The Seventh Seal


An essay by: Witney Seibold


 The Crusades have ended. A plague is sweeping across the landscape. A knight sits, destitute and detached on a beach. He watches the waves roll by. A hawk passes by overhead. The knight’s cynical page lies on the rocks nearby. The horses rest in the waves. Death appears to the knight. The knight is not ready to go just yet; he doesn’t have any real answers. Death may be a physical apparition, but the presence of God is still up in the air, so to speak. To buy a little more time before his fate is up, the knight challenges Death to a game of chess. If he wins, he will live a long full life. If he loses, Death will take him immediately.

            The knight playing chess with Death is one of the most famous and striking images in cinema history, and it comes from one of the best films from one of the best filmmakers.Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 classic “The Seventh Seal” is about the inevitabilities of life. There are certain things, the film calmly, passionately, and confidently states, which we as human cannot ever escape: Death, yes. But also confusion, cynicism, desperation, love, joy, faith, and, eventually, life itself. Even when we are in the midst of a plague, when death hangs in the air (indeed is standing right in front of us), ex-deacons are robbing corpses, and armies of the penitent march the countryside exclaiming that repentant pain is the only good way to while away ones remaining hours, we still have a few moments to sit down, eat strawberries, drink milk, and realize that life is just as inevitable as death. Antonius Block, The knight (Bergman regular Max von Sydow) and his atheist page (Bergman regular Gunnar Björnstrand) are making their way home. Also on the road is a group of traveling players Jof (Nils Poppe), his pretty wife Mia (Bergman regular Bibi Andersson), and the blustering Raval (Bertil Anderberg). Raval is having a secret affair witrh the local blacksmith’s wife. Jof and Mia put on musical numbers, and laugh and sing. When the stage folds up, they lay in the grass with their young son and dream of the future. Block and the players eventually cross paths, and then unite to travel together.            The film is a pastoral of sorts, and a bold one. Most pastorals (and I’m thinking of Shakespeare’s pastoral comedies most immediately) are quiet, blissful, and light. “The Seventh Seal” is a dark pastoral, gloomy, contemplative, heavy. The bright comic moments give us the rules of an ancient theatrical genre, but the existential and religious questions explored within that framework elevate the material into brilliance.           

On the road, our group encounters any number of hardships. A group of religious doomsayers flagellate themselves en masse. The deacon who convinced Block to leave for the Crusades in the first place is now a corpse-robber. A young woman claims she has been carnal with the Devil and brought upon the plague. Jof is humiliated in front of a drunken crowd of ruffians. And Death (Bengt Ekerot) continues to follow them.            

This film, and indeed Ingmar Bergman’s films in general, have a reputation for being dreary and overwhelmingly depressing. Yes, I agree, some of them are (just watch “Shame” (1968) sometime, and see how you’re feeling when the raped wife and humiliated husband are pushing corpses out of the way of their escape boat). But, watching “The Seventh Seal” again, I realized how hopeful most of his films are. They deal with issues of death, suicide, aging, mental illness, and the subtle emotional traps we lay for ourselves and others. But even when God is silent, there is still reason to hope, to believe, to enjoy one’s life. Most of Bergman’s films, and all of his great ones, end on a hopeful note. In the face of death, there is still life to be had (“The Seventh Seal”). In the arms of the insane, there is still hope of healing (“Through a Glass Darkly”). In the face of destructive atheism, there is still nurturing faith (“Winter Light”). In the mouth of a torturous identity theft, there is still a profound understanding (“Persona”). In the face of an insane family, wracked with suicide, death, abuse, and infidelity, there is still enough love that we’re all smiling by the end (“Fanny & Alexander”). In the face of family tragedy and lack of caring, comes a memory of a halcyon walk in the garden (“Cries & Whispers”).            

Excuse me while I digress a bit, but: Ingmar Bergman was a big reader of Søren Kierkegaard. I’ve not read any Kierkegaard yet (I will), but from what I understand, his religious philosophy centers largely on the “leap of faith”: One is confused, questions God’s existence, is surrounded by a confusing swirling vortex of self-doubt, intellectual quest for meaning, and the seemingly futile quest for order, and can be freed from it if they leap off the precipice, into the arms of faith. Many of Bergman’s films, “The Seventh Seal” (also “Winter Light”) in particular, seem to be about this leap. Can one still have faith in the face of horror and death and doubt? Yes, Bergman answers. It is human to have faith. There is no doubt that human suffering will ever end; when we put our minds to it, we can be right bastards to one another. There is no magical supernatural promise of eternal life. Suicide and death and doubt will always be with us. But, finally, so will hope, love, faith, and life.           

Along the way, the knight outwardly questions the existence of God. He confesses to a priest (who turns out to be Death) that he needs some kind of proof. Prayer and a vague hope of good things to come aren’t enough anymore. He needs a miracle or a voice or something to let him know that God is really, really there before he passes away. He calls his faith a plague in itself, and, despite all the horror and futility he has encountered, seems unable to lose his belief. His page, on the other hand, has long ago discovered that there is indeed no God, and that living is all there is to it. He hates the misery that love brings, and has humorously and toughly steeled himself for the harshness of life. He is mostly content, and uses his natural cynicism and bitterness to navigate more freely.

