Comfortable and Furious

Starring Debuts #26: Max von Sydow in The Seventh Seal (1957)

We’re film fans, right? This means we’ve occasionally gotta get out of our comfort zone and give the likes of the mopey-as-fuck Ingmar Bergman a go. It can’t all be Arnie, Scorpio and King Kong breaking a dinosaur’s jaws, can it?

And so to fourteenth-century Sweden. A bloke has come home from fighting the Crusades – hooray, happy times – only to find the Black Death raging across the land.


Anyhow, Antonius Block (Sydow) finds himself on a stony beach. Of course, he’s brought a chess set along, a handy means of postponement when Death (Bengt Ekerot) turns up. Challenging the black-caped, chalk-faced party pooper to a game, Block is then allowed to continue his journey back to his wife until the match is decided.

Gotta admit, that’s a cool setup.

Tall, blonde, and with an elongated head, Sydow is an earnest, imposing presence. Personifying existential woe, he gets so many gloomy lines you lose count. “I see myself and am seized by disgust and fear… Now I live in a ghost world, enclosed in my dreams and imaginings… Why can’t I kill God in me? Life is a preposterous horror. No man can live faced with Death, knowing everything is nothingness… All my life I’ve been searching, wondering, talking without meaning or context… Faith is a heavy burden. It’s like loving someone in the dark who never comes, no matter how loudly you call.”

Blimey, mate, have a beer and chill.

Then again, as this imperious knight wanders through his medieval homeland with a red cross emblazoned on his chest, he is confronted by corpses, an accused witch in the stocks waiting to burn, the maimed, superstition, talk of women giving birth to monsters, the stupid, doom-laden certainty of priests, and a troop of none too happy flagellants. Amusingly, he seems to conclude at one point that the best way to counter the torment of over-thinking and the certainty of death is to take part in simple pleasures.

That’s to say, having a beer with a mate or two and chilling.

The Seventh Seal is often theatrical and silly, a tonal mishmash that could have done with a tighter narrative focusing on Block’s odyssey. Although it’s an intermittently fascinating, influential classic of world cinema, if you’re in the wrong mood it’s pretty easy to mock the shit out of it.

As for the class act von Sydow, he went onto an extraordinary, twice Oscar-nominated career working for all the top directors while playing everyone from Jesus and a king in Conan the Barbarian to a Bond villain opposite Connery and a footy fan in Escape to Victory. You probably best remember him though as that nice, dedicated priest getting a wee bit out of his depth in The Exorcist.



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