As I said at the beginning of this month, the great Swedish actor Gunnar Björnstrand is the man of this month.
Let’s talk about Gunnar Björnstrand’s extraordinary performance in Ingmar Bergman’s classic “The Seventh Seal” (Det sjunde inseglet).
Antonius Block, in the middle of a chess game he has been playing alone, challenges Death to a chess match, believing that he can forestall his demise as long as the game continues. Death agrees, and they start a new game.
The other characters in the story do not see Death, and when the chess board comes out at various times in the story, they believe Block is continuing his habit of playing alone.
Block and Jöns head for Block’s castle. Along the way, they pass some actors, Jof (Nils Poppe) and his wife Mia (Bibi Andersson), with their baby son, Mikael, and their actor-manager, Skat. Jof has visions, but Mia is skeptical.
The knight and the squire enter a church where a fresco of the Dance of Death is being painted. Jöns draws a small figure representing himself. Block goes to the confessional where he is joined by Death in the robe of a priest, to whom he admits that his life has been futile and without meaning, but that he wants to perform “one meaningful deed.”
Upon revealing the chess strategy that will save his life, Block discovers that the priest is Death, who promises to remember the tactics. Leaving the church, Block speaks to a young woman who has been condemned to be burnt alive for supposedly consorting with the devil.
Shortly thereafter, Jöns searches an abandoned village for water. He saves a servant girl (Gunnel Lindblom) from being raped by a man robbing a corpse. He recognises the man as Raval, a theologian, who ten years prior had convinced Antonius to leave his wife and join a crusade to the Holy Land. Jöns promises to brand Raval on the face if they meet again.
The girl joins Jöns. The trio ride into town, where the little acting troupe is performing. Skat introduces Jof and Mia to the crowd, then is enticed by Lisa, the blacksmith’s wife, away for a tryst. They run off together. Jof and Mia’s performance is interrupted by the arrival of a procession of flagellants.
At a public house, Jof comes across Raval. Raval forces Jof to dance on the tables like a bear. Jöns appears and, true to his word, slices Raval’s face.
Block enjoys a country picnic of milk and wild strawberries gathered by Mia. Block says: “I’ll carry this memory between my hands as if it were bowl filled to the brim with fresh milk…And it will be an adequate sign – it will be enough for me.”
He invites the actors to his castle, where they will be safer from the plague.
Along the way, they come across Skat and Lisa in the forest. Lisa, dissatisfied with Skat, returns to her husband. After the others leave, Skat climbs a tree for the night. Death cuts down the tree, informing the actor that his time is up.
They pass the condemned young woman again. Block asks the woman again to summon Satan, so he can ask him about God. The girl claims already to have done so, but Block cannot see him, only her terror. He gives her herbs to take away her pain.
Raval reappears. Dying of the plague, he pleads for water. The servant girl attempts to bring him some, but is stopped by Jöns. Jof tells Mia that he can see the knight playing chess with Death, and decides to flee with his family while Death is preoccupied.
After hearing Death state “No one escapes me” Block knocks the chess pieces over, distracting Death while the family slips away. Death places the pieces back on the board, slightly differently than they were before, then wins the game on the next move. He announces that when they meet again, Block’s time—and that of all those travelling with him—will be up. Before departing, Death asks if Block has accomplished his one “meaningful deed” yet; Block replies that he has.
The knight is reunited with his wife, the sole occupant of his castle, all the servants having fled. The party shares one “last supper” before Death comes for them. Block prays to God, “Have mercy on us, because we are small and frightened and ignorant.”
Meanwhile, the little family sits out a storm, which Jof interprets to be “the Angel of Death and he’s very big.” The next morning, Jof, with his second sight, sees the knight and his followers being led away over the hills in a solemn dance of death.