“I met Death Today. We are Playing Chess”: The Seventh Seal (1957)

The country is ravaged by plague, and the only thing left to do is challenging Death to a chess match. What film is more appropriate in the times of a pandemic than the one depicting a strategy against death?

And when the Lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour. (Revelation 8:1)

The iconic scene of a knight playing chess with Death is inspired by a medieval church painting from the 15th century.

Directed by Ingmar Bergman, The Seventh Seal (1957) tells the story of life using death as a tool. The knight named Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) believes that he can survive as long as the game with Death (Bengt Ekerot) continues. Block and his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) visit a church, and during a confession, Block tells the priest that his life seems pointless and that he would like to perform one meaningful act. He reveals his chess strategy to the priest, just to realize that he was actually talking to Death.

Bergman’s German expressionism influence is exemplified in chiaroscuro lighting showing the strong contrast between light and darkness.

No one seems to be happy in these times, and a small meal of milk and strawberries seems to exist like a haven in both time and space, making our characters turn their eyes away from death, rape and murder surrounding them. The scenes show the brutality of life, and sometimes its vagueness. We see executions, but also flagellants (although an anachronism) trying to see if maybe suffering in this world is the key to happiness in some other world. Holland (1959) contrasts the opening shot: first we see a blank empty sky, then the same sky with a single bird hovering against the wind. Life takes its meaning by running against the wind, being opposed to death.

Mia offers Block some milk and strawberries. A seemingly meaningless act makes the knight realize that moments like these affirm life as worth living.

A lot of film’s imagery is derived from medieval art. Bergman stated that the film’s most iconic image – a knight playing chess with death – was inspired by a medieval church painting from 1480 in Täby kyrka, painted by Albertus Pictor. The knight asks Death the questions that bother us all, the questions that were brave to ask. A cloud of half-promises and unseen miracles is not enough to keep a man alive during a plague.

Antonius Block: Is it so terribly inconceivable to comprehend God with one’s senses? Why does he hide in a cloud of half-promises and unseen miracles? How can we believe in the faithful when we lack faith? What will happen to us who want to believe, but can not? What about those who neither want to nor can believe? Why can’t I kill God in me? Why does He live on in me in a humiliating way – despite my wanting to evict Him from my heart? Why is He, despite all, a mocking reality I can’t be rid of?

The black-and-white cinematography and strong contrasts allow the lighting and shadows to be executed perfectly. Death warns us of nothingness, and is portrayed as a black void.

Block is eager to find meaning in his life, a quest so deeply familiar to every one of us. “I live now in a world of ghosts, a prisoner in my dreams”, he admits. He tells Death that he wants knowledge, and that includes God revealing his presence. But Death states that there might not be anyone there, forcing Block to ponder the sheer horror of emptiness and nothingness surrounding his life. Flagellants are there sacrificing their well-being today in order to achieve happiness in the other world. Women are being burnt at stakes for refusing to give false confessions, hoping for a better second life. But if there is nothing, then their whole lives amounted only to agonizing pain. Block concludes: “Faith is a torment. It is like loving someone who is out there in the darkness but never appears, no matter how loudly you call.” Block asks a woman condemned to death for sleeping with the devil has she really seen the devil. Such an act of desperation shows that the knight is ready to confront even the devil himself just to find out the truth about God.

Death: Perhaps there isn’t anyone.

Antonius Block: Then life is a preposterous horror. No man can live faced with Death, knowing everything’s nothingness.

The iconic Dance Macabre takes place in the final scene of the film, showing the inevitable surrender to Death, the only thing that’s always certain in our lives.

Stubbs (1975) mentions that much of Bergman’s strength comes from his ability to dramatize scenes in visual compositions both striking and often shocking. Following the tradition of German expressionist cinema, Bergman uses chiaroscuro, a deep contrast between light and shadows, to illustrate both life and death in this film. Death has a black cape, but a strongly lit white face, illustrating the contrast between good and evil. I believe this is so because Death is neither good nor bad. Death is the most natural thing there is, and a living thing must die in order for another to survive. Its black cape captures the notion of nothingness and void that might be waiting for us, but it also masks what is really out there, if anything.

When Block asks a church painter why is he painting Dance Macabre, he responds: “Why should one always make people happy? It might be a good idea to scare them once in a while. (…) They’ll look. A skull is more interesting than a naked woman.” Maybe this film won’t scare you, but it will definitely make you look. The surrender to death in the last Dance Macabre scene is not a tragic surrender, but a life-affirming acceptance of death. The last two minutes of the film were improvised because Bergman saw a cloud of unusual shape in the clouds, so he told the actors to put on their costumes, and then he directed a reshoot of the final scene in one take. And if we should learn anything from The Seventh Seal, this should be the fact that sometimes some milk and strawberries or an unusual cloud may make sense in an otherwise senseless world.



  • Bragg, Melvyn (1998). The Seventh Seal (Det Sjunde Inseglet). BFI Publishing.
  • Holland, N. N. (1959). “The Seventh Seal”: The Film as Iconography. The Hudson Review 12(2): 266-270.
  • Stubbs, J. C. (1975). The Seventh Seal. Journal of Aesthetic Education 9(2): 62-76.

One thought on ““I met Death Today. We are Playing Chess”: The Seventh Seal (1957)

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: