Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal follows the journey of a knight as he literally plays chess with an embodiment of Death and struggles with the greatest question known to man: What happens to me when I die? Through the medium of film, Bergman works out his own frustrations and questions with religion and death that started as early as his childhood. Though raised in a strict Lutheran household, Bergman would lose his faith and spend his whole life exercising the conflict religion created in his life. He opens his heart and displays his own inner conflict and fear, at the time of the film’s making, through the characters’ struggle for meaning in The Seventh Seal.
According to Irving Singer’s research in Ingmar Bergman, Cinematic Philosopher, Bergman was “sternly indoctrinated as a child in the religion and oppressive morality of his country’s Lutheran faith” (101), and Bergman himself claims in the autobiographical Images: My Life in Film that his conceptions of faith were “inherited from [his father]” (238), a Lutheran minister. Through his upbringing at the hands of this man, Bergman developed an idea of God that involved punishment for sins as a condition of forgiveness. In his autobiography The Magic Lantern, he describes the system of punishments that existed in his household. He says that he was made to tell his father how many lashes he deserved for his sin, and “after the strokes had been administered, [he] had to kiss father’s hand, at which forgiveness was declared and the burden of sin fell away” (8). In Images, he says that his fear of death “was to a great degree linked” (240) to his religious concepts and that his fear of death stretches “as far back as [he] can remember” (Bergman, Images 238). His need to feel God’s presence can be linked to these childhood memories. Because he was required to tell his father how many strokes he deserved and then seek forgiveness only after he accepted punishment, Bergman developed both a need to have God in his life and a need to actively seek him out and accept punishment for perceived sins before feeling happiness because the “supernatural dogmas of his youth had created in him feelings of guilt” (Singer 117). His feelings of guilt manifested in his fear of death, which was not just fear of the unknown, but “fear of augmented punishment that he would suffer after he died” (Singer 117). The fear of punishment stemmed from his father’s remoteness and ecclesiastical nature, and caused him to develop, in addition to a fear of human contact, this complex and crippling fear of death (Singer 101). Bergman experienced the fear of death and the fear of the unknown, but he did not feel God’s love accompany the fear that religion instilled, and he was not provided any sense of security. His God was not about love and security. Bergman struggled to find lasting comfort in his religion. Without comfort in religion, he could not find any comfort in death, which lead to his conflicting attitude that he chose to exercise through film.
Bergman talks about The Seventh Seal as a transitional film for him in terms of his anxiety regarding death and religion. He claims that it is one of the “last films to manifest [his] conceptions of faith” (Bergman, Images 238). In The Seventh Seal, he contrasts his childhood piety with his “newfound harsh rationalism” (Bergman, Images 236) by placing his “opposing beliefs side by side” (Bergman, Images 235). While directing The Seventh Seal, Berman was at a “quandary over religious faith” (Bergman, Images 325). He did not know whether he believed in God and was desperately seeking an answer – very similar to the main character in the film, Antonius Block—but he does not simply stick with exploring one aspect of his emotions through one character. He chose to put himself on the screen. Every part of Bergman’s conflict is represented in some way throughout the film.
At the most immediate level of Bergman’s conflict is Antonius Block, the knight. Block is on a quest to find meaning in life. He is seeking to find the answer to the big questions, such as “what happens to me when I die,” and “is there a God?” In his quest to find the answers to these questions, the knight plays chess with death in an attempt to delay the inevitable so he can finally find some meaning in this world. Block believes that if he can find meaning in life, he will find God. As stated by Laura Hubner in The Films of Ingmar Bergman, “the quest for the secret of existence drives the narrative of The Seventh Seal” (47). For Bergman, the lack of a clear answer is terrifying:
The fact that I, through dying, would no longer exist, that I would walk through the dark portal, that there was something that I could not control, arrange, or foresee, was for me a source of constant horror. (Bergman, Images 240)
Like Bergman, the knight longs for something to reach out and touch to let him know what will come after death. It is his obsession, and he begs the question to the universe “Is it so cruelly inconceivable to grasp God with the senses?” Bergman presents Block face to face with an embodiment of Death, but this does not answer Block’s question. Death can be grasped with the physical senses, but he is not proof of God and provides no answer to the knight. The knight even asks Death if, when it is his time, he will reveal the secret of what lies beyond. Death simply responds that he has no secrets. He says the he “is unknowing.” Attempting to have “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.” Bergman describes not knowing what would happen after death as a “constant horror” (Bergman, Images 240). Bergman knew that he would die, just as Block did. His knowledge that death was inevitable was not a source of comfort but fear because it was out of his control. Block actually sees an embodiment of death in front of him. Bergman sees death in his future. For both Bergman and Block, the mere fact that Death exists does not provide an answer. Death is simply an usher into what remains unknown for both of them.
