“The Seventh Seal” - Ingmar Bergman (1957)

The Seventh Seal (1957), written and directed by Ingmar Bergman,  still stands as a landmark of film expression, since it cinematically delved into the ultimate questions of existence and death. In fact the film is almost a legend of philosophical speculation on celluloid. As such, it was one of the films that helped launch the arthouse cinema scene that sprung up about that time.  In fact even though the film features a  number of broad comedic moments now and then, the prevailing seriousness of the film’s topic is a problem for some. But for thoughtful people like you and me, this film is a must see.

The title of the film is from the Christian Bible’s Book of Revelations, which refers to seven seals binding the Apocalyptic document that John of Patmos saw in his revelation and which describes the proverbial end of times.  In this account as each scroll seal is opened, a devastating calamity is unleashed on the world.  And indeed the setting of the film, which takes place during medieval plague times, was a period of such horror and death that the people felt the end of the world was nigh. Though the 1950s were not so calamitous, the very real threat of a world-ending nuclear holocaust was very much on people’s minds then, too.

Bergman’s story of The Seventh Seal follows the encounters of a knight and his squire upon their return to their homeland from a ten-year absence – they had been to the Holy Lands to fight in the Crusades.  The Crusades, of course, may have been entered into with noble purpose, but it is tacitly evident that their experience was unsuccessful and disillusioning.  And as soon as they arrive, they become aware that their home region is beset with the scourge of the Black Death.  How the various people react to this imminent threat to existence is the subject of the film.

Bergman’s cinematic storytelling techniques are worth mentioning straightaway.  Although the film is largely set out of doors, we are not at all presented with a naturalistic setting.  Instead the stark, high-contrast black-and-white cinematography creates a moody and expressionistic visual environment. In addition Bergman’s background in stageplay theatrics are very much in evidence all the way along, and his cast was mainly drawn from what was essentially his repertory stage group that frequented many of his films. As a consequence, the film is a superb example of both expressionistic and existentialistic film expression.

Apart from the personified role of Death (Bengt Ekerot), the remaining characters in the film are representative of various attitudes towards life (and death), so I will list them here according to their types:
  • The Religious Idealist. Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) is the knight who has returned from the Crusades.  He is not a fanatic, but a reflective religious idealist who wishes to know the unknowable God through his intellect.
  • The Rational Skeptic. Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand), the knight’s squire, is an earthy skeptic who dismisses religious feelings as utter nonsense used to fool the common people.  For him, life is to be lived in the here and now.
  • The Innocents.  The traveling performers, Jof (Nils Poppe) and Mia (Bibi Anderson), are unreflective commoners, but they are essentially innocent and good-hearted.  If there is a God, he should look after these people, even when they lie (as Jof often does).
  • The Selfish Materialists. The traveling showman, Jonas Skat, the smith, Plog, and his lascivious wife, Lisa, as well as the former seminarian and now thief, Raval, are all selfishly concerned with their own pleasures and rewards.  These are the common people, and there is often an innocence about them, too, but they are fundamentally greedy.
  • The Compassionate Mystic. The quiet village girl (Gunnel Lindblom) who joins up with the squire Jons is unnamed in the film, so I will refer to her as the “Watchful Girl”. Though she seems to have a minor role, her presence is one of the most memorable aspects of the film. And although she is always reticent, she always has a look of anticipation in her eyes and seems to be on the verge of saying something. She seems to see something that the rest of us don’t see.
  • Death.  Death appears off and on throughout the film as a calm and severe black-clad figure. He is only visible to those who are about to die, so much of the time only the explicitly condemned Block can see him.
The plot of The Seventh Seal goes through five stages of development.
1.  Introducing the Players
Initially we see the Block and his squire, Jons, sleeping on the beach.  Block, it seems, likes to occupy his mind by playing chess with himself, so he carries around a chess set.  In contrast with Block’s intellectual tendencies, Jons is lower-class and likes to sing bawdy ballads.  In fact the two of them are of such differing temperaments that they barely converse during the film.

When Block awakens, Death, in a black cowl, mysteriously appears and tells him his time is up. But Block manages to put Death off temporarily by enticing him into a chess game first. They exchange some initial moves on the board and agree to resume their game later.

Meanwhile we are introduced to a nearby horse-drawn show wagon holding a group of actor/performers: Skat, Jof, his wife Mia, and their infant son, Mikael.  Jof sometimes has mystical visions that nobody else can see (or believe, since he is given to lying), and on this occasion has a vision of the Virgin Mary teaching the Holy Child to walk.

At this point the two groups (the knight and the performers) have not met, and throughout the film the action will shift between these two focalization spheres of Block/Jons and Jof/Mia.

2.  The Village
Block and Jons come to a small church, which Block enters to pray and give confession. Meanwhile Jons talks to a painter engaged in painting a church mural of the “Dance of Death”, and Jons asks him why he wastes his time painting such rubbish. Jons tells him that he and his knight master have just returned from a crusade that “was so stupid only a true idealist could have thought it up.”

Over at the confession window, Block asks his unanswerable questions:
“Must it be so cruelly inconceivable to know God through one’s senses?  Why must he hide in a fog of half-spoken promises? What will become of us who want to believe but cannot? . . Why cannot I kill off this god within me?”
For Block faith is not enough; he needs knowledge. 

During Block’s confession we see that, unbeknownst to Block, the veiled priest listening to his confession is in fact Death, who manages to lure Block into revealing his chess-game strategy.

