An Analysis of Ingmar Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal
Opening Note: Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” has innumerable meanings to infer, but I have chosen to focus on only a few to represent what I believe to be one of the film’s overall themes. While I choose to include only some scenes and a few characters, I am not denying the rest that remains unmentioned to have significant meaning in the film, as I believe the entirety of the elements and characters in Bergman’s film to be more than adequate for interpretations and flowing with meanings.
The film opens up with a shot of a clouded sky with rays of sun piercing through, paralleling a mind full of existential doubt and hopeful light struggling to break through. From there, the scene fades into a shot of a black bird flying solo in the wind, silhouetted against the dimly lit, clouded skies; a search for Truth in the vast, conflicting skies. With the introduction of the quote from the Bible’s “Revelation”, Bergman shows us a visual diagonal opposition between a strong, dark mountain and the vulnerable, light sea.
“And when the lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was a silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.” Cutting from there to a shot of the shore and the sea in another dark-light opposition, the quote continues: “And the seven angels which had the seven trumpets prepared themselves to sound.” Bergman’s presentation of dark and light elements in visual opposition to each other forms the perfect canvas for the existential struggle between dark and light (doubt and hope) that forms throughout the film. Using a natural setting gives a more powerful impact of not being able to control certain natural, non-created elements in our minds.
Lying on a bed of rocks next to a chess board (which I believe symbolizes our thinking mind), we are introduced to Antonius Block (none other than the extraordinary Max von Sydow), a medieval knight who had just arrived to his home of Sweden from ten years fighting in the religious battle of the Crusades. I believe this to represent a battle of internal and external forces and oppositions that leaves one with a deteriorating hope in any “God”. How could a God allow so much oppression, torture, and suffering (as seen in the symbol of the Crusades and the Black Plague in the film)? Lying in a coarse comfort atop a shore of rocks, Block’s mind is exposed as a light and dark checkered chess board of jumbled hope and despair. Bergman then cuts to a scene of the knight and his squire’s black horses in the water. Revelation 6:5 says, “And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third beast say, Come and see. And I beheld, and lo a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand” (King James Bible). Perhaps the black horses in the film are used to represent dark times of famine and to symbolize a time of compromise and the struggle to balance change.
Block steps into the water, washing his face only to step right back out and fall to his knees, submitting into hopeful prayer. After his years of struggling with the religious forces within and around him, this collapsing moment portrays a sense of despair that one only hopes a God could mend. Rather than present the scene in a visually new lightness after his prayer, the corners of the scene darken, as to close in and create a mood of emptiness outside of the scene. In Revelation 8:9 it says, “And the second angel sounded, and as it were a great mountain burning with fire was cast into the sea: and the third part of the sea became blood […]” (King James Bible). Bergman shows the chess board overlapping on the sea, perhaps to foreshadow the death and doubt of physical and existential plague throughout the film.
Immediately after this, the vision of a black-robed, white-faced Death appears before Block. Though the figure of Death is presented just as real as the reality that Bergman creates around the characters, I believe that Death’s appearance is the emergence of existential and religious doubt and despair in Block’s mind—creating an opposition of light and dark that becomes very real for those who endeavor to contemplate existential matters. Already, two and a half minutes into the film, Bergman has succeeded at creating a mood of opposition between two forces of doubt and hope.
Death’s arrival in the film also portrays the silence of God in Block’s mind. “And when the lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was a silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.” Block’s moment of prayer on the sea’s shore shows a desperation and willful force for God to speak to him. In hopes of defeating Death (his doubts), Block proposes a game of chess—a battle between light and dark pieces, in which Death’s character ends up with the dark pieces (symbols of doubt and emptiness) while Block ends up with the light ones (symbols of hope and meaning). The medium of the board in which the game persists is Block’s willful search for knowledge, for answers, for God to speak to him and provide a sense of meaning and purpose to life. Sitting down to begin their game of chess, Block says to the vision of Death, “As long as I resist you, I live. If I win, you set me free.” Equipped with his white pieces of hope, Block opts to win the battles of doubt through a search for meaning through knowledge.
