A man seeks answers about life, death, and the existence of God as he plays chess against the Grim Reaper during the Black Plague.
Max von Sydow: Antonius Block
The Seventh Seal is dark, beautiful, meaningful, and indeed explores the most serious themes regarding faith and search for the Divine; Known by many as a defining masterpiece from the Swedish film-maker Ingmar Bergman. One of the film's inspirations was a painting that Bergman saw as a young boy and was awed by: "There was everything that one's imagination could desire. Angels, saints, dragons, prophets, devils, humans. There were very frightening animals: serpents in paradise, Balaam's ass, Jonah's whale, the eagle of Revelation. All this was surrounded by heavenly, earthly and subterranean landscapes of strange yet familiar beauty. I remember Death playing chess with a Crusader, Death sawing at a tree to a branch of which clung a naked man with staring eyes, and across a gentle hill Death leading the final dance towards the dark lands''.
Det sjunde inseglet, which translates as The Seventh Seal, refers to a passage concerning the end of the world from the Book of Revelation, used both at the very start of the film, and again towards the end, beginning with the words "...And when the Lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour..." (Revelation 8:1).
The concept of the "Silence of God" in the face of evil, or the pleas of believers or would-be-believers, may be influenced by the punishments of silence, upon which the film attempts to explain and analyse with great detail and poise.
Interestingly, in Bergman's original radio play, sometimes translated as A Painting on Wood, the figure of Death in a Dance of Death is represented not by an actor, but by silence, "mere nothingness, mere absence...terrifying...the void."
The film follows the journey of a knight Antonius Block (Sydow) returning from the Crusades, through Sweden ravaged by plague. The knight has lost his faith in the blood and horrors of the battlefield, his faith has been tarnished due to no recognition from God and the horrors he has seen,"Faith is a torment. It is like loving someone who is out there in the darkness but never appears, no matter how loudly you call".
On his way home, he encounters people dying from starvation and disease, being burnt as witches, and encounters with Death(Bengt Ekerot) himself who challenges him to play a game of chess. We then have the story of the family; a happy juggler, his wife, and their infant son. This family is happy because they love each other. They represent the simple joys and hopes of ordinary life in human proportions.
The Seventh Seal is not entirely heavy upon significance though. It has an incredible story with believable characters, wonderful performances, lots of comic relief and moves easily from drama to comedy as executed in the great Shakespearean plays. We meet an actor named Jof (Nils Poppe), his wife Mia (Bibi Andersson), and their infant son Mikael. Block looks with envy on the simple love of this family for their child. Both Jof and Block see visions of the spiritual world but Jof's visions are life affirming whereas Block sees only reflections of darkness. The film has unforgettable images such as a hawk floating in a cloudless sky, two horses standing in the surf, Jof's vision of the Virgin Mary caring for her child, and a frightening procession of plague-infected flagellants.
''I want to confess as best I can, but my heart is void. The void is a mirror. I see my face and feel loathing and horror. My indifference to men has shut me out. I live now in a world of ghosts, a prisoner in my dreams.''
In one of the most intense scenes, Block enters a church and confides in a cloaked man he believes to be a priest (but is actually Death). He asks Death many questions about God, but receives no answers. This is the first time we see Block have some kind of weakness; he almost breaks down and relents thus says ''I call out to Him in the darkness, but it's as if no-one was there...'', and ''I want God to stretch out His hand, uncover His face and speak to me.'' What answer does he receive? Not even Death knows if God exists. At the end of this scene, Block points out that we should make an idol of our fear, and that idol we should call God. This profound statement is reflected throughout the rest of the film, as we realize that the communities across Sweden do not simply believe in God, but they also live in fear of him. They see the plague as a punishment directly from Him, cue a casual performance with a sinister march, where the damned whip themselves and monks sing the Dies Irae, whilst townspeople sombrely state 'Judgement day looms' in the local tavern.
