By Afra Nariman
The Seventh Seal (1957)
Directed by: Ingmar Bergman
Stars: Max von Sydow, Bibi Anderson, Gunnar Björnstrand, Nils Poppe, Bengt Ekerot
A Swedish knight named Antoninus Block (played by Max von Sydow) and his squire, return home from the Crusades to find their country suffering from the black plaque. When ‘Death’ approaches him, Block challenges him to a chess match for his life. In existential grief, Block holds the belief that God does not exist, and sets out on a journey, traveling with a small group of people, as he tries his hardest to evade death for as long as it takes him to perform a redemptive act while he still lives. Death follows him on this journey, and the two continue their chess match regularly.
In Bergman’s feature film — a hauntingly philosophical masterpiece — The Seventh Seal, he explores the existential ideas and questions that have hovered over humanity from our very beginning. At the film’s core, is the question: What comes after death? Within the exploration of this question, arises themes concerning the meaning of life, death and existence — as well as faith; its dichotomy with guaranteed knowledge, and in regards to the idea of God’s absence in the lives of humanity and the notion of God not existing. It illustrates that when faced with death and uncertainty, faith becomes less and less reliable. The film is very direct in its explorations and messages, in that it will make you think about life, death, doubt and — if you believe in God — the nature of faith. It directly deals with a dilemma that many deal with at some point in their lives, and what is a taboo today — that God is silent, absent or nonexistent all together. Even the most faithful people, put their faith in words written down long ago of assumed interactions, but do not experience God’s presence themselves; which becomes more and more evident in moments that they feel that they need God to speak to them — as is with the situation that the film’s protagonist, a knight named Antonius Block, finds himself in. With death, uncertainty and evil casting shadows over the world, even the most faithful will ask these questions, when prompted: “Where is God in all of this? Why doesn’t He speak to me, answer me, help me.”
Although death is a major overarching theme of this film, it is not all grim and gloomy. There are many instances where life is at the forefront of the story, such as the moments of music and theater, as well as the presence of a baby, which represents life and hope. The Seventh Seal is full of poetic and thought provoking dialogue, both philosophical and ordinary; and powerful enough to absorb you both into the story, and into your own thoughts.
One of the most important elements of the film is its setting, both time and place. Set at the time of the Crusades and the black plaque; there is a dark, gruesome aura around the film. Being that the philosophical concepts being explored stem from a concept of death; having the protagonist, the knight named Antonius Block — and frankly everybody else at the time — be face to face with death, allows the questions at hand to be approached explicitly. When the end of life — death — feels imminent and real, as it was during the time of the black plaque, questions arise, concerning the meaning of life, what comes after death, and the doubts that surface in the minds of those with a faith in God, who realize God’s absence in their lives. Death is an inevitable part of life, and perhaps, that has never been as apparent to everyone as when they were living through the black plaque.
The film begins with a powerful scene that immediately captures our undivided commitment. Following a biblical quote, we see a knight and his squire alone on an isolated beach. It feels as if they are at the edge of the world — alone; which in many ways, can be reminiscent of what facing death must feel like — when you know that death is imminent, life becomes lonely and isolated. Only a few minutes pass by until Block, the knight, is approached by the character, Death. The following, powerful exchange occurs:
Death: “I am death… I’ve been at your side for a long time… Are you prepared?”
Block: “My flesh is afraid, but I am not.”
Before allowing Death to take him, he bargains. He challenges Death to a game of Chess for his life. This game of chess continues throughout the film, while Block makes the most of his bargained time. He travels with his squire, and eventually a few others, on his way to his home to see his wife, who he is unsure is even still alive. Along the way, he strives to commit a final, redemptive act — to do good. He admits this in one of, if not the, most important scene of the film, which comes not long after he leaves the isolated beach.
Finding himself at a Church that is surprisingly still open in midst of the deadly plaque, Block spots a hooded figure standing behind a set of bars. Assuming that this figure is a priest, Block begins to confess. It turns out that the hooded figure is Death, disguising himself. Nevertheless, the scene quickly proves to be the most philosophically imbedded, and revealing stretch of the film. In Block’s confession, we hear him speak of his doubt when it comes to his faith, and the emotions that have arisen after his encounter with Death, knowing that the end is near, but uncertain of what, if anything, will follow. In real life, although people are not directly visited by the character “Death,” in times like the black plaque, when people realize that death is inevitably imminent, similar thoughts must arise. In his confession, Block emotionally expresses himself:
“I want to confess as best I can, but my heart in empty. The emptiness is a mirror in which I see my own face… and it fills me with loathing and horror.”Block
He goes on to express the sentiment that in these dark times, his faith is not proving to be reliable, or true. Doubt has surfaced, because God is not speaking to him. In these moments, people will begin to question their faith, as Block does. The following back-and-forth exchange takes place between Block and Death:
Block: “I cry to Him in the dark, but no one seems to be there.”
Death: “Perhaps no one is there.”
Block: “Then life is a senseless horror. No man can live with death knowing that everything is nothingness.”
Death: “Most people never reflect on death or nothingness.”
Block: “In our fear we make an idol and call it God.”
