Ingmar Bergman’s: The Seventh Seal [Retrospective/Review]

Do something for me first, before you start reading. Put on the soundtrack to Transistor – the developers, Supergiant Games kindly uploaded it for you to listen to. I’m sat here typing this article now with the music playing. Take the time and get into the mood for a world ending…

Something else. If you want to learn to hate something that you loved, learn about it formally. Sit in an organised setting and have all the joy and wonder sucked out from it, its marrow stripped clean and left a spectre of its former self. All in pursuit of an unneeded extrapolation. I did this for five years and learnt to hate film. It was a slow process to reverse. So naturally I’m going to take a film that I adore. And I’m going to look at it, from angles I had not before and see what I can learn now. All with a hope that I’ll still love it at the end.

Class is now in session.

Death and Taxes.

If taxes have a price, then all that is left is to determine the manner in which they are to be paid. The idiom then tells us that there are two things in life that cannot be avoided, the other; death. Create an An-Cap society and you’ll prevent the idiom from ever becoming an axiom which I’m sure will be of comfort to someone, sat silently, their right eye twitching as the glare of a monitor burns through their retina during another 3AM session of internet deployed vitriol. How about the rest of us cheer ourselves with the thought of pestilence and occurrences transpiring on the level of an apocalyptic, extinction event? Let us look at the Black Death, the plague that swept across continents and killed millions, by estimates 75 to 100 million in the 14th Century. Let us also bask in the glow of nuclear fire, our pupils set ablaze with a white light while our backs chilled in the same instant by Cold War paranoia. Let us look at “Det sjunde inseglet” – Eng. The Seventh Seal.

1. And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour. 2. And I saw the seven angels which stood before God; and to them were given seven trumpets.                  

Revelation 8:1-2 [KJV Edition]

The Seventh Seal is a 1957 Swedish film both written and directed by Ingmar Bergman. It would do it something of an injustice to try and bust it down to a specific genre as though some sort of awkward clump of rock in a quarry. At its most basic, it tells the story of a knight returning to his native Sweden from the Crusades. Death comes for him and the knight, in a crisis of faith seeks to delay Death by challenging him to a game of chess. It is around the moves of this game that the knight questions his faith, seeking to restore it and fill the (physical and spiritual) silence on Earth that he now experiences.

The passage from the Book of Revelation that opens and closes the film refers to the end of the world, angels heralding calamities that would rend the Earth before the day of judgement. A situation that many at the time of the 14th Century, during the Black Death, were convinced was occurring. When all bets are off and there is little but to make peace with yourself and a higher power then it’s no surprise that the individual will look inwards, what they may find however is something else entirely. Our broken knight; Antonius Block – played by Max von Sydow, will have, during the course of the Crusades seen and have carried out actions far beyond the measure that any one of us could reasonably comprehend. It would be no surprise that this would trigger a crisis of faith, if they were to return after ten years to see their home laid to waste by a relentless pestilence that was to torment the continent repeatedly for hundreds of years, even up to the 19th Century.

For some, the Black Death was seen as a punishment from the Heavens. The corruption of the people and their immorality being held to account. If a tax is not to be paid in money then what else can it be but actions or a very life? Indeed, during the film, a procession of what became known as the Flagellates moves through a village Block finds himself and his squire; Jöns – Gunnar Björnstrand in. The Flagellates would move as one, rending their flesh with whips while chanting psalms in an act of contrition. They chose to pay penance in their own way for perceived slights against God. Their very existence though was regarded as a challenge to the Church’s authority and as a movement were dealt with swiftly and harshly – declared heresy and suppressed to the point of Inquisitorial elimination. It was but one example of the hysteria that was running rampant through the continent with a vigour comparable to that of the plague.

Block however endeavours to if not cheat Death, then to somehow manage a stay of execution. It is for the reason of his crisis of faith, a deep fear of abandonment by God that acts as his central motivation and leads us on a tour of mid-twentieth century fears via the concerns of the fourteenth century. What is interesting is how Block goes through stages of evaluation, reasoning and bargaining – each creating new crises to accompany them. He seeks comfort and confirmation of God’s existence by challenging a woman, sentenced to death for consorting with Satan to summon him (Satan) so that Block can gain the answers he seeks – the notion of one existing so the other must also. All Block finds is a terrified, young woman who he seeks to ease the passing of – she is incapable of providing what he wants and needs, but through that act of mercy, allowing her to face her execution without pain, gives rise to faint stirrings of a realisation.

