Starkly existential, boldly poetic, slow and grim, Ingmar Bergman’s great classic The Seventh Seal has haunted film aficionados, baffled and bored college students, inspired innumerable parodists, and challenged both believers and unbelievers for nearly half a century. Long considered one of the greatest films of all time, Bergman’s medieval drama of the soul can be difficult to watch but is impossible to forget.
The film opens and closes with the passage from Revelation from which it takes its title: "When he broke open the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour" (Rev 8:1). "Silence in heaven"—or rather the silence of heaven, the silence of God in the world—is Bergman’s ambitious theme, along with mortality and death, existential dread, and apocalyptic fears.
The Seventh Seal is the first film of Bergman’s "middle period" as a filmmaker, a period characterized by reflection upon faith, doubt, and unbelief. In these films, the director can be seen working through the tension between the childhood faith of his strict Lutheran upbringing and his adult skepticism. During this period, having lost his faith in God, Bergman remained haunted by the horror of existence without God and faith, of life in the shadow of a death that is simply annihilation.
In The Seventh Seal more than any other film, Bergman confronts these issues with the directness of a medieval allegory. In fact, it is a medieval allegory, set in fourteenth-century Sweden, with one character embodying tortured doubt, another simple faith, still another defiant unbelief. Yet it is a medieval allegory for modern sensibilities and anxieties, after the loss of medieval faith.
Key dramatic images are drawn from medieval art and drama—a knight literally playing chess with Death; Death coming for the living, leading away men and women in a morbid procession, a danse macabre — but the religious structure around those images has eroded. In a fourteenth-century danse macabre, Death might appear as an emissary from God beckoning men to judgment and the afterlife. In Bergman’s film, Death (Bengt Ekerot) appears as an enigmatic emissary of the unknown, bringing us unknowing into the unknowable.
The Seventh Seal tells the story of a knight named Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) and his squire Jöns (Gunnar Bjönstrand), who have just returned from ten fruitless years in the Crusades to a Sweden in the throes of the black plague. There the knight is confronted by the specter of Death; and, in an image parodied from Woody Allen’s Love and Death to Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey to the lame Schwarzenegger action-comedy The Last Action Hero, the knight challenges Death to a game of chess.
We also meet a simple player named Jof (Nils Poppe), his wife Mia (Bibi Andersson), and their infant son Mikael. The names of the couple, diminutive forms of the names Joseph and Mary, immediately remind us of the Holy Family (in the Criterion DVD, the dubbed English soundtrack uses "Joseph" and "Mary," but the subtitles retain "Jof" and "Mia"). Yet it’s soon clear that, despite the intentional resemblance, Jof and Mia don’t represent the Holy Family in an allegorical sense; in fact, Jof, who is given to visions of saints and angels, sees the Virgin Mary herself walking in a field.
The knight Block and the player Jof both see supernatural figures; but Jof, a simple man of simple faith, sees a glorious human being who bespeaks a human afterlife of heaven and hell, while Block, who desperately longs to know if God and heaven are real, sees only a numinous entity whose existence offers him no assurances about what may be beyond the grave. In one key scene, we discover that Jof too can see Death playing chess with Block; but Block never gets to see the Virgin Mary. Block even wishes at one point that he might meet the devil, reasoning that if anyone would know about God, he would. But no, to him the spiritual world remains inaccessible.
Torn between his inability to believe and his dissatisfaction with unbelief, Block rails against God’s frustrating elusiveness on the one hand and the God-shaped hole in his own heart on the other. "Why must he always hide behind unseen miracles and vague promises and hints about eternity?" Block complains. Yet he also asks, "Why can’t I kill God within me? Why does he live on inside me, mocking and tormenting me till I have no rest, even though I curse him and try to tear him from my heart? Why, in spite of everything else, does he remain a reality—a maddening reality I cannot get rid of?"
These tortured questions come in a scene at a chapel confessional, where Block speaks to a robed figure who, unbeknownst to him, is not a monk but Death himself. "I cry out to (God) in the dark," Block confides to the robed figure, "but sometimes it seems as if there is no one there."
"It could be no one is there," comes the reply.
"If that is true, then all of life is meaningless (or ’a senseless horror’). Nobody can live with death before he dies if he thinks that oblivion lies at the end."
Besides struggling with doubts about God’s existence, Block also resists death in the hope of performing a single meaningful act before dying. Although the film doesn’t explicitly draw the connection, the quest for God and the quest for meaning are really two sides of the same coin, for there is no true meaning apart from God.
Yet, although the knight does get an opportunity to perform his meaningful act before the film ends—even in a way cheating Death—ultimately this gives him no consolation or peace. Instead, his only respite from his existential dread occurs, notably, during an encounter with the player couple, Jof and Mia, in which Block briefly shares in their peaceful existence, enjoying a simple meal of wild strawberries and milk.