Block and Jons then see a young girl who has been condemned as a witch for consorting with the Devil and thereby bringing on the plague. On another occasion Jons enters an abandoned hut looking for water and encounters a fallen seminarian, Raval, who had years earlier convinced Block to go on the crusade but who is now a thief and is about to rape a beautiful village girl (the Watchful Girl). Jons quickly dispatches Raval with his fists and recruits the Watchful Girl to be his housekeeper.

Meanwhile at the other focalization center, the performing troupe is putting on a show for the local village, and we enter into a section of comic relief. Lisa, the wife of the blacksmith Plog, sneaks away with the performer Skat and seduces him. But the show is interrupted by a procession of flagellants tearfully marching through the village, confessing their guilt, and begging God for forgiveness. 

3.  Meeting up
In this section the two hitherto separate theaters of action meet up. Plog in the village pub is looking for his errant wife and talks to Jof. Raval comes over and bullies Jof, but Jons enters the scene and again forcefully takes care of Raval. 

Block, meanwhile, comes across the show wagon and speaks with Mia, who offers him wild strawberries. Soon Jof, Jons, and the Watchful Girl all show up, and they have a feast together. Mia asks Block about love, and Block reminisces about his love for his young wife, ten years earlier:
“I wrote songs to her eyes, her nose, her beautiful little ears”
Seeing the bliss of Jof and Mia, he realizes, at least momentarily, that his obsession with religious truth is not so significant.  Later in the tavern, we see Jons's expressing his contrasting and cynical view of love, which states is just lust and nothing more.

4.  The Trip Through the Forest
Now they all set off together through the forest in the direction of Block’s castle. They soon run into Skat and Lisa, and there is more comic buffoonery, with Skat sent packing and Lisa returning to Plog. 

Then they come across the crew of men who have come to burn the girl witch. This is a powerful and disturbing scene, as Block and Jons grimly watch the execution. Block is curious to know if the girl has really seen the Devil and thereby might know some transcendental truth, but Jons admonishes his master for believing in such fabrications that serve nothing more than to justify such sadistic acts of cruelty.

There is another occasion here for Block and Death to resume their game of chess. Although at this point Block sees that his chances of winning are hopeless, he still believes in the power of human action – he distracts Death by disrupting the chessboard, which enables Jof and Mia (who were evidently on Death’s list) to escape into the forest.

5.  Block’s Castle
Block, Jons, the Watchful Girl, Plog, and Lisa arrive at Block’s castle. All the castle residents have fled and only Block’s wife, Karin, remains to greet them. At a doleful breakfast, Karin begins reciting the book of Revelation about the opening of the seals. Death then arrives to collect all of them, and now they can all see him. In the presence of Death, Block gets on his knees and makes a last prayer to God for salvation, but Jons stands up proudly on behalf of the imminent Sufic wonder of life –
“. . .even so, feel the immense power of this moment, when you can still roll your eyes and wiggle your toes.”
The final scene switches to Jof and Mia, who have escaped Death’s clutches. Jof has a mystic final vision of Death leading his victims in a dance of death across a bleak skyline.
Although The Seventh Seal ends on a carpe diem note with Jof and Mia happily riding off into the morning sun, a theme that in fact has been prominently articulated throughout the film by the squire Jons, this is not the lasting feeling that I take away from the film. The film does not just project Block as a foolish Quixotean idealist shadowed by a humorously wise Jons playing Sancho Panza. No, what lingers with me is not the wisdom of Jons, but precisely the haunting expressions of Block – “why cannot I kill of this god with me?” It is the pensive and resigned visage of Max won Sydow, as Block, that is the face of this film.  Intellectually, Block sees no evidence of God, but intuitively he still believes there is something mystical and eternal beyond his intellectual scan.  He gets a glimpse of this when he has his talk with Mia. 

And even Jons, that nihilist who believes only in the here and now, has his mystical moment of compassion. When Raval is shown dying of the plague in the forest, the Watchful Girl is moved to bring water to the suffering man. Jons protectively restrains her and says softly in her ear, “Don’t you see I’m trying to console you.” In fact it is the Watchful Girl that represents the soul and the mystery of this film to me.  She embodies what Block, Jons, and the others cannot “know”.


Anonymous said...

I watched this film many years ago but I still remember the feeling "this-should-have-been-a-lecture-or-a book-but-not-a-film" that I had when it finished. A image or a movie can be as deep as the deepest word or sentence but if the author doesn't know how to use them to convey those ideas or meanings (and this film is a good example), he should use other forms of expression. I don't deny (nobody can do it) the artistic value of movies like this one (well above average, of course) but I still consider it a failure; a lovely one because it deals with issues and ideas I feel close to but... a failure.

The most promising or interesting part of your review are the quotation marks that surround the final "know". Extending them and/or daring to delve into the meaning of that word is always very stimulating from the intelectual point of view but you spend most of your time dismantling the plot in a very careful and lenghty way. I think a much shorter version of it may be enough for the future spectator(or the past one, like me).

Anonymous said...

just a couple of recommendations... I have seen a number of Japanese films in your web but none of them is of Yasujiro Ozu. A reader told you in 2009 that "I am an Ozu fan and would like to see what you do with Ozu" so I guess he is still waiting... I don't think you will be disappointed with this director (a good intro about him is the documentary "Tokyo Ga", by W. Wenders; have you seen it?).

The other is the link worldscinema.org You probaly already know it but just in case you don't, it may be a good source of movies that are not easy to find. I have in mind only those ones in the recommendation, not the pirated material that unfortunately it offers too. If one wants to watch movies that usually are not released in commercial theaters you should visit webs like mubi.com. It is unexpensive and it has a lot of them on offer.

The Film Sufi said...

Yes, I like Ozu, and I will be returning to cover more Asian films later this year.