It is through works and faith that an individual can find salvation, at least within the Catholic Church of which prior to Martin Luther and the Reformation, European Christendom would have been. Block’s journey leads him to the realisation that he will only find peace within himself when he has actively sought peace – works and faith. Through an act of goodness Block believes he will find the salvation, connection and perhaps absolution he so desperately seeks. With Death waiting, Block must play not only for time and his own peace, but his soul. We’ll get back to this act of goodness but first I want to look at Block’s journey in a more ordered fashion.

Blessing in disguise.

We start on the Swedish coast, The knight – Block reclining. Rinsing his face in the waters of the sea he is thankful to be home from the crusades. Turning he looks to see Death. His time has come, Death having been at his side for quite some time already. Not quite ready however to leave this mortal coil:

“My flesh is afraid, but I am not.”

The knight stalls Death with the offer of playing chess for his life. Death is quietly amused and puzzled that the knight would know of his interest in the game. It is worth mentioning, as Block comments, that Death has been represented as being fond of the game and has been featured in art on numerous occassions. Perhaps most fittingly in this case, within the painting: Döden spelar schack Eng. Death playing chess, painted in the period 1480-1490 by the Swedish painter Albertus Immenhusen/Albertus Pictor. We’ll be looking at the effect The Black Death had on the arts – one of its myriad legacies, but for now, back to the story.

With Death agreeing to the terms of the game the two play. The chess game doesn’t so much as provide a structure to the film, moves announcing dramatic beats but instead functions more as punctuation. It underlines or emphasises points within the story, taking place where Block has the time free to play. The world keeps on turning, regardless of their game which while means the film misses out on being able to use the chess game to raise tensions, allows it to instead; better realise the world that the story is taking place within.

The game halted for now, Block and his squire Jöns set off inland. Seeking directions Jöns finds the body of a man, overlooking the sea and accompanied by his dog, consumed by the plague:

“Did he show you the way?

-Not exactly.

What did he say?

-Nothing.

Was he mute?

-No, milord… He was most eloquent.”

The dynamics between the knight and the squire have been clearly established. Jöns is a smartarse, but he’s no fool. There is a temptation from this point to see Jöns as regarding himself as a dead man walking, however one without fear.

At this point we shift to following a theatre troop. They wake up, greet the day and Jof – Nils Poppe has a vision of the Virgin Mary. His wife regards him as a fool, not with malice, just the quiet humour of someone that truly loves him, despite his foibles. They play with their infant child (Michael) – an island of tranquillity within a maelstrom of pestilence.

Our previously mentioned medieval painter; Albertus Pictor makes an appearance. Jöns talks with the man as he works and they discuss the plague – Pictor delighting in imparting the ghoulish details and the discomfort it causes in Jöns, its origins and the Flagellants – their mention shaking Jöns in a way we would perhaps not expect, a quiet nod to other potential horrors the man has witnessed while in and on the journey to and from the Holy Land.

“Lashing each other?

-Yes, it’s a horrible sight. You feel like hiding when they pass.

Give me a gin. I’ve had nothing but water. I feel as thirsty as a desert camel.

-Scared after all?”

We rejoin Block as he stands infront of a crucifix. He walks to the confessional and seeks to unburden his soul but must admit:

“I want to confess as best I can… but my heart is a 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…”

The cleric challenges him that he does not want to die. Block disagrees, claiming that he is waiting for knowledge, a guarantee of life everlasting, the existence of God. Block talks of the limitations of man’s senses and the difficulty of believing in something larger than the self when believing in the self is challenge enough.

“Why can I not kill God within me? Why does He go on living in a painful, humiliating way?”

The cleric is revealed to be Death, Block continues to bare his innermost fears, unaware of the identity of his confessor. He reveals his plan; one significant action to give meaning to a hollow life, to restore a sense of self and perhaps by extension, to restore his faith. To do this he must keep Death playing their game of chess. Revealing how he intends to beat Death the identity of the confessor is revealed. Block has a moment of realisation that while he lives, he can still do something, no matter if Death now knows his strategy. With the will to succeed and the refound ability to do so, Block steels himself to continue.

Block returns to Jöns and the painter, Jöns protesting the futility and unpleasantness of the crusades and perhaps life itself. Jöns finds relief in the ridiculousness of it all and deigns to live for himself and the immediate pleasures of the flesh while it lasts, to Block’s disapproval. Leaving, they encounter a young woman held in the stocks, due for execution for consorting with the Devil. Block questions her as to the validity of her claims – if the Devil exists, then so must God. Another cleric claims that she is the source of the plague. The woman appears catatonic before breaking into a murmuring cry as the men leave.

A fait accompli.

