Ingmar Bergmans film The Seventh Seal is a spiritual quest in the form of an allegory. It was produced in 1957 the very same year the Bergman produced another of his greatest works, Wild Strawberries (see my review at Wild Strawberries.) Bergman hit his full stride as a great director in these two masterworks, posing essential questions about existence and more than hinting at some meaningful answers.
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The story: A Swedish knight, Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) has just returned to his native land after an absence of ten years fighting in the Crusades, with his squire, Jöns (Gunnar Bjornstrand). It is a dark time in Sweden and all of Western Europe, as if the apocalypse were imminent. The film opens with these biblical lines that seem to signal impending doom:
And when the Lamb had opened the seventh seal
There was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.
And the seven angels which had the seven trumpets
Prepared themselves to sound.
It is 1348, and the plague is sweeping across Western Europe. Before its work is done, it will have killed one-third of all the people in this part of the world, making no distinctions based on social position, age, or gender. Whoever it struck died an excruciating death within a few days. The Christian religion, already a central focus in the lives of these medieval people, now took on a darker and more fanatical form in this time of fear and distress. As Jöns puts it, Theres talk of omens and other horrors. Antonius Block and Jöns have managed to avoid death during ten years at war, but Death (Bengt Ekerot) now awaits them on their return.
A solemn hawk circles in front of deeply foreboding storm clouds while Block and Jöns lie stretched out on the rocky shore where they have landed. Blocks chessboard sits laid out beside him, pieces in place. The scene is silent save for the pounding of waves. Block see a darkly clothed figure standing a short distance away. Death has come, a hooded reaper with scythe and ghostly white countenance, wearing a black shroud. Ive been a long time at your side. Block knows that death cannot be evaded but is possessed of an empty feeling that his existence has been meaningless. He wants desperately to find some answers, some knowledge of the meaning of life, before he dies.
Block challenges Death to a chess match, appealing to Deaths vanity as a master tactician. Death agrees to postpone Block's inevitable call to death as long as he is able to hold out in the contest. Block thereby gains a brief reprieve. Death wins the black pieces. Black for you, says Block. It becomes me well, replies Death. It is to be Block vs. black. The chess game will be played out over the next several days. Blocks decisions over the next few days become, in a sense, his moves, which Death will counter with his pieces.
Antonius Block and Jöns set off across the Swedish countryside toward Blocks castle and home. Along the way they meet a cross-section of people, representing various aspects of the forbidding times. They come across a solitary monk, sitting with back turned to them. Block tells Jöns to ask him for directions, but when Jöns approaches, he see that the man is long dead, with a partially rotted skull and empty sockets. Jöns reports to the knight what the monk had to say: He was most eloquent. He revealed quite well the dismal circumstances that lay before them.
The story now cuts to a small group asleep in a covered wagon. We soon learn that this is a small troupe of performers, including Jof (Nils Poppe), or Joseph in English, his lovely wife Mia (Bibi Andersson), or Mary in English, their infant son Michael, and another actor named Skat. Jof is woken by the bite of a bug and quietly leaves the wagon. He is an amusing fellow. He somersaults, then talks with one of the horses, and then sees a woman and a child walking through a meadow in the distance, which he interprets as a vision of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus. Mia awakens and they cuddle together while Jof sings her his latest song.
Meanwhile, Block and his squire arrive at a crude old church where Block stops to partake of confession. He lays out his issues to the priest, I want God to put out his hand, show his face, speak to me. I cry out to him in the dark but there is no one there. Suddenly, he sees that the priest is actually Death. Worse, Death has tricked Block into unwittingly revealing his strategy for the chess game. Death, we learn, doesnt play fair!
Nearby, Block and Jöns encounter a young girl in captivity, chained to a wall. She is Tyan (Maud Hansson), accused of being a witch and having had carnal intercourse with the devil. She is thought to be the cause of the plague and is being prepared for burning. In the meantime, she is being splattered with blood and gall of black dog to keep the devil away. Later in the story, Block and Jöns encounter her being led to the pyre in a cage. Block, still searching for answer, tries to speak with the devil that has supposedly possessed her, feeling certain that hell know the answers to questions about existence. Tyan, who believes herself to be possessed, says, Look in my eyes, the priest could see him there, and the soldiers they would not touch me. I see nothing but terror, says Block. Death, who is at hand awaiting the maiden, asks Block, Will you never stop asking? No, never, replies the knight. Later, Jöns gives the hapless maid water to quench her thirst and Block gives here some remedy that will block the ensuing pain. As she goes to the pyre, Squire Jöns laments, Look into her eyes. She sees nothing but emptiness. Who will look after her? Emptiness. We are helpless. They see no evidence here of any eternal salvation.
Block and Jöns stop briefly at a farm. Jöns encounters Raval (Bertil Anderberg), a seminarian, who was the one who talked Block into going off to the crusade ten years earlier. Raval has stolen a bracelet from a plague victim and is about to rape a farm girl when Jöns intervenes. Jöns remembers Raval all too well and threatens to brand him (cut him across the face) and promises that he will when next they meet.
