How Ingmar Bergman masterpiece ‘The Seventh Seal’ teaches us to accept death
The Seventh Seal is a unique film, a picture that has connected deeply with audiences all over the world and throughout time, becoming a true cinema classic. A primary reason for this can be attributed to its ideology and outlook; it’s universal themes allow Ingmar Bergman’s work to resonate with the innermost thoughts of its audience.
The film, conceived during a crisis of faith Bergman was experiencing at the time, deals heavily with themes relating to religious doubt and loss of faith. Bergman channelled his own feelings through the principle character of Antonius Block, a knight caught between the twin aggressors of war and plague, as he returns from the crusades to a homeland fraught with despair. Due to what he has witnessed, Block finds himself no longer able to believe. Faith being a mechanism which had previously protected him from the reality of the inevitable, he is now forced to confront life’s only true certainty: death.
Death is such a tangible presence in The Seventh Seal, one that manifests itself as a physical, human form. In the film’s first scene, Antonius Block meets death on the beach; Block proclaims that while his body is ready to die, his mind is not, and they commence their familiar chess match. Death, as depicted in The Seventh Seal, has an ominous presence, but is also in possession of a sense of humour, an attribute he displays in this and subsequent exchanges. Throughout the picture, he builds up an almost friendly relationship with Block. After all, the crusader is by now very familiar with the idea of death. It could be argued that in making the theme an entity in the physical realm, Bergman is conveying Block’s mental state to us through the surreal. However, whether or not this version of death is an illusion, it is clearly expressing closeness between humanity and the beyond. Block strikes a bargain by which, upon winning the chess match, he will be allowed to live. Unsurprisingly, this plan feels futile from the start.
In a church not long after, Antonius Block decides to express his religious concerns to a priest and confesses with fervent despair. On one level, you could take Block’s impassioned monologue about his doubts in God to be Bergman’s way of speaking directly to his audience, and admitting doubts of his own. This is an example of the film’s relatability, as many have experienced such thoughts: Bergman was simply articulating them, but with rawness and honesty that had not been seen or heard before in cinema. Though when revealed that it is, in fact, death itself whom Block has addressed, the scene takes on a far deeper meaning. It is a literal depiction of a world, that of Antonius Block and by extension Bergman, without religion, represented by the absence of a priest. And without the veil of religion to obscure it, death alone is made visible. After Block accidentally reveals his tactics for the fateful chess match, it becomes clear that he will not be able to cheat death, an impossible eventuality. So here Bergman presents us with a problem: if you are without faith and facing death, what then can you hold onto? And in a sense, he provides us with an answer.
There is a very charming scene towards the middle of the film, wherein Block and the theatre troupe which includes couple Jof and Mia, along with their young child, sit down for a meal of milk and wild strawberries. There are Biblical connotations to this scene; Jof and Mia depict Mary and Joseph and their young son represents Christ, though because this is not made explicit, the scene can still be read literally, proving equally meaningful. Through spending time with them, Block witnesses life in its beautiful essentials: love, family and home. As such, this is one of few moments in the film where he experiences true happiness and finds himself briefly at peace. The answer, as he then notes, seems to lie in enjoying the moment for what it is, for who and what is around you. This theme is weaved through the whole film, a film that is vibrant and brimming with life and human emotion. Of course, death is not too far away from this scene, of which we are reminded when Antonius Block meets him shortly after. However, we are also reminded that death too is a part of life, to be accepted along with all else. When the time comes, we must all take part in the dance of death, something we must accept and live with in peace. In The Seventh Seal, Bergman is honest with us about this, and his honesty is reassuring. It is in this way that The Seventh Seal makes us feel less alone.