Stopping at a small settlement to refill their water flasks, Jöns encounters a theologian, Raval – Bertil Anderberg, mockingly called; Doctor Mirabilis, Coelestis et Diabilis (essentially; Doctor “amazing” and “deceiving”), now an opportunistic thief, a scavenger upon the plague’s victims he was the man who – ten years prior put the notion of joining the crusades into Block’s mind. While searching a body Raval encounters a young woman, an unnamed serving girl – Gunnel Lindblom, distracted from his scavenging the implication being that as well as any goods he can find and take, he will have her too.

Jöns intercedes, challenging Raval:

“Now I understand these ten wasted years. We were too well-off, too satisfied. The Lord wanted to chasten our pride. So He sent you to poison my master’s mind.
-I was in good faith.
Now you know better. You’ve become a thief. A more suitable occupation for knaves.”

Jöns promises the man that the next time he encounter him, he will brand his face as is deserved.

The girl leaves with Jöns – having little choice. The question is raised whether Jöns acted on her behalf, interrupting Raval. Whether he stayed his hand when he could strike out of a sense of, or a lack to a right of judgement or whether it was simply too much bother for him. The moral grey area and Jöns’ priority of his own well-being above all others becomes apparent when he then attempts to accost the girl, blowing off her resistance flippantly in one breath and holding over her that he saved her life in another. His self-serving tendencies and over-thought efforts tumbling out somewhat clumsily. With little choice the young woman follows.

We rejoin the troupe as they perform in a village. We are privy to a variety of theatrics; the troupe’s director – Skat is off into the bushes with the blacksmith’s wife. Flagellates form a procession through the village, admonishing the populace, and within the tavern Jof, suspected by the Blacksmith – Plog of being responsible for taking his wife away from him, is held at knife point by Raval and forced to dance on the tables for the crowd. Jöns enters as Jof collapses, making good on his promise to brand Raval who collapses, his face rent and bloodied.

On rolling hills, Block sits with the chess board near to Mia and her son Michael. They talk of the challenges of making a living in a plague infected world, travellers, performers etc. were regarded with at best suspicion but also with outright hatred for potentially spreading the sickness.

Jof returns from his ordeal to be, for want of a better word – mothered by Maria, her reward; a bangle stolen by Jof from Ravel during the commotion in the tavern. Together with Block’s party they share a meal of milk and wild strawberries, a moment’s genuine bliss.

Block breaks off from the group to continue his game with Death. The small troupe family are offered an escort through the forest by Block. Back in the village, Jöns drinks with the commiserating Plog who is to subsequently join the party on their journey.

While travelling through the woods Skat and Lisa – Plog’s wife are caught. Skat feigns his death and Lisa rejoins her husband. Delighted at succeeding in his ruse, Skat decides to hide in a tree until the coast is clear of the angered Blacksmith. His time however is up – Death waits with a saw beneath the tree Skat hides in:

“You can’t. I haven’t time.
-You haven’t time?
No, I have my performance.
-Cancelled, owing to death.
My contract?
-Annulled.”

Continuing through the forest, Block’s party encounter the earlier seen girl – condemned for consorting with the Devil. She is to be burned. Block again seeks to question her, to ask for her to summon the Devil so that the knight may ask him about God. Again though all Block is able to find is a terrified girl. He is once again without answers and for what he has seen and been party to, a further step away from grace. This is a world which is not ready to make the journey an easy one.

At the Eleventh Hour.

Further in the forest, Ravel once again appears, now delirious with plague and begging for water. Jöns holding the serving girl back from easing his agony.

“It is useless.”

Block sits with the chess board again. The rest of the party bedding down for the night. Jof however is able to see the game as it really is where others see only Block, alone. In this moment, on the chess board the dice is rolled. Block spoils the game to buy the family time to escape. Death is faintly amused:

“Did you gain by the delay?
-Yes.
I am glad. When next we meet…”

The one worthwhile deed has been done. Block has now only answers to seek.

“And you will reveal your secrets.
-I have no secrets.”

Jof and family ride through a violent storm, a preceding omen for what is to come. Block and the remaining party have reached his home. Reunited with his wife – Karin, the knight finds a measure of peace. Together they sit for a meal in the castle dining room and the scripture from Revelation is read by Karin – Inga Landgré, setting a bleak tone of finality. It is worth remembering again for many that they were convinced this was the end of the world that they were living through.

A visitor arrives. The party are introduced to the figure with the manner of an honoured guest. Block makes a call out to the heavens:

“Out of our darkness, we call to Thee, O Lord! Oh, God, have mery on us! We are small and afraid and without knowledge.”

