Poking Fun at Death: Re-Visiting The Seventh Seal (1957)

SEVENTH SEAL, THE (1957)

To view The Seventh Seal click here.

Making fun of Death seems like a risky prank—like poking a stick at a poisonous snake—but, that has never stopped filmmakers, comedians and animators from spoofing the character of Death as seen in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), a title currently streaming on FilmStruck as part of series devoted to Sweden’s most renowned director.

The character of Death is easy to spoof because as depicted by Bengt Ekerot in Bergman’s most famous film, he is iconic. “Iconic” is a word routinely tossed around to refer to recognizable films and filmmakers, but The Seventh Seal actually fits the definition. In common usage, iconic describes something that is not only widely recognized but also universally acknowledged for its distinctive excellence. Death’s peculiar black cowl with its tight-fitting hood and extra wide sleeves make him easy to parody, while the chess game between Death and the Knight, played by the preternaturally ageless Max von Sydow, is a potent symbol of the wish to stave off the inevitable. However, if Bergman’s film weren’t such an international classic, viewers would not get the reference.

SEVENTH SEAL, THE (1957)

During the chess game, Death’s scythe, which he uses to harvest souls, is not part of the mise-en-scene. It is visible in the final scene when three of the characters join Death in a danse macabre across the horizon, signifying their acceptance of their mortality. However, in many spoofs, a scythe is visible during the parodied chess game, perhaps to make the reference more obvious.

The Seventh Seal owes its familiarity among younger generations to Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991), the sequel to Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989). Hollywood’s most famous slackers, played by Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves, find themselves dead due to an outrageous series of circumstances. To get back to the world of the living, they accept a challenge offered by the Grim Reaper to play a game. In a Gothic-looking dungeon, reminiscent of the austere, gloomy environment of The Seventh Seal, the Reaper, played by William Sadler, gives the boys their choice of games. Big mistake. Bill and Ted choose Battleship, which vexes the Reaper, and he loses. Angered, he changes the rules of the challenge, telling the boys they must win two out of three games. They pick Clue, the murder-mystery board game, but the Reaper is outsmarted once again. He alters the deal one more time, and the boys choose Super Bowl table-top football. When that doesn’t work, the Reaper is reduced to contorting himself in Twister. The medium shot of the Grim Reaper with a deadly serious expression playing Battleship with Bill and Ted recalls the composition of the chess game in The Seventh Seal. It is the funniest sequence in this film because it deflates the solemnity of Bergman’s allegory about bargaining with Death.

I recently showed The Last Action Hero (1993) in one of my classes. Directed by John McTiernan, this parody of blockbuster films stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as action star Jack Slater in a film-within-a-film story. The premise involves a magic golden ticket that transports the young protagonist into the world of a film. Chaos occurs when the villain of the film-within-in-a-film discovers that the ticket also allows movie characters to enter the real world. He conspires to release villains from other films into our world, resulting in a slew of references and homage to movies past and present. The homages are reverential but also funny. A highlight is Ian McKellan as Death, who steps out of The Seventh Seal with his scythe to harvest souls in modern-day New York.

Oddly enough, some of the best spoofs can be found in family films or children’s programming. The producers of the Muppets seemed obsessed with The Seventh Seal. In The Muppets Go to the Movies (1981), one of the Muppet movie parodies presented is Silent Strawberries, directed by Gummo Bergman, who is supposedly Ingmar’s cousin. It contains a scene in which Beaker plays Death, which is funny for fans of The Muppet Show. Beaker was the lab assistant to Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, and he always seemed to be the victim of the good doctor’s crazy experiments. A later episode of Sesame Street included a spoof of The Seventh Seal in which a Swedish fisherman looks for Sven the Seal, who is his seventh seal. And, in the “We’re Doing a Sequel” production number in Muppets Most Wanted (2014), a character called the Swedish Chef tries to convince Kermit that he should star in a movie in which he plays chess with Death. In an episode of Animaniacs (1993-1998), one of my favorite cartoon series, the three main characters end up in Sweden at a meatball-eating contest. After one of them eats one too many, resulting in his near demise, the trio challenges Death to a game of checkers.

The figure of Death with his scythe is so associated with The Seventh Seal that even when a Reaper-like character is not playing chess for souls, he is compared to the character in Bergman’s film. In Woody Allen’s Love and Death (1975), the figure of Death wears a white cowl and carries a scythe. He comes to take Allen at the end of the film, and the two participate in a danse macabre, but he does not look like Death in The Seventh Seal. Given Allen’s admiration of Bergman, the assumption is that the scene is at least a passing homage to the classic film.