Antonius Block even searches for God through the idea of the Devil. Through his travels, he encounters a girl who is to be burned at the stake. The men holding her captive claim that she is a witch who is in league with the devil. When asked, she confirms this story. Block meets her twice in the film. The second time they cross paths, she is merely minutes away from being burned, and Block approaches her. According to Robert Lauder in God, Death, Art and Love: The Philosophical Vision of Ingmar Bergman, Block “looks into the young girl’s eyes hoping to meet the devil so he can ask him about God” (49). He looks and he is startled to see nothing. Jöns tells him that emptiness is all that is in her eyes, but Block does not want to believe. He does not want to accept that the girl who claimed she walked with Satan is now realizing that the devil has abandoned her to a painful death (Singer 110). The fruitless search for God through the devil shows just how truly terrified Block and Bergman are of the idea and unknowable nature of death. Block is so desperate for some sort of answer as to what lies beyond that he, though a knight who fought in the holy crusades, is willing to confront Satan. Though Bergman associates death with “everlasting punishment for his misconduct as a carnal creature” (Singer 101-102), punishment was not what Bergman fears most. The fact that his character is desperate enough to search for existence through Satan himself shows that not knowing is worse than confronting the devil.
Bergman portrays his growing harsh rationalism through Antonius Block’s squire, Jöns. Jöns is a down-to-earth everyman with a good heart and a sense of humor. He does not, however, believe in any sort of god. Jöns frequently denounces religion, such as when he mocks the character Raval’s “previous pretensions to academic religiosity” (Hubner 51), and when he, at the end of the film, refuses to acknowledge that Death is in front of him. Rather than ruminate about what happens when he dies, he is of this world, saying that “everything is worth precisely as much as a belch, the only difference being that a belch is more satisfying” (The Seventh Seal). Hubner claims that Jöns represents a “heightened sense of learning” (51), which Bergman equated with his growing rationalism. Bergman claims that his “present conviction manifested itself” (Bergman, Images 238) during the filming of The Seventh Seal, and he goes on to describe his present conviction as believing that “everything is of this world” (241). His mode of thinking would align with Jöns’ as he grew older. During a minor surgery later on in his life, he was given too much anesthesia. He describes his experience as akin to disappearing “out of reality” (Bergman, Images 240-241). The experience with the anesthesia brought him comfort. He liked the idea that everything that had once been “so enigmatic and frightening” (Bergman, Images 240) no longer existed. For the post-Seventh Seal Bergman, this single life on earth is all that we have. At the time of the film’s making, however, the other characters are testament to Bergman’s conflicted feelings.
Throughout his life, Bergman experienced “struggles with the Christian dogma” (Singer 104), and Bergman through The Seventh Seal is critical of religion as an institution (Hubner 49). An early example of criticism is the character Raval. Raval is a former priest who is introduced attempting to sexually assault a local woman. Later in the film, he harasses the character Jof. As a former priest, he would be expected to be a morally upstanding individual, but instead he ends up being probably the most off-putting in the film. Were he a normal character, he would merely represent the evil in the world, but as a priest he represents the “impotence of institutional religion” (Lauder 46). What strengthens his depiction of the church is the artist character, through which Bergman represents himself in a different light than Antonius Block. The artist points to a painting of Death and basically says that his job is to scare people into the arms of the priests so that he can make a living. The artist is a tool through which the church generates “subservience of the masses to the fear generated by the church” (Hubner 49). Further illustrating the church’s dark, twisted side are the flagellants that travel the land whipping themselves to show obedience to God. The scene in which the flagellants interrupt the performance by the actors sobers the cheerful mood. The flagellants blame the actors and their viewers for the black plague and claim that they have not been loyal enough to God, which, in addition to a critique of service through fear and pain, is a manifestation of Bergman’s fear of being punished for what he saw as a morally corrupt lifestyle.
