Heavy-handed allegory can be avoided by pretending that there is no allegory at all (there is a certain cleverness in the big lie), but it can also be hidden away and denied by a refusal to admit the sign, not the thing signified. Ingmar Bergman does just this in The Seventh Seal: he has Death enrobed as the grim reaper and going through the common, medieval paces. Death plays chess, leads the danse macabre, and appears forebodingly in corners of grim castles as he is supposed to do while incarnate.
This is Death doing what he must, and yet there is an odd self-deprecation in this death, it is as though Death is whimsically doing what he ought, what people expect, while all the time being aware that by doing so he strikes a slightly ludicrous figure, a masquerade of seriousness over a pointless abyss. Thanks to his tongue-in-cheek thoughts, we catch glimpses of his humor—he cannot hide it—and with this assumption of character his allegorical nature is forgotten. To reinforce this confusion, Bergman has Jof, of the simple type, see visions of Mary and Christ which we also are permitted to see and to believe in… since we are able to see them, why should we doubt the authenticity of Antonius Block’s chess match against Death? So it seems as though Death is both common and not out of place.
Death, now well disguised as a character, flirts in and out of our vision without evoking the attention due to him from those he encounters, and we are brought almost to the point of belief in his humanity. He goes so far as to kill those he encounters in human, all-too-human, ways, and here we are struck by the reactions of those he meets; it is not Death as a walking and talking man that suggests something amiss, but the surreal calmness with which he is often met: a man patiently sits in a tree and suggests mitigating circumstances as reasons for keeping his life, without attempting to hop out of the tree, while death busies himself with felling the tree.
And here, in the reactions of those who die, we see Death unmasked; there is too strange a calm, too objective an approach to death. When we realize this we abruptly see the entire outlandishness of our companion, Death, standing upon the idea of taking the common expression ‘he met death’ most literally—too literally to permit conscious analogy, too seriously to avoid the comic depictions of Death. Bergman embraces death in all aspects, and only by doing so is he able to move beyond a morality tale (or, perhaps, its cynical cousin) to this stark, masterful study of the human soul and the soul’s belief in its own immortality.