedrals, and parents their children. Nobody knew what it was or how it spread, and wouldn’t for the next 500 years. As to the question why, people looked to the Book of Revelation and its mystical imagery (which supplies the film’s title) and blamed the wrath of God, though why God was angry was also unknowable. In Tuchman’s words: “Divine anger, so great that it contemplated the extermination of man, did not bear close examination.”
In The Seventh Seal, the knight embodies these questions. In the 1950s and 60s, these were of more than historical interest, and still lived in books by writers such as CS Lewis and Christian school lessons that promised to address (though never to solve) something they called “the problem of pain”. Less so now, and similarly with the afterlife: hell went and heaven followed. At least in western Europe, “absolute nothingness” is what many of us, perhaps a majority, expect.
Death remains, but drawing closer to it has made the film no more frightening than before. Another of the film’s scenes has become more important to me. The knight, beautifully played by Max von Sydow, rests on a sunlit hillside with the two young actors and their child. The husband plays softly on a lyre, while his wife brings the knight bowls of wild strawberries and milk. The knight quietly promises that he will cherish this memory of passing happiness, to carry it between his hands “as if it were a bowl of fresh milk” as a sign and a consolation.
One of the director’s biographers, Peter Cowie, describes this scene as a typical Bergman “charmed space”, and when I saw it I remembered one of my own with the same Max von Sydow. During the making of a film in Budapest 35-odd years ago – a ridiculous entertainment called Escape to Victory – I went to supper with him, his fellow actors Daniel Massey and Tim Pigott-Smith, and the Colditz escapee Pat Reid.
The last was a consultant on the film and the rest had parts in it. We ate in a grand but rather faded restaurant, which may have dated from the Austro-Hungarian empire. It was a quiet, dignified and friendly evening, and I felt lucky to be part of it. I never met any of them again. Two of us – the other is Von Sydow – remain alive.
• Ian Jack is a Guardian columnist
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