Later, Block encounters a witch, whom is being prepared to be burnt at the stake. The first time he sees her, he casually asks her if she has ''seen the Devil?'', but is given no reply. He sees her once more as she is about to be burnt and gives his reason: 'I want to ask him about God.' What comes next is one of the most powerful images of the film. The witch asks Block what he sees in her eyes? Thus apart from fear, he sees nothing. No Devil. No God.
In the end, Block does his good deed before his death. Seeing his looming checkmate and defeat at hand, he purposely knocks the pieces of the chessboard to momentarily stop the game whilst the young couple, Jof (Nils Poppe) and Mia (Bibi Andersson) escape. Death asks him 'Did you profit from your respite?', and he replies 'Yes, I did.' With this selfless act he has saved other lives disregarding his own. Thus actually saving his own soul.
On to the young couple, they have been interpreted as many different things, what their role is in the film and if they are simply a device. Many believe they symbolize the Virgin Mary and Joseph, however I believe not. Bergman clearly says that they do not represent Mary and Joseph, the evidence being, why would Jof have a vision of the Virgin Mary if she was his wife? Jof provides much of the comic relief, the film, although short, his intense and challenges entice you to think. Jof, who appears innocent, clumsy and somewhat stupid, allows us to take a moment from the film and simply laugh. He provides more than this however. He, his wife, and their baby all appear to be innocent and good. They represent the purity in people, and even through the plague, a corrupt society and man's doubt in God and religion, there still are pure people.
Much of the film's imagery is derived from medieval art. For example, Bergman has stated that the image of a man playing chess with a skeletal Death was inspired by a medieval church painting from the 1480s in Täby kyrka, Täby, north of Stockholm, painted by Albertus Pictor.
However, the medieval Sweden portrayed in this film includes creative anachronisms. The last crusade (the Ninth) ended in 1271, and the Black Death hit Europe in 1348. In addition, the flagellant movement was foreign to Sweden; large-scale witch persecutions only began in the 1400s.
Generally speaking, historians Johan Huizinga and Friedrich Heer and Barbara Tuchman have all argued that the late Middle Ages of the 14th century was a period of "doom and gloom" similar to what is reflected in this film, characterized by a feeling of pessimism, an increase in a penitential style of piety that was slightly masochistic, all aggravated by various disasters such as the Black Plague, famine, the Hundred Years' War between France and England, and papal schism. This is sometimes called the crisis of the Late Middle Ages and Barbara Tuchman regards the 14th century as "a distant mirror" of the 20th century in a way that echoes Bergman's sensibilities.
It is a modern poem presented with medieval material that has been very freely handled; The script in particular, embodies a 20th century existentialist angst upon it's lucrative frame and indulgences.
For audiences to fully grasp the film's questions and answers, they must allow Bergman, his artistic license, and the script's modernisms may be justified as giving the story's medieval theme a compelling and urgent contemporary relevance.
The film succeeds to a large degree because it is set in the Middle Ages, a time that can seem both very remote and very immediate to us living in the modern world....Ultimately The Seventh Seal should be judged as a historical film by how well it combines the medieval and the modern. It should also be judged for it's deeper aspects that blossom from the fundamental foundations, the story and characters offer.
In conclusion, I can say that The Seventh Seal is certainly one of the greatest films ever crafted or conceived from the 21st Century.
A masterpiece of cinematography, an unfathomably well-made script, the wonderful photography (shot by one of Bergman's regulars, Gunnar Fischer), the haunting score, the incredible acting and the powerful message all make The Seventh Seal one of the few stunning films ever to be created back in the 50s and even to present Modern day.
What is the answer to the ever asked question though? Does God exist? Is the idea of a supreme entity a reality? The answer is not black and white, its quite simple...we will never know, not until our time comes. Thus begins the circle again for another generation; Ultimately it is the journey and our fulfilment of life that reaps the most glory, not the questions concerning what happens afterwards.
''I shall remember this moment: the silence, the twilight, the bowl of strawberries, the bowl of milk. Your faces in the evening light. Mikael asleep, Jof with his lyre. I shall try to remember our talk. I shall carry this memory carefully in my hands as if it were a bowl brimful of fresh milk. It will be a sign to me, and a great sufficiency.''