By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published July 24, 2014
“Evil,” Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be endured.”
The same might be said of death; in fact, O’Connor also wrote that preparing for death may actually be the Christian’s greatest creative act.
We are all of us going to die; I know that, and you know that, but most of us who seriously consider the prospect are likely to proclaim, as did Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich, “I don’t want to!”
The mystery of death is one of the most compelling subjects in 20th-century literature and film, and of world cinema’s many treatments of the theme, Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 “The Seventh Seal” must surely rank as one of the finest.
Bergman’s film has entered the realm of modern iconography; in the film’s most famous shot—death and a knight playing chess on a beach—Bergman composed one of the most familiar images in modern film. Even those who have not seen the movie recognize immediately the scene and understand as well the basic premise of the film: though we know we cannot outwit death, our human nature compels us to at least make the effort.
The film’s plot is simple. While travelling home from a long campaign in the 14th-century Crusades, knight Antonious Block and his squire have stopped to rest on a rocky beach. When Block awakes, he immediately attempts to pray, but his prayers are interrupted by the sudden appearance of Death, surely one of the most striking entrances in all of cinema. Death has come at last for Block; as he says, he has been at Block’s side for a long time. Block announces that while his flesh may be afraid, he is not, and yet he can’t help himself; he pleads for a second chance.
“You all say that,” replies Death, “but I give no respite.”
Yet Block is clever. He knows that Death is a chess player, and Block just so happens to have a chessboard and pieces. He challenges Death to a game; should Block win, he lives, while if Death wins, he will have Block’s soul.
The game commences, interrupted throughout the film by a series of memorable episodes and the introduction of some other key characters.
Among the most important of the supporting roles are those of Joseph and Mary and their infant son Michael. Joseph and Mary are part of a small band of traveling minstrels. They put on plays, perform acrobatics and busk about the countryside for a meager living. They are as happy as Block is miserable. Further, Joseph has the gift of being a visionary; he sees visions, even a full-fledged apparition of the Virgin Mary and the Baby Jesus.
Block is destined to encounter Mary and Joseph, and along with some other minor characters, they attempt to travel to Block’s castle. The chess game goes on all the while, until at last it reaches its inevitable conclusion.
This simple plot, along with the archetypal situation of a “game with death,” make the film timeless, another installment in one of humanity’s long struggle to understand our mortality.
Yet the film becomes more compelling than most other treatments of this subject because of Bergman’s modern perspective and because of Bergman’s religious beliefs.
The most striking thing about “The Seventh Seal” is that Bergman sets his modern film against the backdrop of the Middle Ages, an era in which everything was centered upon the Christian mystery. In this age of faith, the Church was the center of society, and most people lived life according to a simple creed of living fully in the world while remaining spiritually detached from it. Life was short; eternity came soon, and people lived accordingly. The great writers of the Medieval period—Chaucer and Dante among them—recognized fully this idea, and Bergman understands it as well.
Yet Bergman is a modern artist; he therefore imposes upon the medieval setting problems that are thoroughly modern. The questions are endless. Does God exist? “I cry to him in the dark but there seems to be no one there,” says Block. Does life have purpose? “My whole life has been a meaningless search,” laments Block. Is there forgiveness, redemption, salvation? Is there communion? Block finds the answers to these questions in the company of Mary, Joseph and Michael.
Bergman, then, working in an age of anxiety and outright doubt, challenges the modern viewer to accept the possibility that life is not without purpose, that we are called to something more than mere existence, that eternity is neither void nor abyss but perhaps, instead, joy.
Bergman was the son of a Lutheran minister, and his stark Scandinavian religious upbringing instilled within his imagination a strong Christian sensibility. In most of his best films, Bergman grapples with issues of faith. Never pious, never didactic, his films constitute one of the 20th century’s most empathetic dialogues with belief.
Indeed, the introduction to the script of “The Seventh Seal” contains a remarkable testament to Bergman’s own struggle with faith: “Regardless of my own beliefs, and my own doubts, it is my opinion that art lost its basic creative drive the moment it was separated from worship. In former days the artist remained unknown and his work was to the glory of God. The ability to create was a gift.”
In the modern age, however, there has been a dramatic shift. Instead of working for God and for others, Bergman writes that “the artist now considers his isolation, his subjectivity, his individualism almost holy. We have become so limited by our own anxieties that we can no longer distinguish between true and false.”
Bergman uses the image of the great medieval cathedrals as a model for what art should be—collaborative, communal and made for the joy of the making. Bergman concludes, “I would play my part in the collective building of the cathedral.”
“The Seventh Seal” is not, however, a nostalgic return to some lost glorious age. If anything, it underscores the universality of our search for meaning and our endless struggle to understand suffering.
In the midst of a world that is literally dying of the plague, Bergman affirms that death is not an end but a beginning. Antonious Block gradually comes to understand this, but it is Joseph, whose final vision we are allowed to share, who fully embraces this mystery.
In the film’s last great shot, Death leads Block, the squire, and others over a ridge to the “dark lands,” not in a funeral procession, but instead in a dance.
David A. King, Ph.D., is an associate professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and an adjunct faculty member at Spring Hill College, Atlanta. He is also the director of adult education at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta