In 1957, the renowned Swedish filmmaker named Ingmar Bergman created a film that transcended time, establishing itself as an eternal allegory. The iconic film, titled The Seventh Seal, emerged from the depths of Bergman’s own creative mind, drawing inspiration from his one-act play titled Painting on Wood, which premiered at the Swedish Radio Theatre in 1954. The film not only served as a cornerstone in Bergman’s filmography but also laid the foundation for a broad and nuanced perception of the director as an intellectual grappling incessantly with the demons within himself. Apart from delving into Bergman’s profound contemplation of love, mortality, and faith, the film stands as a singular expression of the director’s introspective reflections, interwoven with visuals and ideas that surpass the conventional boundaries of cinema. It attains an iconic status that elevates it beyond the limitations of the medium. Despite initially capturing global attention with the light-hearted comedy Smiles of a Summer two years earlier, Bergman’s classic personality truly manifested itself with the film.
The Seventh Seal is set against the backdrop of the Middle Ages, opening with the performance of the Latin hymn Dies Irae sung from another world. It fills the air with haunting melodies as the narrator’s voice resonates while reciting verses from the Book of Revelation. The horrifying words tell the story of the Lamb opening the seventh seal, leading to silence in heaven for half an hour; the seven angels holding the seven trumpets prepare to sound them. The narrative unfolds with Knight Antonius Block, who—after failing in his efforts during the Crusades—wakes up on a secluded beach scattered with ancient stones. His companion, the scornful squire Jöns, accompanies him on the journey back from the Crusades only to find Death patiently waiting for their arrival. Clad in a black cloak with a pale face, Death—appearing silently—marks the unsettling encounter.
Although faced with his inevitable death, Block strives to prevent Death’s grip by bravely challenging the spectral figure in a game of chess. Remember, such iconic yet unforgettable imagery becomes the most enduring symbol of the film and the foundation of its narrative. Throughout the unfolding events, the game of chess becomes a recurring motif, with Block attempting to prolong his existence against formidable opponents. As the chessboard becomes the stage for their symbolic battle, Block’s primary motivation is to extract meaning from the broken seals and seek hidden answers behind the final decisions of God. His quest for understanding intensifies as he grapples with the possibility of encountering evidence of the existence of either the Devil or God. Every move in the chess match becomes a strategic maneuver in Block’s desperate attempt to postpone the inevitable and hoping to reveal a glimpse of divine truth through one dignified act before the impending End.
Beauty in the Dark
After a decade of devoted service to the Lord, enduring harrowing trials from a dangerous campaign, Block finds himself craving answers that seem to be his rightful due. The weight of his experiences compels him and his companion, Jöns, to embark on a journey to the nearest village. However, as they traverse the countryside, the unwelcome presence of The Black Death becomes apparent, casting a dark shadow over the once serene landscape. In the village church, Block seeks solace in confession, revealing his soul and expressing deep-seated atheistic doubts. He grapples with existential questions, contemplating the fate of those who desire to believe but find themselves unable, as well as those who refuse and cannot believe. Surprisingly, Death cleverly accepts and exploits his inquiries, turning the situation to his advantage. Undeterred, Block decides to face his adversary with resilience, driven by an insatiable curiosity that cannot be quelled.
As Block and Jöns continue their journey, Ingmar Bergman weaves their narrative with the presence of three itinerant players who are tranquil and pure: the couple Jof and Mia, along with their leader Skat. In stark contrast to Block’s resurgence, these players radiate a calm purity, initially depicted in peaceful slumber on the grass. Jof, a kind of seer, has a vision of the Virgin Mary walking with her child upon waking. However, Mia dismisses his dream as fantasy, revealing the innocence and untroubled nature of their existence. Ingeniously utilizing exterior locations and relying on a minimal budget, Ingmar Bergman undertakes an ambitious effort to capture his work within a span of only 35 days. Through clever editing techniques and adept direction, he transforms the constraints of time and finances into opportunities for artistic expression. The resulting film, a testament to Bergman’s creative brilliance, possesses a distinctive and captivating quality.
Despite the short production duration and the scarcity of financial resources, Bergman’s attention to detail is evident in every frame of the film. Each scene unfolds with precision, contributing to the construction of a thesis filled with Bergman’s distinctive personal touches. The cinematography, expertly executed by Gunnar Fischer, reveals the narrative in highly contrasting black and white, capturing iconic and often imitated compositions that surpass each other in terms of memorability. Fischer’s framing choices transform the film into a portfolio easily mistaken for still photography, showcasing the power of visual storytelling. Even in the dark backdrop and weighty subject matter, the inherent beauty of this film is truly exceptional. Operating as an exercise in allegorical fantasy rather than realism, The Seventh Seal relies on dialogue and visual rhetoric that delve into the theatrical nuances pervasive throughout. This approach serves as a conduit to communicate Bergman’s poetic prose essence, transcending the limits of the stage and cinema.
The significant conflicts that delve into the portrayed souls in this film are adorned with elaborate ornaments rooted in Christian symbolism. From the embodiment of Death itself to seamlessly integrated religious processions and Medieval decorative art, each element contributes to the rich tapestry of the narrative. Its dialogue, with its thick dramatic style, is crafted with grandeur and control reminiscent of epic poetry. This theatrical discourse flows out through the actors’ emotional deliveries, especially Max von Sydow, whose disciplined steps support the film’s absolute sincerity and concentrated tone. In the grand scholarly style, it carefully describes contemplative themes that will ultimately be indelibly embedded in Bergman’s narrative tapestry, necessitating the term “Bergmanesque” for those who wish to follow in his artistic footsteps. With his perfect skill, Bergman carves his name into the history of cinema by compelling his characters to embark on a journey of introspective distinctiveness. Drawing inspiration from the richness of personal and professional experiences, he guides his protagonist through the labyrinth of spiritual curiosity.
The Seventh Seal adeptly encapsulates deep thematic elements that serve as a classical foundation and a benchmark for measuring each subsequent work of Ingmar Bergman. Its narrative unfolds as Block, the protagonist, relinquishes his quest for knighthood and finds himself thrust into a silent and plague-ridden battlefield—a symbolic battleground where he confronts existential questions, challenges God, and engages in a real competition with Death to master his own demise. Bergman cleverly weaves these elements into the film’s structure, creating a narrative tapestry that goes beyond mere storytelling and delves into a profound exploration of the human condition. In the simplicity of the basic plot description, Bergman’s existential hero, Block, becomes a contemplative figure, carefully weighing every potential conflict, both environmental and philosophical. At its core, the film serves as an unending stream of investigative questions skillfully channeled through symbolic characters. Block emerges as a symbol of idealism, upholding the romantic belief that life must have a clear purpose. He views doubt not as an obstacle but as a catalyst for intellectual growth and self-understanding.
Critics’ Perspectives on Bergman’s Approach
In contrast, Jöns, another significant character, starkly exhibits the role of a realist, sometimes resorting to sarcasm and criticism. While acknowledging the validity of Block’s questions, Jöns takes a pragmatic stance, refraining from delving into philosophical abysses himself. His character serves as a counterbalance, offering a grounded perspective on the complexity of existence. Bergman adeptly crafts a narrative that relies on the contrast between his characters, positioning them as inhabitants of opposing worlds in the carefully crafted tapestry of the landscape. Block, the unwavering knight devoted to duty and purpose, grapples with the challenge of carving his position amidst the rigid doctrines of the Church. In moments of existential contemplation, he affirms the tangible reality of his existence, symbolized by the simple movement of his hand and the rhythmic flow of blood through his veins. A chess match with Death unfolds against the backdrop of the still-high sun in the sky, encapsulating Antonius Block’s lifelong dedicated quest for meaning—a pursuit dependent on a clear identification of God, reflecting his desire for knowledge that he believes he deserves.
Unlike Block’s bleak journey, the characters Jof and Mia embody the purest form of true love. Their presence is marked by playfulness and joy, and this pure happiness endures until the conclusion of their narrative. They emerge as embodiments of hope for humanity, their love serving as a beacon amidst the somber interaction between death and the fleeting pleasures of life. In their discourse about Mikael’s future and their indifferent perception of Death merely as a backdrop, akin to empty theatrical masks in their routine, Jof and Mia view life as a complex act untouched by the weight of death. Critics who object to Bergman’s allegorical approach argue that he uses historical settings and metaphorical depictions as unnecessary disguises to explore questions about God. From this perspective, such indirect methods may potentially distance the audience from the core questions at hand. Conversely, unabashed Bergman supporters argue that this confrontational approach engages the audience in a contemporary context, producing intellectually demanding material. They contend that cinema-goers often struggle to connect with narratives that overtly attempt to establish defining and challenging relationships within the framework of the modern environment.
Examining specific Bergman films such as Persona and Wild Strawberries highlights contrasting approaches in his works. Unlike films that encapsulate their meanings in figurative settings, these particular works are considered more demanding, requiring the audience to directly grapple with complex narrative layers. By choosing not to obscure his most aggressive arguments or filmic questions in medieval settings, Bergman challenges viewers to engage more closely with the profound questions posed by his storytelling. This strategy places a heavier intellectual burden on the audience, making the questions clear but avoiding unintended attacks on their contemporary ideologies. Similar to many directors of his time, Ingmar Bergman viewed film not just as a representation of reality but as an extension of that reality. He firmly asserted that “Film must get out of realism” and transcend the depiction of conventional reality that envelops society in everyday life. In this context, the interaction of setting and period becomes crucial in shaping Bergman’s distinctive investigative approach in The Seventh Seal. This intentional choice not only makes the film more accessible as an allegory but also serves to conceal its modern resonances behind layers of hidden, atmospheric, and symbolic local nuances that aptly complement its comprehensive commentary.
