It is a rare pleasure to see The Seventh Seal on the big screen with an audience, as I was fortunate enough to do last weekend at New York City’s Film Forum. Playing as part of their Ingmar Bergman Centennial Celebration, The Seventh Seal (1958) stands apart from Bergman’s other films, not for its themes of the search for meaning in our lives and the existence of God and an afterlife, which permeate much of his oeuvre, but for its Middle Ages medieval setting. Taking place when the plague was spreading in Europe, the film follows Antonius Block (the formidable Max von Sydow) and his squire Jöns (the irrepressible Gunnar Björnstrand) as they make their way across a bleak Swedish landscape to Block’s home, having returned from fighting in the Crusades for six years. The world-weary knight is confronted by Death, famously personified by actor Bengt Ekerot in black robes and wielding a grim sense of humor along with his scythe. Block challenges Death to a game of chess, knowing the Grim Reaper’s pride will not allow him to resist. The stakes? Block’s soul until he (inevitably) loses, in exchange for enough time to do one last meaningful act and to be reunited with his long-suffering wife, living alone in their abandoned castle, tending to a fire with what can only be described as little enthusiasm for her existence.
Along the way, Block and Jöns encounter a young woman accused of being a witch burned at the stake, plague sufferers, self-flagellating religious fanatics, and the theologian who first convinced Block to go off and fight in the Crusades. Most crucially they meet a small group of traveling actors: Jof, the juggler who has mystical visions, his wife Mia, played tenderly with occasional bursts of boldness by Bibi Andersson, their infant child Mikael, and Jonas, the puffed-up leader of the amateur troupe. This chance meeting allows Block to perform the one last meaningful act he longs for when he diverts Death’s attention away from Mia, Jof and their child long enough for them to escape his grasp, at least for the time being. For those unfamiliar with Bergman’s comedies, the director’s playful humor most evident in scenes featuring Jonas should be a welcome surprise, as the traveling player hams it up on stage and flirts with the local blacksmith’s saucy wife. One remarkable scene finds Jonas hiding in a tree after getting caught by the blacksmith; hearing the sound of a saw, Jonas looks down to see Death sawing away at the tree trunk. Jonas tries to bluff his way out as Death admonishes his deceptive ways, then pleads for mercy asking for special dispensation as an actor (typical Bergmanesque humor), all the while Death working away at the tree, amused with Jonas’s cunning efforts.
The scene is absurd and wryly funny and yet resolves with a moment of true profundity: the tree cracks and breaks, hurling Jonas to the forest floor, leaving a clean tree stump; after a moment, a squirrel hops onto the stump and scurries around, then runs off. The indifference of nature to man and a reminder that we share this planet with creatures who exist on a very different level of consciousness. And who is to say which is more noble? The civilized man, who would burn women as witches, or the more elemental animal? One might even say the animal’s actions show more integrity, foraging for food, than the greedy Jonas who tried to con Death into sparing his frivolous existence.
And what about those whose existence is perhaps not as frivolous, yet empty in its own way? Bergman notes the suffering seeking men are prone to when Mia muses to Block, “I often wonder why we torment ourselves as soon as we have the chance.” Their conversation, during one of the film’s iconic scenes, takes place as they sit in a clearing in the countryside, Block sipping fresh milk from a bowl he holds in both hands, carefully cupping it, almost as if it were a religious rite. “I shall remember this moment,“ he says, referring at once to the milk, the innocent Mia next him offering him wild strawberries (the title of another classic Bergman film starring Andersson), her toddler son playing on the grass. Block knows this may well be his last moment of peace, one final respite from his journey to death, drawing ever closer. As is often the case with Bergman, the tone of the scene skates the line between touching and sentimental and is remarkably devoid of irony. There is the beginning of the road and the end of the road. The potential of a child as pure as wild strawberries and fresh milk, and the journey’s end, the snuffing out of life’s candle, a passing into…what? A Heaven or a Hell? Any kind of afterlife? Or is it just nothingness, as the young woman tied to the stake, flames growing around her, seems to confirm by the confused, lost look in her eyes?
And yet later, in one of the film’s final scenes, as Death enters the castle to call on Block and his entourage, a mute girl Jöns saved from death suddenly sees a tunnel filled with light opening on the stone wall; she slowly, blissfully, smiles. Is she glimpsing the afterlife? Are we to trust her vision? Earlier in the film, Jof has a vision of the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus walking in a field and we, the audience, see it as well. Is Bergman, by letting the audience share the visions (along with the image of Death, visible only to Block and Jof) suggesting that there is a God but that He can only be seen by a blessed few and for the rest of us, the vast majority of us, we must rely on blind faith? For Bergman, the son of a strict Lutheran minster but agnostic from a young age, the question is one of silence. Why does God remain silent? The title of the film itself refers to a great silence: “And when the Lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.” (Revelation 8:1). That silence has been interpreted in many ways, but whatever the interpretation, it suggests an image of man under God, waiting for something momentous to happen. A moment of judgment? For some of us, such words are relied upon and deeply invested in, while for others, they are merely words written by men for other men. What’s remarkable about The Seventh Seal, aside from its startling imagery, is the very direct way in which it addresses such questions.
Written by Mike Fishman.