And then there’s the poor wretch who is to be burned at the stake for having slept with the Devil. She and all the other knights are convinced that is she die, then the plague will end and life will return to the world.

One struggling with his belief in God, one comfortable in his faith in no-God, and one tortured by her faith in the Devil.

Let’s take a step back, and marvel at how daring this is. These days, it’s easy to laugh at a film that so openly discusses religious and philosophical issue like this. So few films actually try to grapple – head on and with its heart on its sleeve – with The Big Issues of life, God, and existentialism. Even fewer films do it well. I have seen numerous tiresome movies that feature people just sort of sitting around discussing the meaning of life, etc. And fewer still have anything of skill or insight to say; they’re usually just tiresome navel-gazing (I was in a play in high school kind of like this; I enjoyed acting in it, and it was intellectually ambitious, but was a little too self-satisfied in the mere fact that it could quote Friedrich Nietzsche). “The Seventh Seal” is able to transcend all this. It’s from an era, and from a filmmaker, who were unafraid to ask big questions, to philosophize, to talk openly about the dogmas of God. And it’s not content to just ask the questions in a pseudo-philosophical way. It’s a film that doesn’t just bring up God, and is content with it, but actually bothers to dissect what people believe. It is not just repeating what it read in Camus’ last book, it is actually contemplating the questions it asks. It’s a film that manages to explore, in a rudimentary way, the huge questions of basic existentialist philosophy without once feeling like a lecture or a half-baked college paper.

And, while it still has a reputation for being a superserious navel-gazer (“The Seventh Seal” is the subject of innumerable parodies including one in which teenage slackers Bill & Ted play not chess but Clue, Battleship and Twister with Death), it still comes across as important and, more importantly, engaging and entertaining. In many ways, it’s still difficult to see past the parody, but watching it again it’s easy to see why people, devotees and satirists alike, latched into the image.

I think the reason “The Seventh Seal” strikes so strongly, and that Bergman was able to handle it all so deftly, is that these were questions that were plaguing him at the time. It was 1957. He was already on his third wife (he would have five in his life), and his marriage wasn’t going well. He was pushing mid-life. His was the son of a strict Lutheran minister who would beat him for bed-wetting, and would openly discuss issues of God at the dinner table. Bergman claims to have lost his faith at age 8, and went out to school to study literature, but ended up in the theater and nascent film departments.

His lack of faith was bothering him by the time 1957 rolled around, and he made two films that year dealing with the nearness of death, “The Seventh Seal,” and “Wild Strawberries” (about an aging teacher). Like any true artist, he used his chosen forms (theater and film) to explore these issues. It wouldn’t be until 1961-’63 that he would enter his “chamber” period with a trilogy of films all about the silence of God: “Through a Glass Darkly,” “Winter Light,” and “The Silence,” the second of which finally settled (or at least mildly abated) the crisis that began at age 8.

Bergman has never really come out on one side or the other. He seems to be saying that the ambiguity, the struggle, seems a valid and vital part of faith or faithlessness. “The Seventh Seal” features a man who cannot give up his faith, a man who has already given up faith, and a woman who has been driven mad by hers. It has wicked church officials, boring broody preachers, and a distinct absence of God as a physical player the same way Death is. And yet, and yet… it is all accepted. No one is right or wrong, per se. There are just different ways to approach the same subject. It is a multi-faceted argument for every side. And that ambivalence, that inner contradiction, is one of the most human characteristics there is.

Death finally appears to our band. The knight knows now that everyone is to die, presumably victims of the plague. He is able to distract Death long enough (by cleverly knocking over the chess pieces) for Jof, Mia, and their son to escape in their carriage. The knight cleverly allowed the objects of his hope, a happy young couple more concerned with life than death, and their child, the hope for life in the future. The knight has not frecieved palpable proof of the exitences of God, but he has found a newfound faith in life. “Did you find the answers you were looking for?” Death asks him. His answer is in the affirmative.

Then Death comes for everyone at a dinner. None of them are changed in the face of Death. They all stand, facing Him, slowly realizing what is happening. The cynic is still cynical, the knight is still hopeful, and the young lady they have accumulated is still praying.

One of the final shots of the film is also one of cinema’s most famous: a pastoral line of dancers, led by Death, along the ridge of a mountain. The dance of life will lead to death, but this is no reason to march in a dirge. Let us dance with Death, accept our mortality, and welcome the struggles and joy and pains that life has to offer.

“The Seventh Seal” won the Cannes prize in 1957, and introduced Ingmar Bergman to the world. Max von Sydow and Bibi Andersson became international stars, and Bergman would go on to make some of the world’s best films and influence hundreds of filmmakers. Yet his film is still as poignant, and the questions are still as valid today as they were in 1957, and indeed since the 14th century.

No one can watch the film without asking a few important questions of themselves. And that’s a triumph.

Published in: on May 10, 2007 at 10:26 pm  Leave a Comment  

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