They reach a small town where the troupe of entertainers are performing. Dressed as clowns and jesters, they provide skits that are joyful and light-hearted. Soon, however, their performance is interrupted by a procession of flagellants, led by monks swinging incense burners and chanting. The flagellants whip each other and themselves, weep and drip blood down their backs and limbs. This lashing and scourging, they believe, will provide the required penitence that will encourage God to end the plague that he has unleashed for their sins. Meanwhile, Skat, the unmarried actor, has become involved with the flirtatious wife of the blacksmith, Plog (Ake Fridell). Lisa (Inga Gill) is bawdy and flirtatious and she and Skat are soon off in the woods.
Jof goes into the Embarrassment Inn in town to wet his whistle. There, however, we runs afoul of the villainous Raval and Plog the blacksmith, who is in a foul mood because his wife is missing (off with Skat). Raval and Plog threaten Jofs life with a knife, saying, We ought to kill you. Its only logical. They make him dance on top of a table. Jöns arrives however, and comes to Jofs rescue, also fulfilling his earlier promise to Raval to cut his face.
Block comes across the lovely Mia, who is distressed by the absence of her husband. Mia talks happily with the knight about her family and her boys future. Block is touched by her simple beauty and joy in life and begins to sense a kind of answer to his great questions about existence. The remainder of the story will be left untold here so that readers can discover it on their own but the existential questions will be further discussed below.
Production values: In some respects, The Seventh Seal is more like the silent films of a bygone era than modern films. It shares the simplicity and directness of silent movies as well as the visual intensity. Bergman makes utmost use of cinematography to produce powerful images that advance the story and explore his themes. The Seventh Seal is an eminently watchable film.
The film is richly sprinkled with religious symbols of all kinds, from crucifixes and frescos depicting suffering and tortured souls to chanting, incense, priests, monks, and churches. The characters in this story are archetypal (knights, squires, priests, actors, bawdy wenches, etc.), giving a universality to the themes. Death stands over them all.
The cinematography is truly incredible. Bergman has a finely tuned sense of light, using dim lighting in one scene, silhouette in another (such as Tyan bound in preparation for burning), and ominous shadows. As in all Bergman films, there are a lot of facial close-ups featuring faces which great lines and expressiveness. The camera zooms in on the terror in Tyans face in one scene and on the horror on Josephs face at the inn. Stark Swedish landscapes create a sense that we have entered a world of the imagination and left reality behind. The sound track makes use of sound effects that augment terror, fear, or, conversely, happiness in a way that would be too obvious and irritating in any other film, but which work in this film, with its simple and direct exploration of fundamental emotional and existential issues. Bergman has an exquisite sensitivity to the need to balance his profound questions and grotesque scenes, which could easily overwhelm the viewer, with moments of humor. One could easily overlook the subtlety with which Bergman incorporates wit and humor, given the depth of the metaphysical issues.
Metaphysical Issues: The Seventh Seal, like most Bergman films, is fundamentally about the nature of existence. Bergman uses his various characters to depict the stages of development that occur in finding answers to such questions. The stages depicted in Bergman films parallel the four stages that Bergman himself went through over the course of his own life. The first stage is simple faith. Bergman was born the son of a strict Lutheran minister and had basic Christian beliefs hammered into him. His upbringing included the cruelest practices of religious indoctrination. He was sometimes locked in a cupboard where there were bugs or rodents to bite his toes. When Bergman reached young adulthood, his early films reflected the second stage of existential development: dissatisfaction and despair. His early films dealt with social and political issues and were in the style of neorealism. Bergman found his niche as a film-maker when he reached his third stage of development: the search for external answers. He turned to more philosophical subject matter, pertaining to questions about God and faith. Bergman ultimately found his answers in his fourth stage: finding answers in human existence. He looked to his own experiences and memories and found that love and caring and everyday experiences are what give meaning to life. Bergman said about The Seventh Seal, I placed my two opposing beliefs side by side allowing each to state its case in its own way. Antonius Block and Jöns represent his childhood piety and [his] newfound harsh rationalism. Block still clings to faith, Jöns represents hedonism, carefree atheism, and rationality. What Bergman suggests, in the end, is a third solution.
In The Seventh Seal, simple faith is represented most especially by Jof and Mia, but each in a subtly different way. Jof represents faith based on mystical experience. His visions provide him with what he interprets as direct evidence that supports his faith. Mia, on the other hand, represents simple innocent belief. She sings quietly to her baby, He sings so sweetly of Jesus Christ. In heaven there is great joy.
