At first, second, and third glance, these two movies have nothing in common. The first, The Seventh Seal, is a black and white Swedish film from 1957 which uses the black plague as a background for a consideration of death, suffering, and religion. The second, The World’s End, is a fast-paced action movie about drinking, consumer culture, and assimilation. What the films share, though, is an understanding of humanity’s desire to engage in pleasureful activities even as the world seems to be collapsing. They are quest narratives where the end of the quest involves the destruction of the world around them, even if a glimmer of human hope lingers on. Though each film examines very different societies and does so in very different modes, they end up confirming similarly humanist ideals in what makes for the most whiplash-inducing but also thoroughly interesting double feature I’ve yet to discover.
The Seventh Seal is Ingmar Bergman’s entrance into greatness as a director, and no scene proves this more than the terrifying conversation between the returning crusade knight and a woman about to be burned as a witch. Here the knight hopes for a story of her time with the Devil, because if Satan exists so must God, and that means that death and therefore life have meaning. What she gives him is no comfort, though, as her thousand-yard stare goes right through him and the audience, giving her a sense of cold detachment from humanity. “Look into my eyes,” she says, “Well, do you see him?” The knight responds, “I see terror. Nothing else.” That terror is one side of the movie’s coin, and it is indeed horrific. But wait.
In The World’s End, a pathetic man gets all of his high school friends together to do “The Golden Mile,” a route through their hometown which has stops at 12 pubs where each of the five men will drink a pint of beer. Perhaps it is mean of me to call Simon Pegg’s character pathetic, but his nostalgic attachment and refusal to move on from their first attempt at this journey the night of their high school graduation makes for a truly sad character, notwithstanding further plot revelations. But this is also a comedy, so his delusional immaturity is often played for laughs. Even during the middle of a bar fight, his focus is on drinking his full glass of ale before the action causes it to shatter or spill. It is, indeed, one of the better movies about alcoholism and the humans who suffer from it. But wait.
Both films are also just delightful. There exists in the middle of The Seventh Seal‘s grim trudge through plague-ridden Sweden the most beautiful scene of earthly bounty that I’ve ever seen. It’s a brief but potent moment of respite among the rest of the film’s relentless existential dread and the knight even realizes how lucky he was to spend an afternoon with his squire and a travelling actor family eating wild strawberries and drinking fresh milk: “I shall remember this moment: the silence, the twilight, the bowl of strawberries, the bowl of milk. Your faces in the evening light. Mikael asleep, Jof with his lyre. I shall try to remember our talk. I shall carry this memory carefully in my hands as if it were a bowl brimful of fresh milk. It will be a sign to me, and a great sufficiency.” And, without spoiling the fun turns in The World End, the movie concludes with a repudiation of corporate takeovers and revels in the distinctly human tendency towards excess and playful obstinancy. “We want to be free,” Pegg quotes, “We want to be free to do what we want to do! And we want to get loaded!” It is, perhaps, not the most moral message of a film I’ve come across, but it is a particularly human one, and that’s worth celebrating, so buy him a drink, but make it a water, watch the movie and you’ll see why.