I didn’t expect much when I turned on Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. But after 96 minutes, it changed my perspective on life.
We all know that taking in art can be a transformative experience. I’ve often felt changed after walks through the Met and binges of novels in my childhood bedroom. I loved Steinbeck’s East of Eden enough to tattoo its pivotal Hebrew phrase on my body. In my free time, I model my wardrobe after the runway shows I watch twice per year. Art has sunk its teeth into every fiber of my life — and whether or not it sounds pretentious on paper, it’s probably true for everyone to some degree. A great deal of our choices are modeled after characters, stories, music, and more.
Despite the fact that I hold an English degree, no art form has changed my life as much as film. Thinking about the date at the Metropolitan Opera in Moonstruck, the faked orgasm of When Harry Met Sally, and the repulsive blood eagle in Midsommar are just a few moments in moviegoing that have taken my breath away. I see these things and think that maybe all of the fallacies that come with being a person are completely and totally beautiful, because we can make such great things. Some of the time I’ve spent in front of my bedroom TV has been just as meaningful as visiting the Sistine Chapel. (It sounds dramatic, of course, but wait until I talk about my favorite film).
A lot of people argue about what makes a movie versus what makes a film. This argument is a little bit silly to me, but from what I understand, a great example of this difference can be seen if we look at two titles starring Adam Sandler: That’s My Boy is a movie, but Punch-Drunk Love is a film. (One is considered to have more artistic merit than the other). I feel a little bit snobby admitting that my favorite flick is a film rather than a movie, but it is what it is. It has beautiful cinematography, incredible characters, a massive moral and philosophical conundrum that is solved in roughly 90 minutes, and turns the very boring part of history that we call the Dark Ages into something very interesting.
The first time I watched The Seventh Seal, I immediately recognized the iconic opening scene of death personified in a black cape with a pale, grim face. Nothing was more chilling than seeing the hero, Antonius Block, being taken off guard and asking this cloaked figure “Who are you? / Have you come for me?” The first few minutes can easily be found on YouTube — Death is challenged to a game of chess as a conditional for whether or not he may take the knight’s life.
I won’t spoil the film. Most people can recall the first few minutes — it’s even referenced in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. It means so much to me because it is about the fear of dying. Its characters must all come to terms with death, whether or not their demise comes to fruition by the end of the story. At its beginning, the Crusades have just ended. All of the characters are under the impression that having made it thus far guarantees that they must be destined to survive any and all hardship, but Death finds his way no matter what, and everyone is touched by his presence. When the knights that lead the story begin making their way to Denmark from the war, they are met with gruesome details of the slow and torturous death that is being widespread through Europe by the Bubonic Plague.
Before the age of the Coronavirus, I watched this film with the utmost conviction that it was relevant despite having no plagues of illness to worry about. I wondered about the fact that I really hadn’t had any brushes with death — and realized that that does not mean that I am free from my own mortality. Just because I have no imminent threat of illness or tragedy around me doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t think about the fact that I one day will die. It isn’t about worrying or being afraid of dying, but more so about being careful to lead a life that has purpose with each word I speak and each action that I perform. I best feel that the film conveys the importance not in dying but in living with a scene of joy and contentment. The hero of the story is very afraid of dying and seems to be going through the motions until he spends time with his friends and simply enjoys some fresh strawberries and milk at dusk. “I shall remember this hour of peace,” he says, “I shall remember our words and bear this memory between my hands as carefully as a bowl of fresh milk.” We’ve only seen the character despair in his fear of dying before this, but now his happiness is the most colorful and expressive reaction he has shown for the entire story. The ease shown on his face while with friends and eating strawberries is far greater than the furrow in his brow while playing chess with Death.
It’s difficult to not worry about dying. Thousands of people around the world have died from Coronavirus over the last few months, and it is a terrible threat especially while living in a densely populated suburb like Long Island. Everyone knows someone whose life was cut short by any of the number of things that can kill a person, and many people today know too well the horrors that this disease is bringing. Oddly enough, it isn’t too different from what Antonius feels in The Seventh Seal when he sees threats all around him. But the character’s transformation from someone who fears dying into someone who appreciates life inspires me deeply.
I was truly miserable at the time in my life that I watched this film. Its effect on me was so dramatic that I altogether realized that I needed to change things and begin reclaiming my purpose from the bad things that kept happening to me and exercising my free will to live as enjoyable of a life as possible. It has always been my prerogative to live a happy life as long as I can do so without it being at the expense of others. For a while, I forgot about this objective. In times of personal suffering, we often disregard our values and become comfortable with being uncomfortable. In the late hours of the winter night that I watched Bergman’s masterpiece, the fact that I should be more upset at my lack of living well than at my mortality became clearer than ever.
What did I do the next day? I still went to class. I still went to work. My attitude, however, was completely rebranded. I’d been steadily on the road to failing my classes during the semester in question and wasn’t doing anything to change it. After reconsidering the way that I was living my life, I decided to reach out to my professors and express my want to do better (it worked very well and my willingness to improve was met with appreciation). I gave more consideration to the fact that I’d been avoiding difficult situations like halting communication with an ex, repairing my relationship with my parents, and my failure to seek friendship by alienating myself during a time that was scary and uncertain.
I’m not saying that the same thing will happen when you watch The Seventh Seal. What made it so special to me was the way in which its message was orchestrated — a much different experience than reading its fable in a book, I think. Additionally, I am not even claiming that this is Bergman’s best film. It just matters to me. No matter who I meet in life, we all seem to have a piece of art that we are completely and inexplicably fanatical about. All mediums have a way of being special, but with the movie camera, I am able to see things in a light that I don’t see when I’m just reading or just listening.
I encourage anyone reading this to look back on a favorite book, movie, piece of music, or other. When we think about why we love the art that we love, we can humble ourselves and grow “to be” like that piece of art and mimic our admiration for it by leading improved lives. There’s plenty of entertainment out there that is just that — entertainment and nothing more. Once in a while, there comes an experience that can change the way we think if we allow it to. I look forward to hearing about art that’s changed your life in the comments section.