Jöns rebukes his master:

“…[T]here is none to listen to your lament.
I could have purged your worries about eternity…
…[F]eel, to the very end, the triumph of being alive!”

A wondrous expression painted across her face, the serving girl Jöns saved falls to her knees, a shadow drifts over her face and she speaks:

“It is finished.”

She closes her eyes.

Her family with her, Mia looks out – the storm has ended. Waking Jof they gaze towards the distant, stormy sky. Visible only to Jof; The Dance of Death crosses the horizon and our story has ended.

Devil’s Advocate.

What makes The Seventh Seal so interesting to me is how it could just as easily be about the 14th as the 20th Century. The fears and challenges may have different names at first glance but at their core they remain the same. Where it was plague and perceived Biblical Apocalypse in the 14th, within the 20th Century – at the time the film was made in the 1950’s, it was the looming spectre of nuclear weapons testing and the very real possibility of the Cold War growing hot. The Bikini Attol tests took place between 1946 and 1958, twenty-three detonations, the magnitude of the explosions enormous. The Soviet RDS-220 “Tsar Bomba”, the largest nuclear detonation in history was to occur in 1961. Bear in mind also that only a little over a decade earlier than the film’s release – World War 2 had ended. Europe had been left again in ruins and was still recovering.

It is recovery that is perhaps one of the key issues. After the Black Death had ran its most damaging course in the 14th Century there was a seismic shift in social, political and religious spheres. With a vastly depleted labour force, Feudal states had to acquiesce to the demands of the serf class for higher remuneration. The joining of inherited lands created considerably expanded pools of land ownership in the hands of relatively lowly, socially placed individuals within dramatically short amounts of time. It cannot be overstated how important a shift this was to the power dynamics of society, particularly in a nation like England, not even the power of the Crown could roll back these landmark shifts.

The rise of the Flagellates was a challenge to the authority of the Roman Catholic church, a mere drop in the ocean compared to Martin Luther’s subsequent Reformation that was to follow. With their inability to answer the cries of a dying populace, faith in the church waned as desperation grew. The very body of the clergy was to suffer, perhaps disproportionately given the tendency of clerics to attend to the infected. The efforts alone made to keep the Pontiff safe from the reach of the plague were exceptional in their own right. A vacuum was being created and in this space was to blossom something quite remarkable.

With all the anguish, the pain and suffering a choice was clear; Live or perish. The survivors of the Black Death chose to live. With the scale of loss, there was no room for a Survivor’s Guilt. An explosion of creativity followed, a resurgence of the arts and a zest for life was the answer to the question of its relative fragility. It is doubtful that the European Renaissance would have occurred to the extent that it did were it not for the upheaval that the Black Death caused throughout Europe. Do remember that it was through cities like Florence and Venice that the the plague was able to vector in. It is perhaps a fitting irony that it was within cities like these that knowledge and the arts were to rise like a phoenix from the ashes of the millions that had died.

“Say anything you want against The Seventh Seal. My fear of death — this infantile fixation of mine — was, at that moment, overwhelming. I felt myself in contact with death day and night, and my fear was tremendous. When I finished the picture, my fear went away. I have the feeling simply of having painted a canvas in an enormous hurry — with enormous pretension but without any arrogance. I said, ‘Here is a painting; take it, please.'”

Ingmar Bergman in an interview with Charles Thomas Samuels (1971)

It is in The Seventh Seal that I think Ingmar Bergman was trying to find answers to the question of the Cold War world. Whilst we in the 21st Century have our own looming spectre; that of Radical Islamic Terrorism – at least primarily from a European or European Descent perspective, I don’t think it can compare to the sheer omnipresent nature of the Cold War or the Black Death. We’re not quite at a stage where we could have the outpouring of creativity and a searching for answers that were to follow the Black Death. That’s not to say that this is a desirable course of events, I don’t believe it is. I do find some measure of comfort though in knowing that the European nations and peoples have a fortitude and ability to bounce back from tremendous damage.

It is perhaps fitting to talk about faith then. While it is an element in what is currently the most pressing danger we currently face it also allows us to approach and understand things in ways that may be more difficult without.

“Regardless of my own beliefs and my own doubts, which are completely without importance in this connection, it is my opinion that art lost its creative urge the moment it was separated from worship. It severed the umbilical cord and lives its own sterile life, generating and degeneration itself. The individual has become the highest form and greatest bane of artistic creation. Creative unity and humble anonymity are forgotten and buried relics without significance or meaning. The smallest cuts and moral pains of the ego are examined under the microscope as if they were of eternal importance.

