On journey in search of God: Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” (1957)

Existence of the mighty God, overlooking the world we live in and cruelly deciding our fate, is something that the humanity has questioned for centuries. Unconditional love, helpless mistrust and absolute negation are continuous states that people tend to choose when it comes to the question of God. Ingmar Bergman has shared his take on this dilemma with his critically acclaimed “The Seventh Seal”. One thing could not be denied – this film is one of the most important works in the history of cinema and it has earned this place rightfully.

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“The Seventh Seal” is a film based on Bergman’s own play and the story takes place in medieval Sweden, ravaged by the plague or “The Black Death”. Film starts with scenery of a beach and two men laying in there – Antonius Block and his comrade Jons. The space of beach creates somewhat claustrophobic feeling, makes the audience alert and curious, where these two gentlemen are going to go? Antonius and Jons are knights, who are back to their homeland after unsuccessful Crusades, that they set out to in order to find salvation. However, suddenly before Antonius, Death makes an appearance. Coming in a presence of man, with very pale face and long black robe, that makes Death resemble a monk. Death informs Antonius that his time has come and he will be taken away, but to everyone’s surprise, the Knight challenges Death for a chess game. Death seems to be excited and accepts the challenge, which could spare Antonius’ life. This challenge to me seemed somewhat as trying to cheat Death, in order to gain time to do something that has not been done, which later in film appears to be true.

Antonius is a devoted servant of God, however, this film depicts his doubts about his faith. Is God real? Why they would not answer? When Antonius got back from the Crusades to Sweden, he found his country swallowed by Black Death and it only strengthened his resentment and mistrust towards God. He cheated on Death in order to find the real, naked knowledge about the creator and find out, why God has never answered him? Antonius is a noble knight, man of his word and he all he seems to want is reassurance from God about his undying love. The way his heart is tearing apart and his desperate search of knowledge reminds me that of Dostoevsky – he has been too, tormented about the existence of God. Interestingly, Bergman and Dostoevsky have a similar background; both of them were brought up in very religious families under a lot of scrutiny and strictness. I feel like “The Seventh Seal” has reflected a lot of what Bergman had in his heart for many years.

In contrast to Antonius Block, other characters in this film are reaching different kind of extremities. His companion, Jon, is nihilistic, in constant negation of what Antonius seems to believe in. To him, it seems that life and death are not of a matter anymore, he is laid back and he is not waiting for anything, letting his time to pass. Then, there is another extremity, a family of actors, husband and wife with a small child. Their naivete and simple happiness is the delight of this dark film. They are not questioning God or things that are happening around them, they love and enjoy being together. When Antonius meets this family we can see him smiling and indulging in conversation in a carefree manner. The family eases up his concerns and lets him forget his anxiety for some time. Even the lighting in these scenes is the clearest and sunniest it can get; Bergman emphasized the sweetness and happiness found in the ignorance and naivety.

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What strikes me the most with this film is the use of shadows and lightning, which Bergman is famous for. The lightning in this black&white picture is that of a silent horror movie; Bergman creates misery, fear and hope. When Death makes an appearance, the lightning tends to be mysterious, and at the same time haunting, especially in the last moments of the film, to be honest I could feel shiver down my spine.

Another interesting element of this film is the usage of Christianity symbolism. The name of the film and the opening and closing verses are coming from The Book of Revelation. The Seventh Seal refers to the last seal binding the scroll of God, which once opened, all secrets about God will be revealed and apocalypse will befall. In the last moments of this film, Antonius with his group are sitting for the last supper and reading the Book of Revelation, and then upon this, Death makes its appearance. One of the characters that Jons brought into the group, a mute woman, utters the only words of hers in this film saying “It is done”, that are also the last words of Jesus Christ. With these words, film is being closed by the last scene of Death dragging the other characters to the other side.

While “Seventh Seal” could be interpreted in various ways, this film seemed like the paradigm of the life and death, grace and punishment, hope and despair. Human’s life is a continuous roller-coaster of happy and sad times. The happiest ones in this film appear to be the most ignorant ones, the ones who constantly seek answers and enlightenment are the ones struggling the most.

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