Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal: faith, salvation and the true meaning of life

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This article reveals the plot and the explanation of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, focusing on the meanings and the events described. We recommend to read only after watching the movie, not before, in order to not lose the joy of the first vision.

“What is there after death?”: all the questions that the man has posed throughout his life can all be enclosed in this one question. There is no life without death, everything starts from it: all the philosophies, all the sciences, everything starts from the comparison with the end of our existence. Already taking only into consideration the magnitude of the question posed, we define the absolute masterpiece of Ingmar Bergman, the best Swedish director of history: The Seventh Seal (1957). The opera needs an analysis that starts from his more explicative sequences; before we lead it, however, we throw an initial look at it.

We assume that the movie comes from a Bergman’s theatrical pièces of the same Bergman: Wood Painting (to deepen the complex relationship of the filmmaker with the theatre, we recommend our article on Persona). In fact the story proceeds from painting to painting: using The Middle Ages as context, the filmmaker chooses a medieval means of expression, that is the allegory.

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Bergman directs the Death.

The medieval context then becomes fundamental for the presence of the plague that gives the world an apocalyptic scenario, in which people becomes figures of the different ways that the human being has to relate to pestilence, and therefore to death .

“And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour. And I saw the seven angels which stood before God; and to them were given seven trumpets. And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer [it] with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, [which came] with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel’s hand. And the angel took the censer, and filled it with fire of the altar, and cast [it] into the earth: and there were voices, and thunderings, and lightnings, and an earthquake. And the seven angels which had the seven trumpets prepared themselves to sound.”

Bergman uses the journey’s theme to conduct his analysis of the most important issue of humanity. The journey is the one towards home, after the Crusades, and the protagonist is Antonius Block, accompanied by his loyal squire Jöns.

So let’s start analyzing the most significant scenes of the work.

Let’s start from the beginning, and then from the most famous scene of the entire film: the chess game with death. The personified death appears in front of Antonius Block, the protagonist then proposes to start a game of chess to “know to what extent he will be able to resist him, and if giving checkmate to Death can save his life“. The game with death is a metaphor of the awareness of the end of life, so it is the moment of balances and doubts: looking in the face of death Antonius realizes what is the sense of his life. At the filmic level we can already see the director’s intentions: the light of the photography director Gunnar Fischer flattens the plans; moreover, the crossfades cancel the historical contextualization and the linear perception of time, giving a sense of absolute and abstract.

Remaining within the relationship between death and the protagonist, we move on to the most important scene of the film, the one where Antonius Block confesses to a friar, not knowing that the confessor is the death itself. The confession, however, assumes different traits from the ordinary: in fact it’s not the friar to ask the confessed, but it is the same confessed to ask questions, through the confessor, to something immanent:

“s it so hard to conceive God with one’s senses? Why must He hide in a midst of vague promises and invisible miracles? How are we to believe the believers when we don’t believe ourselves? What will become of us who want to believe but cannot? And what of those who neither will nor can believe? Why can I not kill God within me? Why does He go on living in a painful, humiliating way? I want to tear Him out of my heart, but He remains a mocking reality which I cannot get rid of. Do you hear me?”

Antonius Block is the figure of the modern believing man, who, unlike the medieval man, no longer blindly believes in a logical system that explains the creation and the functioning of the world, but he’s doubtful about the real existence of something after death. Modern man is grippeded by the consciousness of his own impossibility in knowing: he seeks in vain for an answer to the absolute doubt, which unfortunately is impossible to find, and it’s thanks to this doubt that he carries on his own infinite and conflicting knowledge’s process.

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Antonius Block imprisoned in life.

At the profilm level, the most interesting detail from the staging is surely the confessional’s grid that divides the protagonist from the Death: it becomes a metaphor of life as a prison of a spirit that tries to free itself towards the absolute. It could be interesting comparing The Seventh Seal with Pickpocket (1959), by Robert Bresson. Bergman and Bresson share many things: they are both believers and revolutionary filmmakers, the first true modernists in movie’s history.