…If thus I am asked what I should like to be the general purpose for my films, I would reply that I want to be one of the artists in the cathedral on the great plain. I want to make a dragon’s head, an angel or a devil – or perhaps a saint – out of stone. It does not matter which, it is the feeling of contentment that matters. Regardless whether I believe or not, regardless whether I am a Christian or not, I play my part at the collective building or cathedral. For I am an artist and a craftsman; and I know how to chisel stone into faces and figures.”

Filmnyheter No. 19-20, pgs. 1-9 (December 1954)

Bergman built his Cathedral with The Seventh Seal. It is up to us as unique entities, that same boon and burden in being to find a way to comprehend its meaning – walking its nave as separate entities doesn’t preclude us from finding a common approach with which to understand what is before us. If images without words are a universal language, if music a world-wide tongue then we have the means to understand its lessons, and lamentations – regardless of creed or origin. Depending on the statistics the extent will vary but within European nations there is a tendency towards society wide secularism. As Block longed to: “…[K]ill God within me[.]” so as to ease another void within him, there is a culture of secularism that seeks to remove faith, or at least certain faith(s) from the institutional running of the state. If a nation is one man, and the man is our knight then they have an unpleasant awakening ahead of them.

Where The Seventh Seal succeeds is in its message of something to live for. Where the artists and scientists of the Renaissance had a second wind and seized it with all their might, a unification of inspired creativity. We now have the opportunity to look to the future also. We have always had this opportunity but perhaps have been too afraid or reluctant to embrace it – needing the confluence of events to reach a critical mass before we embrace the chances that have been waiting for us to grasp them. The film shows us that while there are inevitable ends, there is also life before it. It urges us to embrace the same.

The care with which The Seventh Seal was put together stands as a testament to its ability to remain relevant and a striking piece of film as well as an artistic expression in its own right. A step towards a Cold War Renaissance perhaps… A recovery taking place in the middle of an illness. As the world grew ever smaller it is fitting that humanity looked to the heavens. The launch of Sputnik 1 on 4th October 1957, Yuri Gagarin’s orbit of the Earth on 12th April 1961, Apollo 11 landing on the Moon on 20th July 1969 and the subsequent probes, telescopes and satellite launches that have seen us land a rover on Mars and look ever outward beyond the stars. In an era of social, political and cultural upheaval the parallels could be drawn with the 14th century.

The Seventh Seal takes advantage of that universal language of images. It looks beyond the stars of its own world, even when it has its feet planted in the earth, its head is within the firmament, above which satellites drift silently by. With careful framing and a richness of tone – even taking into account the range limits to black and white film, it still feels as fresh today as when first revealed to the world. There is little time wasted throughout the film, it in its own way wryly leans towards the notion of a well spent and considered life. I can’t help but have the impression that with the film, Bergman was baring his soul to the world – unsure of what answers he would find. Bergman is our knight and he is us. The knight’s wife is named Karin, as was Bergman’s mother. The knight connects strongly with Mia – played by Bibi Andersson whom Bergman was in a relationship with at the time. It could be inferred that Bergman was by chance or by design recreating and exploring issues that had troubled him, seeking answers and some measure of relief. It could also be a stretch too far and wishful thinking, a convenient connecting of dots with a false conclusion.

“I hope I never get so old I get religious.”

Bergman as quoted in the International Herald Tribune (8 September 1989)

It is perhaps telling that Bergman himself led something of a turbulent life. Raised in the home of a Lutheran minister, his father – who went on to become a chaplain to the King of Sweden was by all measures a charismatic preacher but a harsh parent. The treatment of the young Ingmar within such an intensely devout household made it little surprise that he lost his faith at the age of eight, retreating into a world of imagination and creativity. As a teenager he spent time in Weimar, attending a Nazi rally where he was won over by the charisma of Hitler. He became invested in the successes and failures of the same, in later life torn over the draw of the man in contrast to his actions.

Bergman would often sign his works “S.D.G” Lat. Soli Deo Gloria – Eng. To God Alone the Glory – perhaps for Bergman, faith was a cultural expression and institution, a vehicle by which to explore an issue, a perspective to approach and reason from – but not something he could willingly be part of, his experiences having made the distance too great to close.

After the end of the second world war it was little surprise that people’s faith had been shaken. Institutions that had prospered for centuries struggled to retain their following, to communicate and connect with a changed world. If The Seventh Seal tells us the story of a man loosing his faith and trying to find some measure of comfort in a now empty world, racked by devastation and struggling with his innermost conflicts and demons, it would be fitting if it were an autobiographical piece. Not just for Bergman though, but for a world that was trying to recover. We all have an individual journey to follow – the destination is up to each of us, struggling against the darkness and perhaps searching for our own renaissance.