There is much more said in this confessional scene, but the segments that I’ve outlined above capture much of the conversation’s essential ideas. Block, now facing the likelihood of an imminent death, is waiting for God to make Himself known, to say something — to guarantee that there is something after death. Yet, God is absent. This leaves Block alone with his thoughts; thoughts of there being nothing but pure nothingness after death. This thought frightens him, as it would for many people in his circumstance. Death, playing the role of a priest, suggests that most people do not reflect on this concept, because they hold so much value in their faith in God. Block then suggests that people create this concept of God, to save themselves from the fear of death — the fear of nothingness. In other words, people have faith because it brings them comfort and allows them not have to contemplate death and nothingness; but when facing an event like the plaque, with death imminent and probable — and God feels absent — people are forced to face their fear alone; sometimes leading them to realize what Block comes to conclude in this confessional scene. This scene serves as the ushering-in of one of the film’s overall plots: Faith vs. Guaranteed Knowledge; and the doubt that a close focus on this dichotomy could inspire in those who hold on to faith, as it does for Block. In many respects, The Seventh Seal is about the ideas that arise in this scene: the absence of God, the notion of God not existing, and how when surely facing death, faith is not enough to expel fear. Both people with faith and those who do not believe in a God, will take something away from this scene, and the film as a whole — although perhaps from different perspectives.
It must be a terrifyingly unique experience to know that death — that the end — is inevitably close. In a bar scene towards the middle of the film, a character expresses his fear and hopelessness;
“People are dying like flies… This is the end. No one dares say it aloud, but this is the end.”
People’s entire perspective on life and death changed during this perilous time. For many people, most of the time, death doesn’t seem all that real. It’s an abstract concept in many ways, until it happens. As Death said to Block during the confessional scene; Most people never reflect on death or nothingness. The truth is, death is surely an inevitable part of life — life insinuates death; but when you know death is coming soon, you do not have the luxury to not contemplate it. Death becomes no longer an abstraction, but a tangible certainty. This sudden contemplation of death will often times breed fear.
The film is also about the things that death can take away — the strife felt by people living in a world where a plaque is taking away the lives of many around them. One of those things that are often taken away, is Love. We first hear of love, during a conversation between a drunk and distraught blacksmith, and Block’s squire, in the bar. Near the end of their conversation, the squire says something that very subtly conceptualizes what love is in our lives;
“If everything is imperfect in this imperfect world, love is perfect imperfection.”Squire Jöns
In other words; life is a mess. Nothing is how we would like it to be — the world is imperfect. Love is also imperfect, but of all the imperfections in the world, love is perfect, because of the ways in which it is imperfect.
Love, as something lost, becomes clear a bit later, when Block is speaking to a couple of new friends — actors — and their young son. When asked about his love-life, he claims he doesn’t know if he still has one. Having just returned from the Crusades, and the plaque ravaging his country, he is unsure if his wife is still alive. Reflecting on his past life with his wife, before the world began to feel like it was ending, Block reveals his fondest memories of love, and relates it to faith;
“We were newly married. We played and laughed. I wrote songs to her eyes, to her nose, and to her beautiful little ears. We hunted and danced. The house was full of life…
Faith is a torment. Did you know that? It’s like loving someone in the darkness who never answers, no matter how loud you call.”Block
We see now, how love and the good, become mere memories of a better time. He goes on to reflect how the simplest joys of life — love being the most joyful of all the human possibilities — make the fear of death and nothingness feel insignificant. Here arises the idea that; yes, death is inevitable, lonely and frightening; but that it is those things — there’s nothing we can do to change that. So in life, enjoy the good things, the company of others, the taste of food and beverage, the sights of beauty and nature, the serenity of music and all the marvel of life.
I do not want to divulge more of the story, where it progresses, and how it ends, in this review. What is important to note though, is how the film leaves us. It leaves us with the suggestion of not fearing death — not fearing the inevitable. We hear the following said by the squire:
“Even in this final moment, feel the triumph of being alive!”Squire Jöns
In other words, even when facing the notion of death, do not succumb to living in fear. Yes, death and nothingness can sound frightening to some, but do not allow death to overtake the way in which you live. Spend every waking moment of life, celebrating it. We are left with a simple message: to follow death, to approach it, not cowering, crying or in fear — but in a dance, because you’re alive! Dance, and sing, and live for as long as you possibly can. We are all following Death’s “hour-glass,” our time will come; but we must rejoice and make the most of the time we have, instead of worrying about the inevitable, the unknown and the prospect of nothingness.
The game of Chess played between the film’s protagonist, Antonius Block, and the character Death, throughout the film is a metaphor for life. As the film teaches us, life can be like a chess match: At any moment, one move can lead to the end; to a loss — in life, to death. It’s about being diligent and patient in the process though — enjoy the game and enjoy life. We try to fight death; we can avoid the checkmate, but when faced with a certain winner, in this case death, we will eventually lose —we will die.
Sooner or later, many people fear death when they come face to face with it, because as much as we know it’s inevitable, there is still a level of uncertainty around it, and it almost always comes unexpectedly when you first face the concept of its imminence. Faith serves as an answer that some people choose to believe in, even though there is no definitive answers provided, or as Block puts it; “no guarantees.” It is when faced with death and sorrow that individuals turn to the existential questions that have hung like a cloud over the history of humanity; the questions that led to religion, to philosophy and to science, and to much of early art and literature: What is the meaning of life, What comes after death, Is there a God? Like the story reveals, the film also leaves us with no definitive answers, but points out that faith is what it is, which is not a certainty. The film expresses the importance of not fearing death because it is unavoidable. Instead we should laugh and dance and notice the beauty of life, as limited as it may be to us in terms of time.
The themes and messages of the film, are more than only that — they actually ignite in you, inner contemplation, both during your viewing experience and well after it. Very few films, if any at all, will stick with you, and affect you, the way that this one does. It will surely inspire deep thoughts about your own life, and your own relationship with existence and all that it entails. The film’s use of imagery and brilliant camerawork, lead the film to be elusively existential, and accomplish what it sets out to inspire in the viewer from the very beginning, when we see Death approach the protagonist, the character we experience the story through, and ask: Are you prepared (to die)? This film was clearly personal for Bergman, as he explored his own relationship with life, death, faith, doubt and the philosophical questions that humanity has aimed to answer for generations.