A minimalist stage, a profilmic that seems to cage the protagonist in a prison, very few words, a games of looks and gestures, the details that define the existence, crossfades in order to remove linearity and give a circular and absolute sense of time: this is Pickpocket. In his masterpiece, Bresson tells the story of an intellectual who decides to become a thief in an attempt of seeking the sense of his life, a meaning that he will find in the last scene, which brings us back to Antonius Block’s confession scene.

Oh, Jeanne, to reach you at last, what a path I had to take

Jeanne is the symbol of salvation, the bars of the prison where the boy was locked up after being discovered, are the symbol of the carnal cage of the earthly life in which the soul is forced to live. The life as a prison: this is the great metaphor of Bresson’s cinema, which we find as one of the many allegories present in Bergman’s cinema, which has a much more dubious faith than its French contemporary.

If Antonius Block is a figure of the modern believing man, the squire Jöns is a figure of the modern atheist man: he does not believe in hell and in heaven, he does not believe in love. Looking back at the Crusades, he finds no sense in passing his own existence to fight in the name of a god that was invented by man and that does not really exist.

Interesting is the moment of the scene in which Jöns looks at his self-portrait made on a wooden tablet, describing himself: it is a transposition of the theme of the mirror in the medieval context; looking at the “mirror” he laughs at the lack of meaning of life.

But then, what is the meaning of life? Is existence really something totally senseless to laugh over? If for Jöns is so, Block in this scene seems to understand what is the true meaning of life: to appreciate the little things:

“I shall remember this moment: the silence, the twilight, the bowl of strawberries, the bowl of milk. Your faces in the evening light. Mikael asleep, Jof with his lyre. I shall try to remember our talk. I shall carry this memory carefully in my hands as if it were a bowl brimful of fresh milk. It will be a sign to me, and a great sufficiency.”

In fact, the knight lives a brief moment of peace and serenity simply by sharing strawberries and fresh milk with Jof and Mia (husband and wife), a pair of actors that he’s just met. This discovery will make Block lose interest in the chess game with the death, that he’s going to lose.

Jof and Mia (played by Bergman’s muse, Bibi Andersson) are a couple of basic characters. The two are married, and with their son Mikael they’ve have been seen by many critics as the figure of the Holy Family. But I would like to focus more on another characteristic of the couple, that the director puts definitely more in light: the two are the custodians of art, art that is seen as a real act of faith. Witnesses of the mystical breath that pervades the artist are surely the visions of Jof, whose “world of angels and devils can not be understood by common people“. In fact Jof is mocked to the inn by a corrupt priest, symbol of the church that censors expression’s freedom, and from the blacksmith Plog, symbol of the common journeyman that can not fully understand the artistic expression.

In the scene above everything is summarized precisely, the preacher attacks and admonishes several subjects, who are figures of different types of human being: all of us are symbolically beyond the line of his gaze, so we are all symbolically attacked by him. But Jof and Mia are behind the preacher, separated from us by the crucified Christ, and so Jof and Mia are the bearers of art, and art is eternal and absolute.

The time has come: death comes to take Block and his friends, but not Jof and Mia, who have escaped earlier. A wonderful moment arrives just before the arrival of death: you hear knocking at the door, so Jöns goes to see who it is, but in reality there is no one (this is the simbol of the lack of sense of life).

But this moment seems contradicted in the final scene of the sequence, where the various characters look at the death’s face. Between the despair of Block and the bitterness of Jöns, it’s good to highlight the attitude of Jöns accompanying girl, who had been mute up to that time. Therefore, according to Bergman, hope seems to be the true unwavering virtue facing the abyss on the nothing of death.

And then we arrive at the concluding sequence of the work. As anticipated, Jof, Mia and Mikael, previously fled after seeing Block playing chess with Death (the artist, thanks to his faith, can see the supernatural), are the only characters to stay alive. So next to art, for Bergman the family seems to be eternal and immortal.

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The macabre dance of death.

More than just a film, The Seventh Seal is a complex work that wonders about the true sense of being in the world, and does it substantially without taking positions: it paints in a gigantic fresco all the different human figures, saving at the end (and this is an almost obligatory position for the artist) only the couple of actors, the custodians of art and therefore the custodians of true faith, of the true meaning of life.

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