Examining his 1960 film, The Virgin Spring, adapted from the Swedish ballad Töres dotter i Wänge, Bergman once again strategically utilizes the medieval period as a backdrop to incorporate a setting with inherent metaphorical and relative symbolic situations. The narrative revolves around a father grappling with his beliefs when confronted with the brutal rape and murder of his daughter. Bergman cleverly explores how the father’s primary impulse for cruel revenge clashes with ingrained remorse. By delving into morally charged dilemmas against the backdrop of the medieval era, the director creates a story that not only aligns with the peculiarities of that time but also addresses timeless questions about God and death. Through the lens of his historical perspective, Ingmar Bergman presents a harsh portrayal of the church, particularly focusing on medieval structures and its adherents bound by dogma, which at least indicates a lack of respect.
Bergman’s treatment is not merely detached observation; instead, it is triggered by a deep and enduring hatred for the institution, a sentiment rooted in the turbulent conflicts of his youth with his dogma-obsessed clergyman father. Bergman’s perspective argues that the church, by exploiting vulnerabilities arising from lack of education, weaknesses, and easily deceived congregants, both gathers followers and undermines the essence of the soul—similar to a dangerous disease originating from within itself. This critical viewpoint, based on Bergman’s personal history, offers a layered interpretation of the church as a manipulative force preying on the vulnerabilities of its followers. In poignant scenes set against the backdrop of the church, the mural painter reveals a horrifying revelation to Jöns, emphasizing the strange belief among the impoverished that this deadly plague is a divine retribution. Astonishingly, repentant mobs traverse the land, engaging in self-flagellation and harming themselves and others, all in a misguided attempt to appease divine wrath. This horrifying spectacle, sanctioned by the highest religious authorities, takes the form of a gruesome parade of tormentors who, with zeal, whip their own bodies, causing blood to spill, tearing their flesh, and even shaving their hair—all intended to serve God. Paradoxically, their fervent actions unwittingly contribute to the spread of The Black Death.
Climax of the Decisive Game
Ingmar Bergman skillfully captures the horror induced by oneself, drawing inspiration from medieval paintings and incorporating insights from modern historical analysis. The director’s portrayal of this unsettling phenomenon transcends his historical context, as evidenced by subsequent parodies in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The devoted followers of this misguided practice, in their desperate plea for salvation, unwittingly become conduits for the plague they seek to avoid. Bergman expertly underscores their desperate beliefs by symbolically adorning his version of Death with a clergyman’s robe, implying the connection between their misguided beliefs and the impending disaster. This theme is further emphasized through the characterization of the priest Raval, whom Bergman depicts as a sanctimonious wolf. The director reveals Raval’s moral degradation from the outset, portraying him callously robbing the corpse of a violated serving girl. Jöns, played by the clever Bertil Anderberg, exposes Raval’s wicked plan to manipulate Block by sending him to the Crusades, allowing the cleric to exploit and plunder without consequences.
Now united, the two groups of adventurers find themselves gathered on the peaceful hillside, a tranquil sanctuary where Block, amidst the calm, reflects on his distant wife patiently awaiting his return in their castle. As they journey through the forest on the way home, Block discovers a path filled with grim sights—burned witches and an unsettling encounter with Death. Despite the challenges, Block skillfully outwits his opponent on the chessboard, continually posing questions that, instead of being answered, generate more inquiries. In the ceaseless chess match against Death, the inevitable loss of Block’s queen suddenly triggers horrifying events. Jof, highly perceptive, suddenly senses the presence of Death and hastily escorts Mia into the sheltering woods to evade the impending threat. In a final act of redemption, Block captures Death’s attention, sweeping the chess pieces off the board with his cloak, signaling the climax of the decisive game.
Reading from the Book of Revelation
The journey concludes as Block and his remaining companions, resigned to their fate, reach the remote boundaries of his once bustling castle, now marked by barren walls and devastation. Karin, Block’s wife, shows a profound understanding of the impending catastrophe as she tosses the final piece of wood into the fire. The group, with expressions of regret and compliance, listens attentively as Karin reads from the Book of Revelation, her somber words interrupted by three unpleasant knocks echoing throughout the castle—a foreboding sign that Death has arrived at their doorstep. Faced with the imminent death, Jöns, always the realist, advises Block to savor the fleeting moments in life, urging him to “savor the great victory in this final moment when you can still roll your eyes and wiggle your toes.” Embracing their fate, Jöns guides the others in consciously accepting death.
