For those who don’t know what these ‘What Dya Mean You Haven’t Seen…?’ posts are about, they are basically me catching up on and discussing films I probably should have seen by now and when I tell people I haven’t seen them, their response is often along the lines of ‘what dya mean you haven’t seen X?’. See what I’ve done?
I chose The Seventh Seal because I have heard so many amazing things about Ingmar Bergman and yet his films remain a bit of a gap in my film viewing. I watched Wild Strawberries whilst I was at university but didn’t really wrap my head around it, so I thought I’d give another of his films a whirl.
Plot: Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) is a knight returning from the Crusades where, on a beach, he is confronted by Death (Bengt Ekerot) who tells him it is his time to go. Antonius then challenges Death to a game of chess, stating that if he wins he must be allowed to go on living, and whilst the game goes on Death cannot take him. Death agrees to the game and the two play at intervals as Block, along with his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand), go on their travels. Throughout the land, the Black Death is taking hold, killing thousands of people, prompting Block to head for his castle where he believes he will be safer. Along the way, they are joined by others who are promised refuge in their castle. However, the omnipotent presence of Death constantly hangs over their shoulder during their various encounters.
It’s an incredibly difficult film to sum up as it’s easy to not give enough of a synopsis to let people know the story, but equally easy to go overboard and harp on about every last scene. There are many, many themes running through The Seventh Seal and it’s likely that only Bergman himself can fully explain it all. There is so much to contemplate and pontificate on that you could go mad trying to analyse every last shot, but there is also a fairly straightforward story at the heart which folk can enjoy even if they don’t buy into the whole critical analysis thing.
One of the major themes is that of Antonius having a crisis of faith, becoming disillusioned with the existence of God. This isn’t particularly ambiguous as it’s spelled out a few times throughout, and is reported to come from Bergman’s own wavering beliefs. Antonius’s confidence in God has obviously been shaken and it’s an understandable view that our protagonist has. He has just returned from the Crusades where he no doubt saw countless people die and the Black Death is currently ravaging Europe. What kind of a God would let that happen? It’s an argument that is likely as old as religion itself, and some could argue that this is an anti-religion message. This argument is strengthened by Antonius’s constant questioning of a higher power – “Faith is a torment. It is like loving someone who is out there in the darkness but never appears, no matter how loudly you call.”
However, it could also be argued that the film paints a negative picture of those who are not religious. Antonius is questioning his faith as Death comes to take him away and is distraught at this, suggesting that those who accept God, no matter whether he shows himself or not, will be much less afraid when death becomes them. Furthermore, the family of circus travellers, Mia (Bibi Andersson) and Jof (Nils Poppe) and their child, that Antonius and Jöns encounter are obviously a symbol of a Holy family, representing Mary, Joseph and Jesus. The fact that these three are spared their lives whilst others die, could be read as a pro-religious message. Personally, I believe that it is more anti-religious and the sparing of the ‘Holy family’ is more to do with their kindness and good nature than anything else.
Because The Seventh Seal is also about finding purpose in one’s life and doing good in the limited amount of time we have. Mia and Jof are constantly striving to do good. As circus travellers, their aim is to make people happy, and they are trying to do this during an outbreak of the plague when there’s not much to be happy about. They also offer Antonius and Jöns food and drink even though they do not know them, which leads Antonius to speak some of the most heartfelt lines in the film – “I shall remember this moment: the silence, the twilight, the bowl of strawberries, the bowl of milk. Your faces in the evening light. Mikael asleep, Jof with his lyre. I shall try to remember our talk. I shall carry this memory carefully in my hands as if it were a bowl brimful of fresh milk. It will be a sign to me, and a great sufficiency.” Here Antonius seems truly happy for perhaps the only time in the film and it is because of the generosity of others. He is close to death, literally, and yet he is comforted by people who make him happy; this is his way of dealing with the inevitable.
The threat of death and Death is constant throughout. Antonius’s game of chess continues along their travels, whilst the Black Death is constantly biting at their ankles. It’s speculated that this is Bergman’s response to the new nuclear threat following World War II; death is just around the corner and could call at any moment. Death also doesn’t care who you are, it doesn’t discriminate and doesn’t care whether you believe in God or not; it is inescapable and cannot be cheated. This is highlighted in the scene with the girl who is being burned alive for allegedly being a witch. We’re never sure whether she is a witch or not, but death doesn’t care, he is “unknowing”. The danse macabre at the film’s end is another example of death’s non-discriminating nature – No matter one’s station in life, the Dance of Death unites us all.
There is just so much to think about in The Seventh Seal; I doubt any of this barely scratches the surface. It’s one of those films I thought I would feel indifferent about a third into it, but a few days later I’m still thinking about it, trying to piece it all together, so it must have done something right. I realise I may well have waffled quite a lot up to now, so well done if you’ve stuck it out!
Whilst the cinematography, editing, etc, aren’t anything special, this leaves more for attention to be focused on the themes and messages brought up, rather than being distracted by other things. It’s a film where dialogue is king and Bergman has written some truly superb stuff here. If you miss any of it, you could miss out on something that adds a huge amount to the story. It’s beautifully written, perfectly highlighting Antonius’s inner turmoil and struggles as he battles to make sense of his life before Death inevitably catches up with him. There is also a smattering of humour throughout, particularly from Jöns who seems much more matter-of-fact than Antonius and happy to tell everything as he sees it. This humour is much needed as without it, the film could have become a little too heavy and depressing.
I get the feeling that The Seventh Seal is a film I’ll need to watch more than once to fully appreciate. There are so many different things going on under the surface that one view doesn’t seem to do it justice. Whilst I did enjoy the first viewing, I was sometimes left a little perplexed by certain events and their meaning, which could well be a comment on my lack of critical understanding rather than the film itself. Like I mentioned before, there is a fairly straightforward story at the heart of the film, but it is one that some may struggle to really get into. It’s not one to be thrown on if you’re looking for some light viewing; you really need to give it your full attention. And if you do so, you’ll find a film that challenges you to think, which is something not a lot of films do anymore.