SEVENTH SEAL, THE (1957)

In Bergman on Bergman, the director stated, “The Seventh Seal is an allegory with a theme that is quite simple: man, his eternal search for God, with death as his only certainty.” He also recalled, “The great question was: Does God exist, or doesn’t God exist? If God doesn’t exist, what do we do then?” In 1957, this was a serious theme for a serious movie. But, parodies and spoofs of a classic work of art beg the question: What is the impact of so many parodies and spoofs on our appreciation of this film? Or, any iconic film? It’s like viewing the Mona Lisa, which no one can look at without seeing her face replaced by the mug of the latest hip celebrity from memes and Facebook jokes. Do we think of Bill and Ted sitting across from Death instead of Max von Sydow in that famous chess scene? Will first-time viewers see a timeless classic that considers the hard questions about faith and meaning, or the source material for countless Muppet spoofs? Does the original suffer from the parodies and spoofs, or do they enhance the original, ensuring its recognition by future generations?

Susan Doll

20 Responses Poking Fun at Death: Re-Visiting The Seventh Seal (1957)
Posted By EricJ : May 8, 2017 4:20 am

And no mention of “De Duva (The Dove)”, the 1968 comedy short parodying all of Bergman’s hits in Swedish-ized English, in which Death is challenged to a game of badminton? (And is conquered when the title bird distracts him with a dive-bombing?)

Basically, Seventh Seal, and by way of association, Bergman, is seen as the quick, iconic-reference poster-boy for “Why every arthouse Foreign Film is dreary, obscure and depressing”. Foreign art-films were still new in 1957, and Bergman’s gloomy introspection played in NYC, but not in Peoria. If the same movie had been a French or Italian film, the joke wouldn’t have had the same effect: We get just as many symbolic jokes parodying Godard’s Breathless-hipsters or Fellini’s clowns, but the idea of deep mortality being discussed in Swedish–like the Muppet Chef–just seemed so much more FOREIGN, as if the artsy intentions themselves were as much foreign gobbledygook as the language.
And that’s leaving aside the whole discussions of Bergman’s own repressive-Swedish-Protestant upbringing (qv. Fanny & Alexander) prompting the usual grown-up lapsed-adult flirtation with Atheism, as Bergman depicts the medieval Church as being in the full-time business of Scaring People to Death With Death, etc. Like Bergman’s own admirer Woody Allen, the subject of “What’s the point?” seems to attract the same audience of misery looking for company, but only exposing their own personal demons.

Posted By Ed Buskirk Jr. : May 8, 2017 8:38 am

I’ve seen several Bergman films, but The Seventh Seal isn’t among them. Of course I’ve seen clips from it, and I can spot a reference to it from a mile away. That’s one of the reasons I haven’t made it a priority to see it. And I think maybe that’s the reason Woody Allen’s grim-reaper in Love and Death was so different. That film is already full of Bergman references, some subtle, some overt (“wheat, WHEAT”), why beat a dead horse?

Posted By Doug : May 8, 2017 8:43 am

I need to take “The Seventh Seal” down off the shelf again.
Susan, the best parody of this work, for me, is a segment in “Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life”.
The entire franchise of “Final Destination” movies use the same idea of ‘cheating death’ because no one wants to die before their time. With no figure in a cloak, they point up the fact that we can meet Death at any time-we never see it coming.
What makes “The Seventh Seal” work is that we CAN’T bargain with Death.
Think of the 1957 audience-Sweden and the world just a dozen years past the end of World War II; von Sydow’s war weary soldier returning from the Crusades to the homeland he had left years earlier…I think that resonated with the audience. If anyone deserved to cheat Death, it would be him.
I do need to watch this again-the Blu-Ray from Criterion is excellent.

Posted By EricJ : May 8, 2017 2:25 pm

“And no mention of “De Duva (The Dove)”, the 1968 comedy short”
Oops, sorry, forgot the link:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ReNyvUeeD4

Posted By Rob : May 8, 2017 2:49 pm

For some reason the thing that really stood out in the “playing death” scene in Bogus Journey is the sound of the plastic pegs being picked out of the Battleship trays. The echoey sound seemed to accentuate the immensity of the chamber (and the task at hand)and added to the humor of the situation — I thought that was a nice touch.

Posted By George : May 8, 2017 3:07 pm

Susan: Why were you showing LAST ACTION HERO in one of your classes? What it a course on overblown, overbudgeted ’90s blockbusters that flopped?

Posted By Susan Doll : May 8, 2017 8:49 pm

George: I let my students select which era of film history they wanted to study for the history section of my upper level course, which is called Topics in Film History. They picked the 1980s. Since the action film and the over-the-top action star were a big part of that era, I selected this movie to represent that genre. I like it because it is simultaneously an action film and a spoof of the action genre. In re-viewing it, it was quite humorous in parts, and I liked its theme about how the magic of the movies can immerse you in another world.

Posted By George : May 8, 2017 9:34 pm

Susan: I agree that LAST ACTION HERO wasn’t as awful as the reviews would indicate. I think a lot of people were eager for Arnold to flop after so many years of hits. It’s not a great movie, but it’s not that bad, either.