The significance of the scene is underscored by clear Eucharistic overtones. Block himself invests symbolic and commemorative significance in the meal in quasi-liturgical language: "I shan’t forget this moment. And this shall be to me a sign and a great sufficiency." There’s an echo of liturgical gesture in the solemn way Block raises the bowl of milk to his lips in the manner of a Eucharistic chalice. The meal, too, is an occasion of fellowship and an "hour of peace" for the knight, with Jof’s strumming a secular counterpoint to the sacred music of the liturgy.
In contrast to the bread and wine of the Eucharist, however, which the liturgy notes are "work of human hands" as well as "gift of the earth," the elements in this meal, milk and wild strawberries, are entirely natural foods with no need of any additional process at human hands. (The strawberries, in particular, seem to have a special significance in Bergman’s imagination; Wild Strawberries is the name of his next film.)
In fact, the idyll of wild strawberries seems more a point of contrast to the Eucharistic liturgy than a point of comparison; it seems intended to point away from the Christian celebration rather than toward it. The natural goodness of the meal and the experience seems meant, not to evoke the greater supernatural goodness of the Eucharistic liturgy, but to suggest that it is rather in natural pleasures such as this magic hour of strawberries and milk than in the promises and sacraments of the church that fulfillment is to be found.
In this connection, it’s very telling that, thought Block spends the whole film longing to hear from God, we never see him actually doing much of anything by way of seeking him — certainly not the sorts of things we might expect a medieval knight to do. For all his talk about "crying out to God in the night," we never see him praying, fasting, watching in the night. Though he finds solace in a meal with Eucharistic overtones, he shows no interest in ever going to Mass. He makes some attempt to go to confession, yet never accuses himself of any sins or expresses any contrition, instead engaging in mere psychological introspection.
Block talks to an alleged witch about the devil, but never to a priest about God (though he makes an effort to do so in the confession scene). He doesn’t seek God in love of neighbor; on the contrary, as he himself says, "My indifference to men has shut me out. I live now in a world of ghosts, a prisoner in my dreams."
Thrashing about in a vacuum, Block inquires after God as a naked and autonomous intellect, scrutinizing life and death as a philosophy problem rather than living it as a man. In saying this, I’m not so much making a moral judgment about Block, who has been involved enough in his world to get married and fight in the Crusades, as a critical observation about the film, which has no interest in exploring how love or war might be occasions of seeking God, let alone finding him.
Significantly, the only displays of organized religion in the film are the flagellants’ procession and the burning of the witch. Bergman stacks the deck: He depicts skepticism and existential angst with contemporary immediacy, but allows religious devotion to appear only in archaic and repugnant forms. ("Do they really expect modern people to fall for that?" Jöns scoffs at the flagellants’ procession.)
Of course there’s still Jof, with his visions and his simple faith. Yet while the film depicts his visions as straightforwardly as Block’s encounters with Death, this neither affirms God’s existence nor endorses Jof’s faith. Bergman wants to evoke the experience of simple faith in a sympathetic and nostalgic way, but he allows Jof’s world and Block’s world to exist side by side without establishing either one over the other as factual — though clearly his sympathies are with Block rather than Jof.
At the same time, both the film’s ending and the nature of Block’s "significant act" suggest a curious solicitude on Bergman’s part toward his little holy family. Some wags have suggested that the filmmaker favored these characters because they were actors; but Bergman explicitly establishes, in one of the film’s flashes of mordant humor, that being an actor carries no special privileges.
Like Block, Bergman is unable to enter into Jof and Mia’s way of life, yet still somehow seems to draw comfort from it. By the film’s end it’s clear that although the director has no wish to be like Jof and Mia, he nevertheless values their way of life and doesn’t wish to see them deprived of it.
Though the film’s theme, the silence of God and the horror of death if there is no afterlife, is an essentially religious one, The Seventh Seal doesn’t really deal with religion or God as such, but with the place of God and religion in the human heart and human society. The 1995 Vatican film list rightly ranked the film for its significant contribution in the area of "Values" rather than "Religion."
Incidentally, Bergman’s inner conflict and his sense of horror at the prospect of the empty heavens and the eternal grave didn’t stay with him forever. Years after making The Seventh Seal, the director gave the following answer in response to a question about death:
I was afraid of this enormous emptiness, but my personal view is that when we die, we die, and we go from a state of something to a state of absolute nothingness; and I don’t believe for a second that there’s anything above or beyond or anything like that; and this makes me enormously secure.
This is not an answer, needless to say, that Antonius Block would have found remotely satisfying. ("If that is true, then all of life is a senseless horror.") Block has his limitations as a character, yet compared to the later Bergman, he has a far more authentically human view of life and death.