What I was most surprised to pick up in ‘Seventh Seal’ is the idea that action, good or bad, can give purpose to a man and relieve existential crisis. The backdrop is an England that is welcoming home knights from war as paranoia about the spreading plague invades every conversation and action. In this world, it makes perfect sense that Death is an actual character that is lingering around at all times, challenging and unsettling our protagonists. And it is in this context that we can understand the need to put less emphasis on right vs. wrong and more emphasis on being able to live life normally whatever it takes to stave off the fear and anxiety of impending death.
Our hero, Antonius Block, spends the entire film trying to think of any way to outsmart, trick, or cheat death to stay alive, and he spends most of his time in angst over his fight with death. His squire, Jöns, however, bully’s some poor fellow one minute, and comes to the aid of another the next minute. He saves a woman from being raped, then immediately forces a kiss on her and says she is lucky he is choosing not to rape her because he could. His actions sway from bad to good, but he never hesitates, and he feels none of the angst that plagues Antonius. To act is to be present, and to be present is to be free of the future and the past. The one failure we must all face, that none of us can escape, is the failure of death. And when we know it could be just around the corner at every moment it does no good to be fearing what is just around the corner because we lose the ability to live in the present.
The dynamic between Antonius and Jöns is quite like the conversation between Arjuna and Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. Arjuna keeps worrying about how to act in the face of huge impending battle with family and friends among the enemy forces. He fears taking the wrong actions and frets over how he could possibly prevent the war from happening. Krishna argues that he must act because war is going to happen with or without him and we cannot separate or remove ourselves from the happenings of the world. In the face of death, it is only through action that we can find peace of mind. I think most people have a hard time with throwing out the idea of right vs. wrong in any situation, and so these arguments can be problematic for some. In the modern age we might want to believe that Krishna is wrong when he tells Arjuna that the battle is unavoidable and he must not waste energy trying to prevent it. It takes away our belief in the control and free will we have as people. However, while many people could see the folly of going to war with Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11, larger cultural forces made it unavoidable. And at that point, most people sought peace of mind through action, whether that action was to join the army and go to war, or whether that action was to find out the truth and expose the lies of the government. It is those of us who sat on the sidelines that felt the most existential angst about the situation. There is real power in action, the power to control your own fate, which is the essence of free will. Fate and free will are not mutually exclusive, and they need not oppose each other, they are merely two sides of one of the universe’s many beautiful, confounding paradoxes.
There is another character in The Seventh Seal, Jof the actor, who represents passion. He is happily married with a small son, and both her and his wife are traveling performers. He does not make much money, he is always on the road, and many times the audience does not appreciate or care for his performance, especially in these troubled times ruled by anxiety. However, throughout the film while he is around this strange cast of characters in the midst of chaos, he and his family are never hounded by death. He lives a simple life doing what he loves, and his reward is family, peace, and life. In fact, the only moment of stillness Antonius has in the entire film to appreciate the beauty of life is when he first meets Jof and his family, sharing a picnic with strawberries in the countryside. Antonius cannot hold onto the moment for long, and he even states he wants to remember it, but that moment is just everyday life for Jof. So while the film acknowledges the importance of action above all else in times of crisis and fear, it also does show that acting out of passion are what will not only allow you to live without angst, but to live with joy and love instead.
Looking at its historic impact, The Seventh Seal was also revolutionary from an aesthetic and thematic standpoint. Much of the film fare of the time will still focused on entertainment, because popular success was of paramount importance. Even early masters of cinema around the globe who had bigger ideas on their minds would often put them into entertaining, relatable stories, or popular genre fare. The Seventh Seal, however, is very strange. It wears its existentialism on its sleeve, and it could easily be labeled as pretentious or corny. It doesn’t even have the luxury of great costumes or fancy techniques or special effects to mitigate those aspects that could be open to ridicule. The imagery is stark black and white, the pace is slow, and the mood is heavy and philosophical. However, when researching the film, I discovered that it was largely responsible for opening up America to international arthouse fare and not just popular entertainment from other countries because it became a big hit. As someone who first learned about the world from watching international arthouse cinema from around the globe, I feel a deep gratitude to this film and the way it helped open up America to foreign cinema, and maybe even cinema as a whole, to the idea of film as art.