Posted By EricJ : May 8, 2017 11:59 pm

Last Action Hero had SO many things going against it:
It was the last of the overpriced “Bidding war” scripts, where the oligarchy of Hollywood action screenwriters were having their own little piss-war to see whether “Basic Instinct”, “Prince of Thieves” or “Last Boy Scout” could break the record for script sale price…It was a Hollywood “satire” on action films that didn’t look like it particularly wanted to tear into its subject as it deserved…The movie itself pretty much consisted of the kid being a wet blanket as he tries to convince Schwarzenegger that nothing’s real and it’s all annoying movie cliche’…
And what we remember most clearly of all was Arnold deciding that Sony needed to pick a schoolyard “rivalry” fight with Universal’s Jurassic Park, the most anticipated movie of the decade so far, that was opening a week earlier: “Oh, I heahd dose Spielbahg dinosahs were so tebble–There were walkouts at the screenings, everyone was so disappointed” And you thought the Ghostbusters remake had a little audience friction before opening–Ohh-hhh, friend, you are so going down for that…

As for Hero’s Grim Reaper cameo, that was another generic shot at “Foreign Films”–starring The One Character We Know From Foreign Films–but Death’s cameo in Woody Allen’s “Love and Death” was more of a literary poke at Dostoevsky’s philosophical-literature tropes than Bergman’s:
“We shall meet again one day.” “Uh, don’t bother.” “It’s no bother. Really.” :)

Posted By Ed Buskirk Jr. : May 9, 2017 12:19 am

George: Last Action Hero had some problems, but was a lot better than True Lies, which was a big hit. I can understand why Susan would show it in her class, it’s not only a parody of action movies, but a meta-movie that explores what fictional worlds are like (someone wrote about that subject here recently).

EricJ: “Judgement of any system or a priori relation of phenomena exists in any rational or metaphysical or at least epistemological contradiction to an abstract and empirical concept such as being or to be or to occur in the thing itself or of the thing itself.”

Posted By Doug : May 9, 2017 3:16 am

Ed Buskirk Jr wrote: EricJ: “Judgement of any system or a priori relation of phenomena exists in any rational or metaphysical or at least epistemological contradiction to an abstract and empirical concept such as being or to be or to occur in the thing itself or of the thing itself.”
In simple words, for a gag, a meme, satire or parody to work, the subject must be familiar to everyone.

Posted By swac44 : May 9, 2017 5:32 am

My favourite Seventh Seal parody can be found in the trailer for Monty Python & the Holy Grail, in which the narration (in Japanese, of course) draws comparisons to such film classics at the Bergman film, The Seven Samurai, La Notte and Herbie Rides Again.

Around the 2:20 mark, there’s a bit of black & white footage filmed especially for the trailer (which also contains some outtakes from the actual film).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LG1PlkURjxE

Posted By Ed Buskirk Jr. : May 9, 2017 6:12 am

Doug: Maybe that gag wasn’t familiar to you. It’s a quote from Love and Death, and the response is “Yes, I’ve said that many times.”

Posted By doug : May 9, 2017 1:28 pm

Thanks Ed-you’re right-I wasn’t familiar. Not a big Woody Allen fan, though a few of his movies have made me laugh.

Posted By Doug : May 9, 2017 10:12 pm

Just watched “The Seventh Sign” again tonight-now I should have interesting dreams.

Posted By George : May 11, 2017 2:51 pm

Susan said: “They picked the 1980s.”

LAST ACTION HERO actually came out in 1993, but it was sort of a culmination (and send-up) of action-movie trends and tropes that had been building since the early ’80s.

Ed said: “Last Action Hero had some problems, but was a lot better than True Lies …”

TRUE LIES is great fun. How can you dislike a movie that has a shot of Arnold S. and Jamie Lee Curtis embracing, with a barely noticed mushroom cloud (which obliterates one of the Florida Keys) in the background?

Posted By George : May 11, 2017 2:53 pm

My favorite LAST ACTION HERO gag: Arnold firing a gun at a car, and being shocked that it doesn’t explode in a fireball, which always happens when you shoot a car in an action movie.

Posted By Ed Buskirk Jr. : May 11, 2017 8:22 pm

George: I didn’t think it was all that funny, for one thing. If they had made it as a full-blown parody I might have liked it more, but probably still wouldn’t think that much of it. To be honest, I think James Cameron is a hack. The only one of his films I really like is The Terminator. The rest all have at least one great set-piece, but that’s it.

Posted By George : May 12, 2017 3:19 pm

Ed: I would rank ALIENS as the equal of the first TERMINATOR.

I thought AVATAR, a rip-off of DANCES WITH WOLVES, was incredibly overrated. Couldn’t believe it became the highest grossing film up to that time.

Posted By Ed Buskirk Jr. : May 12, 2017 7:02 pm

Had Aliens been a stand alone film, I would probably like it better, but as it’s a sequel to a far superior film, it doesn’t do much for me. I wouldn’t rank it as the equal of Terminator, either. (My main problem with Terminator 2, is that it changes the original. So what, we’ve got overlapping time-loops? How the hell does that work? Time travel stories often fail to have an internal consistency. Terminator had it, Terminator 2 messed it up.)

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