The Seventh Seal is focused on man’s spiritual doubt, and even complete lack of faith in God. The film asks: How can God remain separate from us as we experience darkness and suffering?
The Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman, has secured his place in the cinematic canon not only as a superb and unique director but also as the most philosophical one. The entire body of his work deals, explicitly or implicitly, with questions about man’s freedom and God. Whether he is focused on the notion of individual identity, love, or human relations, Bergman almost always alludes to matters of faith.
One of the themes Bergman regularly employs is God’s silence in the midst of human suffering and death. This is particularly true in his masterpiece, The Seventh Seal (1957). Considered one of the best films ever made, The Seventh Seal is a meditation on death and an inconvenient reminder that we shall all perish. The story centers upon a Medieval knight, Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), who is returning from the Crusades. He is suffering from a complete existential dread, and after having witnessed the horrors of the Crusades, he wonders what the purpose of it all was. Block sees himself an unfit member of a society that is undergoing the plague. Oscillating between compassion and disdain for the sufferers, the Knight is caught in a state of anxiety.
Upon his return to the shore, he is greeted by Death, personified by a pale human figure dressed in black. Block challenges Death to a game of chess, thinking that he can win and thus, evade it. But this, of course, proves to be a rather futile act because Death is always one step ahead.
The game begins at the shore, and it continues as the Knight journeys with his squire, returning to his castle and wife. During the journey, he encounters others: an acting troupe composed of a couple with a young son, and the troupe’s manager, as well as locals in the village. All represent aspects of human existence, which are, in some way or another, part of the Knight’s interior life. Some have more self-reflection and some have less, but what they lack is Block’s dread.
His squire is a practical man, who sees people only in a utilitarian sense. The actors, Jof and Mia, are blissfully in love with each other. Their son Mikael gives them much joy, and despite Jof’s occasional flights of spiritual fancy (he has visions of Virgin Mary), they remain secure in each other’s love as a family. They are aware of the evil that surrounds them, but they don’t have an immediate, visceral, and palpable need to either reflect upon it, or to change it. The Knight, on the other hand, is consumed by the need to outwit Death and by the burden of his thoughts.
Although the story takes place in the Middle Ages, this is a film distinctly focused on existentialist philosophy. The historical accuracy is not so much Bergman’s concern. Rather, he uses the events and character archetypes as a way to probe the question of death and whether life indeed has any meaning. This is why the film’s meaning can be applied not only to the Middle Ages and the time it was made, but also to today. The film is not a relic of the past, whose meaning is lost upon us. And yet, the question that arises is whether society, as it stands today, cares about such perennial thoughts?
It is my view that societies, throughout history, go through different existential maladies. It is useless to look back, idealizing and mourning the past. But something has changed. We face a bombardment of information, social media is more toxic than nourishing, and the perpetual burden of political correctness creates more difficulty for any examination of one’s life.
It is noise that governs our lives, and silence is frightening. Writing about the meaning of leisure, Josef Pieper observes that “leisure is a form of silence, of that silence which is the prerequisite of the apprehension of reality… a receptive attitude of mind, a contemplative attitude, and it is not only the occasion but the capacity for steeping oneself in the whole of creation.”
If human beings are incapable of asking the simplest of questions that require critical thinking and spirituality, then how can we possibly expect to witness any reflection upon death?
At some point in his journey, the Knight and his squire are invited to share a meal with Jof, Mia, and their little son. The meal is simple—it consists of milk and strawberries, which in many ways symbolize a return to the garden of delights, but with a family as its central focus. The Knight is overwhelmed by the beauty of the moment. He exclaims: “I’ll carry this memory between my hands as if it were a bowl filled to the brim with fresh milk, and it will be an adequate sign, it will be enough for me.”
Despite his evasion of death and despite a feeling of palpable dread, the Knight is still able to feel and express happiness. To use C. S. Lewis’ expression, he is truly “surprised by joy.” To be aware of the inevitability of death is to be aware of the present moment. It is the moment that matters because our lives are built upon the meaning of the moment. Moment by moment, we create thoughts. These thoughts become habits, which, in turn, form our lives.
The Seventh Seal is focused on man’s spiritual doubt, and even complete lack of faith in God. It asks: How can God remain separate from us as we experience darkness and suffering? Quite simply, this makes no sense to our minds, and it hurts our souls. And yet, the Knight may question God’s existence but he never questions reality. Society may be upside down in the medieval world—the Crusades, the plague, burning of the “witches,” to name a few examples—but the Knight understands the difference between good and evil. It is through this vision and attitude that he is able to experience a simple moment of delight in milk, strawberries, and the company of good people. In essence, this experience is an indication of God’s existence.
We are facing new challenges as a society. It may be cacophonous, but the noise of the world has gotten louder, more obnoxious, and ultimately distracting from the purpose each human being has. Death—the ultimate state of embodiment and enfleshment—is a reminder and an impetus to live a life of flourishment.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
The featured image is a photograph of actor Bengt Ekerot and director Ingmar Bergman during the principal photography of “The Seventh Seal.” It is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.