The phase of dissatisfaction and despair is amply represented in the film, it being a time of death from the Crusades and from the plague. As Jöns puts it, The priests speculate in sudden death and belly-aches. Human society in 1348 was in a state of great confusion and suffering. The specter of death hung over all and was a constant traveling companion for Block. Your life, O fool, hangs by a thread. Short is your day. The victims of the plague tear out their boils and scratch open their veins. To all of this, religion offered just two alternative explanations: blame the sins of society or blame scapegoats. We see the society acting on each of these feeble theories, through self-flagellation on the one hand, and the burning of Tyan, the supposed witch, on the other. Those, like Block who understood the failure of religion, as evidenced by these extremes of fear and violence, were driven to question faith and on to the next stage of development.
The search for external answers centers on seeking direct knowledge of Gods wisdom. Since the church has failed, Block hopes to turn to God Himself, only to be frustrated by Gods silence. Why is he silent? What if there is no God? Death could be Gods mouthpiece, but speaks precious little:
Block: I want knowledge, not faith, not supposition, but knowledge. I want God to stretch out his hand toward me, reveal Himself and speak to me.
Death: But He remains silent.
Block: I call to Him in the dark, but no one seems to be there.
Death: Perhaps no one is there.
Death: When next we meet the hour will strike for you and your friends.
Block: And you will reveal your secrets?
Death: I have no secrets.
Knight: So you have nothing?
Religion is an empty shell and God offers nothing overt. One reviewer concludes from this that The movies ultimate message is not to look for definitive answers. Even inevitable death . . . doesnt bestow the expected enlightenment. I think that wrap-up far more glum than what Bergman intended. Bergman found his answers, and offers them to viewers, in the fourth stage: finding answers in human existence. This is the philosophical viewpoint known these days as humanism. The way to peace of mind, according to Bergman, is in appreciating love and each moment of life as represented by Jof, Mia, and their small son. The simple unity of a family and other kinds of love are what gives life its greatest source of meaning. Antonius Block learns this lesson, first, by sitting with Jof, Mia, and Michael, celebrating a quiet moment together:
I shall remember this hour of peace, the strawberries, the bowl of milk, your faces in the dusk, Michael asleep, Joseph with his lute. I shall remember our words and shall bear this memory between my hands as carefully as a bowl of fresh milk, and this will be a sign of a great content.
God may be quiet, but love and a shared moment of warmth speak loudly and provide a sign. When Death, shortly thereafter inquires, Why so pleased?, Block replies That is my secret. He has begun to find his answer. One thing remains, however, and that is to find a way to preserve from Deaths scythe what he has learned to be important in life. There is still the chess match to be decided. Block has learned not to reveal his strategy. To win at chess, a great player has to be able to think more deeply than his opponent to disguise his intents. In a move of great strategic brilliance, Antonius Block comes up with Blocks Gambit!
Block and Death have reached the end-game. Jof, the visionary, sees Block playing chess with Death and realizes that he and his family must escape now or become victims of Death as well. Perhaps escape will be possible while Death is engrossed in the chess match. As Jof, Mia, and Michael quietly prepare to slip off, Antonius Block realizes the potential of the moment and sets out to provide the necessary decoy.
Death: Your move, Antonius Block. Have you lost interest?
Block: On the contrary! [seeing Jof and his family slipping off]
Death: You look worried. Are you hiding something.
Block: Nothing escapes you. [flattering Death to distract his suspicion]
Death: Nothing escapes me. No one escapes me.
Block: I am worried, it is true.
Death: You are afraid.
Block: [bumps board and knocks several pieces awry, adding to the diversion] Ive forgotten how the pieces were.
Death: [smugly] But I have not. You cant get off so easily. [as Jof and his family do, in fact, get off]
Block: Ah, how interesting. [finding, at last, a kind of answer to his questions]
Death: What do you see. You are mate at the next move. [glorying in imminent victory]
Block: True. [feigning resignation]
Death: Did you gain by the delay?
Block: Yes. [He has found one significant piece of knowledge about the meaning of life: an act of love. Like a chess master sacrificing a knight to gain positional advantage, Block has sacrificed himself to save Jof and his family who represent the hope of renewal.]
Bergmans Stature: One reviewer says, The film does not offer universal answers to any of lifes questions. What it teaches instead is that universal answers (i.e., external answers) need not be asked and cannot be answered, but all the answers that are necessary to give meaning to life lie within human existence itself: love and living each moment. It is fine film-making that can pose a fundamental issue and suggest a meaningful answer. For viewers who are themselves already at the fourth stage of development that it took Bergman a lifetime to reach, it may seem like trivial insight. Others might agree with the reviewer who states, Bergmans exploration of complex psychological issues juxtaposed with faith have established Bergman as the premiere director of all time. My assessment of Bergman lies between those two extremes. I think that the issues he deals with are among the most profound in human life and that the answers he hints at are basic good sense but important enough to bear repeating, especially for those who havent already found their way to such insights.
You might want to check out these other excellent films from Sweden:
The Best Intentions
Cries and Whispers
Scenes from a Marriage
Smiles of a Summer Night
Through a Glass Darkly
The Virgin Spring
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