“When he broke open the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour”. – Revelations 8:1.
The silence referred to in Revelations, and explored throughout Bergman’s existential film, The Seventh Seal, is the silence of God. The Seventh Seal is a reminder that faith and fear – especially a fear of death, while not tangible in any sense, are still driving forces in our lives. With its beautiful cinematography and use of the stunning Swedish landscape, you cannot help but to see man as a part of the overlapping supernatural and natural world that is, in all ways and at all times, overshadowed by death.
In the Middle Ages life was hard; people frequently died young and the Apocalypse always appeared imminent. Plagues were common, as was war, and witchcraft was greatly feared. Religion was pretty much everything; the church had an extraordinary amount of power and influence over people’s lives. For many the church was far from a positive influence, launching crusades as ‘Holy Wars’, and burning thousands (if not more) innocent men and women as scapegoats for any and every type of misfortune. If God or Death plays chess with men’s souls, then so too did the Mediaeval church. It is this which Bergman has tapped into with his allegorical portrayal of the Middle Ages in The Seventh Seal.
The film centres on the ongoing chess game between Antonious Block, a Swedish Knight who has returned from the crusades, and Death. It is Block who initiates the game, and despite the fact that the viewer desperately wants Block to win, we know that just isn’t possible, yet we carefully follow the emotional rollercoaster of a game that is played out before us. Ultimately the main character in The Seventh Seal, Antonious Block, has always been a pawn in someone else’s chess game, as indeed has the witch who is being burned at the stake, and pawns are often sacrificed to achieve some end or other. The fact that the film is black and white, like the chess pieces and the board, is deeply appealing on both a visual and emotional level. Yet life is not clearly black and white; within the film, the plot and the characters show us a multitude of grey tones.
Death was, and is, frequently anthropomorphised; in the Middle Ages he was everywhere, walking the land and cutting away lives with his scythe at the time dictated by the hourglass of life. Many depictions of Death in skeletal or human form are shown in Mediaeval church murals, such as the one at Täby Church, north of Stockholm, which Bergman cites as one of his influences for the film. In The Seventh Seal this process is taken one step further and we literally see Death as his own character, a cunning being who employs clever, and even low, tactics, because in the end he always wins. As Death himself says “Nothing escapes me. No one escapes me.” The portrayal of Death is almost as a stand in for God and the Devil, neither of whom we meet during the film in any perceivable form. We are constantly challenged to ask ourselves if indeed either God or the Devil exist, or it is just Death who exists?
It is intriguing that Death presents himself in the form of clergy in the film; he is the monk to whom the soldier refers Block, and he is the Priest in the confessional to whom Block speaks about his strategy for the chess game, and his cowl and cloak is very much like the dress of the clergy. There is something very wrong about his appearing in this way for there is something almost demonic about Death. He seems less than pleasant, enjoying his role a little too much, as when cutting down the tree that Jonas Skatis is hiding in. However, what makes it most uncomfortable for the viewer is that Death does not care for the good or bad in men’s souls, all fall to his scythe regardless.
In his desperate search for God, Block is not fussy about who he converses with; he speaks to Death and questions him repeatedly about God, and in speaking with the witch we can see Block’s increasing desperation to connect with God when he reveals that he would even speak to the Devil in order to find out more. For the duration of the film Block appears to linger between life and death, for Block is already doomed to die, it’s just a matter of when and how. In this liminal zone there is no shining light or loving relatives to greet you, only fear and darkness; Block comments that he sees only darkness ahead, as does the witch burning at the stake. This make the viewer wonder, where is the promised afterlife? Does it even exist?
Whereas Block sees only emptiness and darkness, Jof sees light and hope; it’s an elegant juxtaposition of two ways of perceiving life and the after-life. Jof’s faith is simple – he just believes, while Block constantly engages his head over his heart, doubting and questioning his own belief at every stage. Block needs to experience God in a very real, tangible way, “I want knowledge. Not belief. Not surmise. But knowledge. I want God to put out His hand, show His face, speak to me.” Both Jof and Block can see beyond the normal realm and provide two very different viewpoints: Block sees only Death and darkness, but Jof with his second sight, sees Saints, Angels and even the Virgin Mary taking a stroll, as well as seeing Death.
Despite the humour and light entertainment provided by Jof, and the wry comments of squire Jöns, The Seventh Seal retains a gothic, noir tone with its focus on death, the fear of death and the fear of what actually lies beyond death. Darkness pervades the film. Even the light-hearted play is interrupted by the dark and disturbing message of the flagellants that everyone is doomed, which, of course, they are. There is a longing, a lonely darkness within Block that has come about because of what he witnessed on crusade and what he now witnesses at home with people turning on each other and the light of the church being somewhat less than radiant. Block seeks to bring light, and faith, in to get rid of this darkness and his nagging fears about the existence of God. He calls out to God in full awareness of this,“Out of the darkness we call to thee, O Lord!” Block desperately want to believe and to know God, yet to him God always remains elusive, “Why must he always hide behind unseen miracles and vague promises and hints about eternity?” Block is caught between believing and not believing, and feels tormented by God, “Why can’t I kill God within me? Why does he live on inside me, mocking and tormenting me till I have no rest”. Block needs God, but what he gets instead is Death at every turn, and Death frustratingly neither confirms or denies the existence of God. In this Death torments him just as much as God, but it is God that Block rallies against to the last.
The character and look of Death in The Seventh Seal, as well as his penchant for playing games, have greatly influenced subsequent portrayals. His trickster nature, the ghostly whitened face, and the black cloak and cowl are motifs, even markers, of Death. In the final scene of The Dove (1968) – itself a parody of Bergman’s work – Death and Inga engage in a game of badminton, and the scene’s cinematography is a clear tribute to Bergman’s work. In 1993 French and Saunders parodied the chess game beautifully, with a very nonchalant, polite chat between Death and Block about the weather and such things, rather than the existence – or not – of God. In Woody Allen’s Death Knocks, again the mood is somewhat lighter and the game chosen is gin rummy. In Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991), Death, again with whitened face and black cloak and cowl, plays a series of games against Bill and Ted, including Twister and Battleship. Perhaps though the most wonderfully grim homage is found in Last Action Hero (1993), where the Death from The Seventh Seal – which is playing in the cinema – somehow leaves the screen and enters reality.
Block’s endless questioning, about God and about Religion, is as relevant today as ever it was, in either the Middle Ages or when the film was made. Is God there? Why is God silent? Does he really exist or is it our own wishful, hopeful thinking? Is Death the only one who exists? When will he take us? What happens after Death has claimed us, is there a Heaven, a Hell or just dark nothingness? Is life just a “meaningless search”? The Seventh Seal poses these questions, and many more, as it challenges us to consider our own ideas of Death as well as our own faith – or lack thereof – in a truly haunting and grim way. The only thing we do know is that Death will come for us and that even the best of us, or the most cunning, cannot escape him… Life is the game, and Death is the end result.