Bergman’s The Seventh Seal holds all the answers, yet none at all

The game of chess between Death and the Knight

A knight has returned from the Crusades and is at a crossroads. He is faced with Death, yet needs time to do one meaningful act. To buy more time, he challenges Death to a game of chess, at the end of which, the winner shall have his way. His homecoming is a dismal one, with skulls lying around, and bodies consumed by the plague.

Death

On reaching a chapel, the disillusioned knight turns to the priest and asks him about the existence of God, His stark absence on being called out, and the difficulties involved in obliterating His existence from within himself. He seeks the truth, one which can be seen, not just felt. His squire, Jons, a talkative man, is talking to a painter who has been painting the Dance of Death on the chapel walls. It is a light conversation, in contrast to the topic of discussion, which surprisingly adds weight to the scene, apart from being a delightful one.

The painter painting the Dance of Death in church

A small troupe of actors is camping, not far off, when one of the actors, Jof, has a vision of Holy virgin Mary and rushes inside the camp to relate the incident to his wife. His faith in his visions is as inexplicable as life itself, where no one understands it, yet he believes in it. They are a happy couple, with a child, who perform plays wherever they go and make a living. They are joined by the knight on their journey and Death stealthily follows.

Set in the middle ages, when the plague was spreading like a wildfire and fear had replaced all emotions, The Seventh Seal is a quest for the meaning of life. With the knight bereft of his belief in the Crusades, he is at the altar of Death, questioning life. To make sense of the catastrophe that falls upon humanity, man punishes himself and sees his sufferings as a punishment from God. Here, we see flagellants on the roads, scaring people while scarring their bodies.

It is a frightening sight, yet makes a compelling case of how we make an idol out of our fear and call it God. — Tweet this
The actor couple, Jof and Mia

Ingmar Bergman, the director, gives his actors the space to soak themselves in their own worlds, yet creates a harmony out of their different tunes. While watching this revelation, you sense a man holding the reins of the film, guiding the audience into his space, yet making it socially relevant with the backdrop chosen to portray his most potent thoughts and fears. Like a master craftsman, he designs each scene with a visceral beauty to it, conveying more than what is said on screen. Scenes are suggestive of something deeper, yet can be taken on the face value, making the story a whole.

The narrative, despite being linear, has conflicting opinions, sewn beautifully into a Black attire which can be worn not just at a funeral. It is remarkable how he finds humor in the most unusual of the scenes, specially with the knight, giving his character a dull charm. Bergman talks about the final day, when you face your end, and seek answers. Death, being the final chapter, contains the last words, suggestive of what lies beyond.

We all have a constant companion walking beside us, all along. Our lives are spent trying to checkmate that company, yet it beats us at our game, every single time. We spend years thinking of different strategies, trying to understand our opponent better, questioning and obsessing over it, to make the end a meaningful one. The pages allotted to us are left blank, in search of the secret at the very last page. What if the last page is a blank?

And when the Lamb opened the Seventh Seal, there was in heaven a silence which lasted about the space of half an hour.

Trivia:

Bergman credited the film with helping him overcome his crippling fear of death. The film dealt so overtly with the subject, that he found it a highly cathartic experience.

He began writing the screenplay for the film while he was in Stockholm’s Karolinska Hospital, recovering from a stomach complaint.

The title is a Biblical quotation from The Revelation of St. John the Divine, chapter 8.


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