The most surprising and uplifting interpretation of the film lies in the pure and untarnished essence of Jof and Mia. The simplicity of their goals and the effortless nature of their simple yet sophisticated love create a magnetic allure that captivates the audience. The scene following the village, where Block lies on the hillside with the couple, enjoying a bowl of fresh milk and strawberries while relishing the clarity of the moment, transcends the conventional boundaries of church and societal expectations. It serves as a sharp illustration of the potential for love and freedom beyond the limiting structures imposed by institutions like the church. In these calm and hopeful moments, Bergman subtly introduces unexpected optimism that permeates the film. In a reflective moment, Jöns philosophizes about love, describing it as the “darkest plague.” However, his contemplation takes an unexpected turn as he conveys that there might be joy in love if one can die for it, yet one almost always manages to overcome its challenges. Contrary to his usual pragmatic stance, Jöns expresses deep sentiments about the perfection found in the imperfect world of love. He acknowledges its imperfections but asserts that love is the most perfect in its imperfection. Such positive and romantic notions are rarely associated with characters like Jöns, a pragmatist, or with filmmakers like Bergman, known for his misanthropic tendencies. However, these sentiments persist through Block’s lament and fully blossom in the scenes featuring Jof and Mia.
Unlike other characters who seem swept up by the prevailing zeitgeist, ensnared in religious hysteria, or busy relentlessly pursuing existential meaning, Jof and Mia stand out as beacons of cheerful survival. Their resilience implies a profound perspective—that death itself should not instill fear, as fear accelerates death. Amid the multitude of questions posed by The Seventh Seal, Bergman finds himself almost envious of the few who remain indifferent, free from the need to keep asking, unlike himself, driven to do so. Given the breadth of Bergman’s work, he engages in an endless quest driven by boundless curiosity, delving into the essence of existence. However, in the midst of this exploration, he confronts the bitter reality that there may be no definite answers to the profound questions he poses. This awareness becomes a source of poignant torment for Block, the protagonist throughout the film. What persists beyond the quest for the Ultimate Truth is the importance of curiosity itself—the act of asking questions becomes a guiding force, navigating the treacherous terrain of self-discovery.
By making a significant impact in exploring existential issues through the medium of film, Ingmar Bergman not only achieved success but also emerged as an exemplary figure in the realm of art-house cinema. His enduring influence over the years solidified his position as a paradigmatic voice in the landscape. In each, Bergman skillfully nurtures his personal concerns, using precise visual and poetic language that transcends the boundaries of traditional storytelling. In doing so, he addresses philosophical questions previously confined to personal contemplation and transforms them into subjects of open discourse. Bergman’s films serve as catalysts for introspection and personal meditation, offering a highly personal yet inclusive forum. His ability to articulate universal existential questions resonates with the audience, prompting them to grapple with Bergmanesque inquiries, whether consciously or unconsciously. The director’s works become a vehicle for fostering self-understanding at the individual level.
The global resonance of Bergman’s work began significantly with The Seventh Seal, a film that marked the start of his exploration into spiritual and emotional introspection on a grand scale. Following this pivotal work, his repertoire continued to captivate audiences worldwide. His films, characterized by deep reflections on the human condition, became symbols of the inherent quality attributed to Swedish cinema. The film stands as a beacon in the art of filmmaking, adorned with some of the most iconic images ever captured on celluloid. Its narrative unfolds with the gripping intensity of the decisive chess game between the protagonist knight and the personification of death, Death. This symbolic struggle becomes a visual motif permeating the film, weaving the storyline and leaving an indelible mark on the audience’s consciousness.
The visual tapestry of this film transcends the intellectual duel, culminating in the beautifully choreographed dance in the closing frames. This immensely delightful spectacle, set against the backdrop of the medieval era, adds layers of complexity to Bergman’s narrative. The iconography and medieval setting serve as a thematic canvas, allowing Bergman’s magnum opus to transcend its temporary origins and resonate across generations. In Bergman’s illustrious career, The Seventh Seal emerges as the pinnacle gem, effortlessly surpassing even his other films with its enduring immortality. Bergman’s art, akin to all exceptional creations, possesses intrinsic qualities that shield it from the erosion of time. The timeless themes of the film, rich with potential, intelligence, and meaningful purpose, still resonate vividly today as when they were first introduced to the world. Like a philosophical maestro, Bergman used his work to pose the most universal questions, presenting them in a format that invites accessibility without compromising depth.
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