Turning to the scene of Block attempting to find meaning in the church by going to confession, he neglects confessing any sins, but instead asks a series of existential questions. One of them showing his desperation for meaning through knowledge of God’s existence: “I want knowledge! Not faith, not assumptions, but knowledge.” Furthering the overall theme of opposing forces of light and dark, and the silence that comes with the latter, Block continues saying in the confession booth, “I want God to stretch out His hand, uncover His face and speak to me. But He remains silent. I call out to Him in the darkness.” Again, the unbearable weight of nothingness plagues Block’s hopeful mind; he says, “No one man can live faced with Death, knowing everything’s nothingness.” This scene of confession, which later shows to be a confession of Block’s hopes to his relentless doubts (Death), reveals the latter’s undeniable impact on the former. Exposing a reality, Block says, “We must make an idol of our fear – and that idol we shall call God.” I draw now a quote from Albert Camus that fits all too perfectly to this absurd reality: “Man simply invented God in order not to kill himself” (The Myth of Sisyphus, p. 105). Faced with this absurdity, Block says that he wants to perform one meaningful act. I believe that by striving for such a thing, he unknowingly affirms a life of existential nothingness (Death’s win over his life) and opts to create meaning in the only way he knows how: by imposing meaning on life himself—that is, by helping others. However, it is not until he becomes aware of this inner knowledge that he is freed from doubt.
After this point in the confession, Block evades his unconscious awareness by bringing existential hope into the picture again: He proposes to win the chess game with “a combination of bishop and knight”, feeling a strong hope that he (a knight in the battle of life) will conquer his doubt and the emptiness that lies beneath it by finding a meaning to life through religion (the bishop, in the game). Immediately after Block’s hopeful words, a piercing realization of emptiness protrudes as the character of Death exposes himself to having been in disguise as a priest. Despite Block’s assertive hope that his move will win him the game, doubt emerges from an assumed religious figure as Death shows his white face. Bergman created a powerful scene here for many reasons: one of which is the blackness that drowns the confession area, while the fencing that separates Block and Death casts dark and light checkered shadows against their opposing faces. The brightest moment in the scene is when Death reveals his bitter white face against Block’s hopeful words, proving the entire conversation to be a confession of his own hopes cast deep into the emptiness of his doubts.
Another scene I want to specifically draw into this is the one with Joseph, Mary, and their baby (in another version of the film I saw their names were Mia and Jof, though it seems clear they are to represent a sort of “Holy Family” like that in the Bible) when Block joins them for a simple meal of wild strawberries and fresh milk. The scene begins with Block lying in a field with the chess board next to him—of course, his existential doubt lingering in his mind. He walks away from the game board to join the family in conversation. Sitting in the airy natural landscape that Bergman nicely chose for the scene, Mary offers Block wild strawberries; an offering of natural simplicity. Declining the offer, Block sinks back into his mind’s thoughts, saying, “To believe is to suffer. It is like loving someone in the dark who never answers.” Offering a second time, Block accepts the strawberries from Mary and a genuine smile forms on his face—the first real moment of content seen in Block, as he says, “I shall remember this moment of peace.” For me, this scene showed Block’s realization of a meaning to life in other people. Though the chess board (his mind’s scramble of doubt and hope) was not totally destroyed or defeated, he chose to dismiss it to engage in a generous, simple coexistence. He seemed to find a kind of God in other people; whereas before he admitted an indifference to men.
Continuing the chess game after this scene, Block guards his realization of content in others that he felt in the presence of Joseph, Mary, and their baby, and allows Death to take his knight; to take the white piece that he earlier confessed his hopes on. However, Block faces this reality with a smile and an affirmation, while not submitting to the fear that doubt creates. Death has something else up his sleeve though, foreshadowing his later intentions by asking the whereabouts of Joseph and Mary before smirking mischievously.
