The Seventh Seal: examining a man’s crisis of faith and his quest for meaning to his existence

Ingmar Bergman, “The Seventh Seal / Det Sjunde Inseglet” (1957)

Set in Sweden during the Black Death (1347 – 1350), this famous film examines a man’s crisis of faith and his personal quest for meaning to life and a reason to go on living when around him suffering, violence and death can strike suddenly, randomly and senselessly. The film is also a criticism of formal religion, the beliefs its priests or their equivalents proclaim and more or less coerce their flocks to follow, and how formal belief systems and ideologies can collapse so quickly after a major disaster like a disease epidemic. Having returned from the Crusades, the knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) is on his way home with his squire Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand) when he meets Death (Bengt Ekerot) on a beach. Block challenges Death to a chess game: if he can keep the game going by fair means or foul, he can earn extra time to find God and a meaning to his existence. Death, kept busy by plague victims dropping like flies, and not a little proud of his prowess as chess grandmaster, agrees to the challenge. Block successfully plays Death to check, and Death allows him respite.

During this period, Block and Jons meet several characters who attach themselves to the pair who promise to save them from the plague. Block meets a young family of actors and troubadours, Jof (Nils Poppe) who has visions, Mia (Bib Andersson) who cares for their baby son Mikael, and their manager Skat. Jons rescues a young woman from her would-be rapist whom Jons recognises as theologian Raval who, ten years earlier, had urged him and Block to join the crusade to the Holy Land. Jons’ disgust at seeing Raval suggests that he believes Raval to be a charlatan and liar for having sent knights on what turned out to be a futile and unnecessary quest of suffering and sacrifice. Later, Jons also saves Jof from Raval’s vicious behaviour and wounds the theologian. Skat has a fling with a blacksmith’s wife Lisa but she ends the affair and returns to her husband. Meanwhile Death pursues all of them.

The historical setting is not intended to be accurate, it is a metaphor and allegory, and all the characters are symbolic. The young family represents Joseph, Mary and the child Jesus: the embodiment of hope. Block is the man on a quest and Jons is his cynical atheist shadow. Raval represents the hypocrisy of religion. Other minor characters such as a girl (Maud Hansson) condemned to death for suspected witchcraft perhaps represent fear, ignorance and superstitious belief, and their tragic consequences. The acting ranges from fair to good to the often hammy, depending on the scene as the film features comedy, tragedy and melodrama in equal measures, but the major actors at least give their best to their roles.

Although Block cannot save himself and not all his questions are answered to his satisfaction, he does make good use of the time he gains by saving the young family from Death’s clutches and comforting the accused witch in the last moments of her life. In this act of gratitude for their hospitality, Block perhaps discovers the meaning of life and existence: our existence will have meaning only through our actions towards one another and to all other actors in our environment. Through his actions, Block expresses the compassion of God, a silent presence in much of the film (and to which the film’s title is an oblique reference).

Not a bad film but in my opinion this is not as good as “Wild Strawberries” which treated similar themes on a more intimate level – for such an iconic and mostly even-tempered film, the melodrama can be very heavy and bombastic. As the characters play symbolic roles, they lack depth and Block’s anguish may not appear very genuine to modern audiences. There isn’t much back-story to Block so viewers get no sense of how empty he might be at the beginning of the film, how spiritually dead and useless he feels, and so any triumph he achieves by the time he is claimed by Death has a reduced impact.

 

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