A disillusioned knight and his squire return from the crusades to find the world they left behind now ravaged by the plague. They had left the land to fight for God and to spread his word – to pass along his supposed goodness and forgiveness. Yet after likely killing so many in his name, they arrive to see nothing but death. What was their purpose, then, in spreading that word if only destruction would have come anyway? Does this God that they fought for even exist, and if not, are those they killed, those dying from sickness, and they themselves, all doomed to an eternity of nothingness? With these thoughts in mind, the film opens with knight and squire lying motionless on a beach soon to be greeted for the first (but not last) time by Death. This The Seventh Seal analysis will contain minor SPOILERS. I’d also like to say that my interpretations of religion and its purpose are based on the characters in the film. Whether or not I agree with them is irrelevant.
As death confronts our knight, Antonius Block, for the first time, Block says, “my flesh is afraid, but I am not”. He is still partially in the mindset that God is there to save him after death – to bring him to an eternal, conscious paradise. His flesh does not yet want to leave this world, but his soul is willing. Still, there is some voice deep down telling him to save himself. Thus begins their game of chess. The overarching plot of the film is Block’s game of chess with Death, keeping his life for as long as he can hold off his opponent.
The rest of the film explores our protagonists’ differing views on death – their fear or acceptance of it; their use of religion or work or sex to comfort and distract them; or their ever-changing mindset as they realize the inevitable. Both Block and Jons (the squire) experience their initial disillusionment in the church they visit. Jons first views the painting that the artist is finishing, observing the hordes of people flogging themselves in repentance to God, hoping the plague will subside. Yet, this contradicts everything he once believed he was fighting for: the presence of a just and omnipotent God who will save his followers.
Block begins confessing and asking for advice from a priest who is truly just Death in disguise. As he states he is ready to die, he admits his reluctance because he needs a guarantee. He asks, “is it so hard to grasp God with one’s senses? Why must he hide in a mist of vague promises and unseen miracles”, and then later states, ” I want knowledge. Not faith or conjecture but knowledge. I want God to reach out his hand, show his face, speak to me. But he is silent.”
Antonius can no longer bear the burden of ignorance. When death is as near as it is, there can be no ambiguity. He must be certain. If he dies, will there be something else, whether heaven, rebirth, or simple consciousness? Or will it be this eternal nothingness he so fears? And as he speaks to Death, still unaware of who he is confessing to, he reveals why he believes man has created God: “in our fear we make an idol and call it God”. Humanity has created God and heaven in order to dull their fear of death – to cope day to day knowing that no matter what may happen to them or those they love, that they will all meet again and will all live on forever. In their final confrontation, Death defeats him, and Antonius asks, “you will reveal your secrets?” And Death responds, “I have no secrets”.
The Seventh Seal is a masterful display of filmmaking that succeeds in tackling the most universal and difficult theme in life and art. Bergman is able to explore so many facets regarding the fear of death through straightforward language not meant to confuse or obscure his exact intentions. The dialogue spoken between Antonius and Death acts as the internal monologue that so many people may have who are close to death or who are prone to thinking about it. It asks the many questions that are common, but not ever explicitly stated so eloquently. Other characters have their own reasons for fear or lack of it. For example, Jof and his visions of the Virgin Mary solidify his belief in a higher power and he is therefore rarely terrified by the idea of death. The director, Jonas Skat, uses sex to distract him, but once he is again alone, he immediately seeks a hiding place from death, yet it finds him anyway.
The film also both transcends and exemplifies its medium in a way that is rarely seen. It is told in a highly literary fashion, far outside the typical scope of movies at the time, but it is somehow still a story that could not be told through any art form other than cinema. Its characters, symbols, pained and stoic facial expressions, and perfectly executed shots, are all things which must be viewed as the director intended. They come together to create what is a nearly perfect film – something that must be seen despite the discomfort and dread that the topic will likely cause the viewer to endure. It is a dialogue between the viewer and their greatest fears, whether they know it or not. When a film moves you to tears, it is typically because you are overwhelmed by happiness or sadness, but The Seventh Seal manages to overwhelm one with terror.
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