Sickness and the cure: The great pandemic films, and the greatest
‘The Seventh Seal’

There are many good pandemic movies. But there is only one great one. It’s one of the greatest films ever made.

With the onslaught of the coronavirus, viewers and reviewers have flocked to their screens to look back at popular pandemic films. The best of them, like Contagion, Outbreak or 28 Days Later, may entertain. But what do they tell us about how we have and should relate to mass disease or even our tenancy on this planet? Have we learned from them? Can we?

In 2011 Steven Soderbergh (Oceans 11, Sex Lies and Videotapes) made Contagion. He cast A-listers Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Sanaa Lathan, Jennifer Ehle, and Bryan Cranston. Soderbergh cleverly tracked the course of contagion from Day 2, starting in a Hong Kong casino. We watch it spread.

Contagion plays out as part horror story, part mystery, part suspense. You can almost hear the audience scream warnings of “Don’t open that door!” as protagonists sneeze over food, touch each other, shake hands, kiss or even just handle common surfaces. Mystery plays out as scientists work feverishly to solve the disease’s profile. Will they be in time to cure or block it before it kills off a character well developed enough that we care about them?

Marion Cotillard and Chin Han in ‘Contagion’

Soderbergh’s villain is not so much the disease, which he views more as a source of nature, nor even those who unwittingly propagate it. The bad actors are those who upset nature to force disease on the world, especially those who do so for profit. The heroes are the scientists who fight to repair human damage to the planet and each other. The trailer can be seen here.

Outbreak, the 1995 blockbuster which spent three weeks as the #1 film in the U.S., is more overtly political. The movie plays out as a morality tale conspiracy complete with dashing Dustin Hoffman, military doctor hero, and bloodthirsty, twisted General Donald Sutherland, poster boy for the Military-Industrial Complex.

Like Contagion, Outbreak is rooted in the underdeveloped world, this time Africa. War and profit provide the avenue for pandemic. Power and paranoia are the potting soil. The disease is transplanted to picturesque Northern California, where an entire town is threatened.

The writing is dotted with monologue declarations of value and virtue setting the standard for pandemic rescues. The trailer is here.

The characters in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later are less heroic. The post-apocalyptic thriller is all about survival in the dystopian landscape already ravaged by disease.

28 Days Later also deals with humans disturbing the course of nature. Animal rights activists set loose chimpanzees infected with rage-inducing virus which quickly spreads among humans. Boyle and his writer Alex Garland (Ex Machina) track four survivors through London and parts north seeking refuge.

Unlike the perils of power and profit stories from the other films, Boyle’s work shows misguided good intentions run amok. Its tone is darker. Survival is the overwhelming theme. See the trailer here.

Film in the search for meaning

Morgan Freeman and Dustin Hoffman in ‘Outbreak’

There is one pandemic film, however, that is not obsessed with survival or even trying to fight back against disease. Rather, it is resigned to the death of its lead actor.

The Seventh Seal (1957) is instead a search for meaning against the backdrop of the world’s most insidious plague. Over one-third of Europe perished a grisly death from the Middle Ages Black Plague.

Swedish director/writer Ingmar Bergman uses this pandemic to have his characters question life and death. Knight Antonius Block (Max Van Sydow) returns from the Crusades to find Europe decimated by bubonic plague. When black-robed Death comes for him, Block confronts him, challenging him to a game of chess to prolong his life. “You cannot win,” Death tells him. The Knight understands.

Block is accompanied by his world-wise Squire Jons, a counterpoint to his master’s idealism. Jons is the voice of reason, loyalty, compassion, and wit, confronting religion’s hypocrisy and irrationality, yet supporting his master’s spirituality. They confront stark horrific scenes of mass flagellation, auto da fé, rape, and starvation.

Naomie Harris and Cillian Murphy in ‘28 Days Later’

But it is not until they join forces with Everyman, in this case humble young peasants, and return to their roots, that Bergman suggests salvation through their actions. The search for meaning has led them to action. The original trailer can be viewed here.

Of course, we shouldn’t need cataclysm to spur us to action. We shouldn’t need to be faced with death in order to be moved to build a new world. Bergman’s knight was not looking to rebuild extant institutions or even just to survive.

The current disaster is an opportunity for us to build a better world. Understanding this one is just the first step!


Michael Berkowitz
Michael Berkowitz

Michael Berkowitz, a veteran of the civil rights and anti-war movements, has worked on Wisconsin recalls, Occupy and other local movements that give promise of social change. He has been Land Use Planning Consultant to the government of China for the last 18 years. After studying at Yale and Stanford, he taught Chinese and American History at the college level, worked with Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Org. with miners, and was an officer of SEIU. He has served as a supernumerary with the San Francisco Opera for years without getting to sing a single note on stage!