The challenge for any writer of film criticism is figuring out how to properly dissect and articulate their thoughts about what’s being presented before them. Doing so isn’t just a matter of having an opinion, posting it to social media, and claiming you’re now someone to be taken seriously. No, criticism means understanding two fundamental aspects. First, all art is subjective. The second, the best art, is selfish. It owes you nothing and in no way has to take into account your worldview or sensibilities. The best films force you to ponder a deeper meaning and challenge you in some way. This isn’t limited to transgressive forms of art; it can be found virtually anywhere. The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet, 1957) is just such a film. Reducing one to an existential state where everything we conceive as reality becomes questionable.
Ingmar Bergman’s film about Antonius Block (Max Von Sydow), a knight returning to Sweden after taking part in the crusades, and his attempt to quite literally “cheat: Death, (Bengt Ekerot) by defeating him in a game of chess, is so well known that it’s firmly ingrained into popular culture. Bill and Ted, The Animaniacs, The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy, and other forms of entertainment have had appearances from a reaper with a Swedish accent. This certainly speaks to the cultural impact of a film made in 1957 when even children’s programming tips its hat to Bergman’s finest work as a director.
The purpose of this analytical offering is not one of recounting pop culture references. Instead, I hope to pry open the hollow shell of existential dread that so many fall prey to and look at Bergman’s ability to use the medium of film to pose the questions that so many of us ask ourselves. Death asks Block at one point, “Do you ever stop questioning?” We’ve only just begun…
To begin this examination, we must first examine our main character. Antonius Block, a knight returning from a conflict whose entire purpose is ordained by the Catholic church to conquer the holy land. This explanation is straightforward and rather limiting in its definition. With our modern ways of thinking, it’s simple to dismiss the thought that whether or not the world was created by and ruled over by a transcendental entity could cause uncertainty so severe as to leave us in a state of dread.
While doubt and uncertainty are aspects of being human that have existed from the very beginning and still exist today, the thought process from centuries ago is completely foreign to us. Think back to Haxan (Heksan, 1922). Another film from Sweden delves into the concepts of religion and belief. Block is of a time period when God and Satan and the forces tied to both were not concepts or parables but a part of the physical reality we inhabit.
The fact that Block is consumed by doubt and uncertainty is existential, yes. Still, it also presents to the audience the concept that reality is no longer a foundation of facts but something as subjective as art itself. Amid this period of time is also the epidemic of bubonic plague, known throughout Europe as the Black Death. For a society whose faith in their god was considered unquestionable, a disease bearing the similarity of the plagues that ravaged Ancient Egypt must have been a sign of imminent destruction and the end of times and the appearance of the horseman of the apocalypse. This is the environment that Block is a part of, and the uncertainty of the reality that he has long perceived is all-consuming.
The representation of death itself breaks from the usual conceptions often associated with the being. The skeletal figure wielding a scythe is replaced by a human being clothed in a black robe. Transposing this figure from lore and mythology into our world and giving his human form strongly reinforces the concept that death is very much a part of our physical reality. Death explaining to Block that he has “been at his side for a long time” suggests that this physical manifestation is a fundamental part of the human experience.
In this world where the spiritual and physical realities are believed to be the same, we also have a band of actors, Jof (Nils Poppe) and his wife, Mia (Bibi Andersson). If Block represents the dread that comes with uncertainty and the necessity to question and doubt what’s presented as reality, then Jof is representative of the Fool from the tarot deck. Bestowed with the gift of second sight, his journey through life is willfully oblivious to plight and suffering and lives a life of contentment. Some scholars have equated Jof and Mia as physical representations of Joseph and Mary. While it’s certainly a conclusion that’s understandable, especially as they are the parents of a young child, I firmly believe that their presence in the film has less to do with a link to the bible and more with human nature and its want of a distraction from the horrors of the world.
Perhaps Bergman’s greatest attribute as a director was to contrast two opposing subjects with each other. This practice is throughout the film, and nowhere is it more apparent than in the experiences of Jof and Mia. Their simple bliss is a stark contrast to that of Block, who continually attempts to ascertain the knowledge of the reality in which he finds himself. This practice is not lost on the devotees of Bergman, in particular the late Wes Craven. The Last House on the Left (1972), an adaptation of Bergman’s film, The Virgin Spring (Jungfrukällan, 1960), utilizes contrast to depict the harsh realities of the Vietnam war by displaying images of intense violence against upbeat music and comical sequences.
A scene of a similar juxtaposition can be seen where Jof and Mia are entertaining a group of townspeople by performing a comedic routine with music. The laughter and whimsy of the performance and the overall tone of the scene is interrupted by a procession of self-flagellating individuals. Carrying a likeness of Christ on their back, the mournful cries of agony and chorus transform the scene into one of piety. The townspeople, who were joyous and filled with laughter just moments ago, fall to their knees in prayer. The whole sequence illustrates the method in which entertainment provides an escape from the real horrors of reality. The procession, crashing the spectacle of entertainment, can possibly be interpreted as the contrast between joyous entertainment and escapism against the harsh and unforgiving reality that overshadows our attempt at enjoying ourselves.
Much of The Seventh Seal shares this same relationship with its audience. While providing entertainment to the spectator, it doesn’t shy away from the type of questions we find ourselves stricken by. Even moments that are macabre and usually morbid are interspersed with whimsy. Life and death are seamlessly played against one another in a way that reflects our reality. For every moment, we feel dread and find ourselves looking within to find the answers to what we don’t know; we also feel the need to escape from the harshness that existence forces upon us. Like Block, we question life and the aspects that cause grief. And like Jof and Mia, we want so much to have the feeling of contentment and see the glass half full. Whichever state of mind you find yourself gravitating towards, Bergman left us a film that manages to encapsulate perfectly and represent both.