Ingmar Bergman might be one of the most influential filmmakers in the history of cinema, and perhaps his most influential film is 1957’s The Seventh Seal. Set in Sweden during the Black Death, it follows a knight of the crusade named Antonius Block on his return home. During his voyage, he wrestles with the questions of his faith and engages in a fateful game of chess with a physical personification of death. Along his journey, battling death all the while, the knight travels far and sees much. Much of what he witnesses is the despair in the world, though he sees bright spots as well.
Star Wars has always brought in actors from more classic eras of film history into the universe, from Peter Cushing and Alec Guinness to Christopher Lee. Max Von Sydow is the most recent to join that exclusive club. He brought life to Antonius Block in The Seventh Seal and brought with him the gravitas of his career and acting capabilities to play Lor San Tekka in The Force Awakens. The staging of the conversation between his character and Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron on Jakku is reminiscent of shots in The Seventh Seal, during sequences when Max Von Sydow would have been playing chess against Bengt Ekerot’s Death.
One of the final shots of The Seventh Seal is reminiscent of Lor San Tekka’s role in The Force Awakens. After Block has embraced his death, one of the characters can see him being led by death in dark silhouette on a hill top. As Lor San Tekka walks into his pending death, having accepted it, the first shot of him walking toward Kylo Ren is in silhouette against the fire of his burning village on Jakku.
We can also look at Von Sydow’s role in The Force Awakens in the sense of a cinematic semiotics, as well, especially when we take into account his dialogue to Poe Dameron: “I have traveled too far and seen too much to ignore the despair in the galaxy.” Can we as an audience take this to mean that Tekka’s journeys in the Star Wars galaxy might have the feel of Antonius Block’s in The Seventh Seal? I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch, and adds nothing but depth and feeling to a sequence already noted for its brevity.
More indirectly, one might draw comparisons to Obi-Wan Kenobi and Antonius Block. Both end up alone and disillusioned, fooled into a fighting a war that sold out their ideals. Both meet death with a grace of acceptance and appear in the afterlife to the audience. And the wars they fought are first mentioned and unseen. We never see the crusades in The Seventh Seal and when we first heard of the Clone Wars, they were spoken of in the same way Block and his squire speak of the crusade.
The most direct story influence a story like The Seventh Seal had on Star Wars comes in the form of Alan Moore’s Star Wars comic “Dark Lord’s Conscience.” This story originally appeared as a backup story in the 155th issue of the Marvel Star Wars UK series of comics. In the literary wizard’s story, Darth Vader plays a chess-like game called Firepath on a planet named Cheelit against a monster that looks like a cross between a Quarren and a Cthulhu. Rather than Death coming for Vader’s final reckoning, a Force-sensitive empath named Clat the Shamer arrives to use his powers on the Dark Lord, hoping to end him. In a twist worthy of Alan Moore, Vader is revealed to be Death for both of his opponents, winning the game of Firepath and Clat the Shamer’s.
The Seventh Seal is one of this films you just need to see. It’s one that I would call perfect. It goes on the list along with Citizen Kane, Seven Samurai, Jaws, and The Third Man. It gets to the heart of existentialism, and balances the questions humanity has between faith and reason. It’s beautifully shot and utterly moving, an ethereal delight of a film that’s been important to the world of film since its release. And Max Von Sydow is incredible in it. Though this film is too old to have been rated by the MPAA for theaters, it was rated TV-PG in the United States. It definitely has moments of violence, the implication of sexual acts, and brutality, but nothing graphic.
Availability: The Seventh Seal is widely available on Blu-ray and DVD through the Criterion Collection, which I’d highly recommend. It’s also available to stream online with a subscription to Hulu or to rent or purchase on services like Amazon and iTunes.