Later in the film, Block escorts the family through the forest in the dark of the night. The moon eerily pierces down, casting light for them to see. What they see though is a cart, almost surreal-looking, taking a “witch” to be burned. (Earlier in the film, it is shown that the witch, a young girl, is blamed by religious people for the cause of the Black Plague. In this way, showing the irrationality and cowardly nature of the religious people who are constantly searching for objects to point blame on for life’s unanswerable questions.) Stopping to explore the situation further, Block confronts the “witch” with one of his last pieces of religious hope, asking her if it is true she has seen and been in the company of the Devil, for if she surely has then he would know of a God. She says to look into her eyes for the answer, in which Block sees emptiness and fear. Religious questions are, thus, not something that can be answered by any objective means; one must simply believe if one is to allow hope to conquer their doubts.
Given a moment of respite before their chess game is finished, Death allows Block to pursue a last act before taking him away, in which he opts to visit his wife. To me, this was Block contemplating one last hope to save him from his existential torture; he chose love. At the large, empty castle where his wife was waiting, he does not express an apparent joy at being reunited with her; he is mostly silent. As they all are eating dinner, his wife, Karin, is sitting at the head of the table and reads from the book of Revelation. The sounds in this scene echo the words she reads from the Bible. Realizing that love cannot save him, Block desperately prays one last time, asking for God to speak from the tortuous silence that plagues his life. One of the characters in the scene, a girl who was mute, speaks words from the book of Revelation: “It is finished.”
In the final scenes, Death and Block are to finish their chess game. Death has obvious intentions of taking Joseph, Mary, and the baby along with Block. Joseph awakens and shares in the reality of Death and Block’s chess game. Block, seeing that Joseph experiences this reality as well, knocks over the chess board to distract Death so that the family can escape. This is Block’s one meaningful act that he aspired to perform before submitting to Death. The family can continue life, while Block and a number of other characters are taken away by Death (all characters presenting their own existential dilemmas of emptiness and doubt).
This part of the film can be interpreted in a number of ways. For the sake of concluding my metaphor, I would suggest that Block’s leave with Death implies a sort of religious “suicide” and a realization that it is painful and almost impossible to live a life entirely in one’s thinking and questioning mind; always struggling between forces of light and dark, hope and doubt. By allowing Death to win the chess game, he affirms his doubt and no longer tortures himself with an empty hope for a silent God to speak to him. His physical knocking over of the chess game could symbolize a break from one’s questioning mind in order to help others in a meaningful way (as Block helps the couple and their baby to escape Death, in the film).
A kind of liberating occasion, the film ends with the characters (all remaining aside from the family) led by Death in an infamous Danse Macabre (Dance of Death), silhouetted against a dimly grey horizon. The grey overtones that Bergman used created a sense of unification of light and dark forces together – An acceptance of death and the ambiguity of life as a uniting force over all uncertainties.
It can be seen in a counter-perspective that Bergman did not mean to offer a, more or less, conclusive view such as the one I presented. The film, indeed, raises heavy existential questions. Perhaps the purpose of the film was to expose viewers to these questions so that they may find the answers in themselves. It is easy to see that belief and faith become realities for many religious people, and no one of us is in a position to condemn others for their values (though I, personally, would dispute some of them). Other people may see the film as praising religion and punishing the non-believers (both those who choose not to believe and those who cannot find a means for belief). In this way, Joseph, Mary, and their baby would really symbolize the Holy Family as those who prosper in the peace of their faith while the others are taken away by Death. Even then, it is not the Devil who takes them away, but it is Death. Death admits to know neither of a God nor of a Devil. Similarly, the Devil does not make any appearance except for the religious people’s creation of such through their looking to place blame (as seen by the “witch” who was seen to be the start of the Black Plague and the Devil’s silent advocate for the loss of so many to the Plague). In my opinion, the film (like many great works of art) can be shaped according to each individual viewer’s perspectives on life; likewise, it can help shape viewers’ perspectives by offering existential questions that, when applied to each individual’s experiences, can give birth to unique meaning for him or her.