Finally, Bergman includes the “withered remains of [his] childish piety” (Bergman, Images 236) through the characters Jof, Mia, and their son Mikael. He claims that he infused them with the holiness of the human being (Bergman, Images 236), and he defines what that phrase means to him in a 1970 interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s “Man Alive”:
It is a feeling of security. This is the earth, we are here, and the holiness that exists—because it does exist—is inside us. It is a creation of generations and generations of hope, fear, desire, creative minds, prayers—that still exists, in me, and I am happy to have it in me. . . . I [therefore] try to be as good as possible. (Bergman, Interview)
It is important to note that the time of the interview was after Bergman lost what remained of his childhood faith. However, many of the themes he attributes to people in general in the interview definition were, at the time, part of the childhood piety he claims he still held on to. The Holy Family is a family who loves each other and are genuinely good people. They also, Jof especially, have absolutely blind faith when it comes to God. While their blind faith might be misconstrued as a critique, it is not. The family represents the Holy Family. They are the ones who provide communion and a brief respite for the knight, and Jof sees visions that others cannot. Their names, their love, Jof’s visions, and their escape at the end make it clear that they are some type of symbol for the Holy Family (Lauder 43). They are not included in the film because of Bergman’s later attitude that people held their holiness in spite of God and religion. Rather, they are included as part of his still present piety and the hope that there is still a God out there. The desire to cling to religion is expounded by the family’s escape from Death at the end. It leaves hope for this pious side of Bergman that he includes in the film. Bergman not only provides meaning in the life of the knight but gives hope for a better tomorrow as well.
What the knight is after, and what Bergman is ultimately after, is a sign that God is there. The knight looks for meaning as a sign that he is not headed into emptiness. Bergman provides meaning with the pious Holy Family in the strawberry scene. The scene not only reveals the family’s holiness in the most moving way up to that point (114), but it is also likely the best example of Bergman holding on to a semblance of a God that is quickly dwindling out of existence in his mind. In the scene, the holy family offers the knight a meal of milk and strawberries on the hillside. The knight accepts the food, and actually has a moment of peace and quiet, saying “I shall remember this moment. The silence, the twilight, the bowls of strawberries and milk, your faces in the evening light . . . .it will be an adequate sign – it will be enough for me.” In Bergman’s world, “milk and strawberries are symbols of love” (Lauder 45), and Lauder quotes him as saying “Whenever I am in doubt or uncertainty I take refuge in the vision of a simple and pure love” (45). Hubner claims that the film places an emphasis on both the holy family and this scene and that “a celestial God is evident in infinite love” (53). Bergman includes the family and their faith and love because he still had a desperate desire to believe. The family was in no conflict with their faith, and it is doubtless that Bergman was envious of that clarity. Throughout the film, Death is a carrier to the unknown. Block claims that the greatest torture is not knowing, and Bergman longed to “know” like the holy family did. That there is love in the world provides him with solace.
A tough childhood left Bergman with a fear of death as well as both a fear and longing for God and love. Punishment and forgiveness twisted his views of what it meant to be a carnal creature, and he was a afraid of what he was told death would hold, but even more so what he could never know about crossing over to the other side. As a form of self-administered therapy, Bergman uses film to exercise his demons. He imbues his characters with values he observes as well ones he holds, having Block represents his anxiety, Jöns is cool rationalism, minor characters as the church and the artist, and the family as blind faith and hope. After The Seventh Seal, he makes the films Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence. He claims he put his childhood religious inheritance to rest in Through a Glass Darkly (Bergman, Images 238), and in Winter Light the main character—the faithless priest—is close to the condition Bergman was in at the time of the film’s making (Singer 127). By the time he finishes The Silence, Bergman’s films may contain questions of God and existence, but they do not concentrate on them as they did during The Seventh Seal and shortly afterward (Singer 118). In The Seventh Seal, however, Bergman presents a quest for meaning. His characters, each with different attitudes, must face the absolute certainty that is death and deal with it in whatever way they can. Bergman works his own issues out through his characters and tries to address his own fears. Like us, he wants to know what to do. Of his characters, Bergman does not say who makes the best choices, whose faith is correct, or is ultimately the winner. Rather, the viewer has to decide who is right. Death is the only certainty.
Bergman, Ingmar. Images: My Life in Film. New York: Arcade Pub. : Distributed by Little, Brown, 1994. First English-language edition, 1994. Print.
—. Interview. Man Alive. Canadian Broadcasting Company. 1970. Web. 4 May 2016.
—. The Magic Lantern: An Autobiography. n.p.: New York, NY : Viking, 1988., 1988. Print.
Hubner, Laura. The Films of Ingmar Bergman: Illusions of Light and Darkness. Basingstoke [England]; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Print.
Lauder, Robert E. God, Death, Art & Love: The Philosophical Vision of Ingmar Bergman. New York: Paulist Press, 1989. Print.
The Seventh Seal. Dir. Ingmar Bergman. 1957.
Singer, Irving. Ingmar Bergman, Cinematic Philosopher: Reflections on His Creativity. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2007. Print.
Earlier I posted an abbreviated version, which can be seen here: Abbreviated: THE SEVENTH SEAL