Set during the Middle Ages in Sweden, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) is a film that deals with a man’s quest for meaning. It’s about a knight, Antonius Block, who returns home after battle only to find that the town has been ravaged by the black plague. Rather than plagued with disease, Antonius is plagued with religious doubt after he is visited by Death. To delay his death, Antonius challenges Death to a game of chess. He hopes to use his reprieve to gain knowledge and perform a meaningful deed.
Antonius is in conflict with his personal beliefs, and it is illustrated through his shifting moods. At times he is sick with despair and other times he is at peace. In addition to his endless conflict with God, there is also a conflict between Antonius and Jons the Squire because of their opposing belief systems.
Antonius’ anxiety and despair arises from his lack of knowledge and certainty in regards to his faith and the afterlife. His anxiety is introduced in the beginning when he and his Squire make their way to a church where Antonius unknowingly confesses to Death. He explains to Death that he is conflicted because he wants to believe in God, but the lack of certainty or proof torments him. Part of him believes God is merely an idol one creates out of fear of death and nothingness, yet he cannot bear to believe that life is meaningless and everything is nothingness. This contradiction is the root of his despair. The church also symbolizes that contradiction in the sense that it is both “the sanctuary of God and the locus of man’s cruelty, of torture, of misunderstanding and magic (Ketcham 66).” In the confessional scene, Antonius asks Death “how can we have faith in those who believe when we can’t have faith in ourselves?” This implies that “if our evidence is of our own making, then we know we can’t rely upon it as some unquestionable, irrefutable expression of transcendent truth (Ketcham 66).” In the end, it all comes down to Antonius’ lack of faith in himself
There are moments in The Seventh Seal when Antonius seems at peace with himself despite his existential crisis. One of the most memorable scenes from the film is the scene in which Jons the Squire, the Squire’s girl, Jof, Mia, and Antonius share a humble meal consisting of wild strawberries and milk.
Antonius tries to explain to Mia that having faith is like “loving someone who is out there in the darkness but never appears, no matter how loudly you call (Ketcham 76).” Then suddenly Antonius surprises us by telling her how his troubles seem so insignificant and unreal at that moment. He is grateful to be sharing this sweet moment in good company, and he tries to soak in every detail. Despite his happiness, the presence of death is still looming in the distance in the shape of a skull on the upper left hand corner of the image. This contrast reflects Antonius’ personal conflict. Unfortunately, his anguish returns to haunt him as he continues his game with Death.
His despair reaches its height a few scenes later as he watches the townspeople burn a so-called witch suspected of conspiring with the devil. He looks into her eyes hoping to see God but all he sees is terror. Once again, his faith is challenged and a sense of hopelessness overcomes him.
This scene is also important because it illustrates the conflict between Antonius and Jons the Squire. Jons is not as preoccupied with God’s silence. He has come to the conclusion that everything is meaningless, and he believes that when one dies there is only emptiness. Jons tries to convince Antonius of this as they watch the young girl being burned, but Antonius refuses to accept such a nihilistic reality. Jons is more concerned with the here-and-now; whereas, Antonius is indifferent to his fellow men and he is more concerned with finding proof of God’s existence (Ketcham 82).
Antonius is not only conflicted with himself and with Jons, but he is also conflicted with God. One of the fundamental questions that plagues Antonius is how God could remain silent and passive when there is so much suffering in the world. Considering that people are dying of plague left and right, this prompts Antonius to question his faith in God. He doesn’t understand why he cannot perceive God with his senses or why God must hide himself in a “mist of half-spoken promises and unseen miracles (Ketcham 68).” In the end, Antonius makes his final plea to God before being taken by the hands of Death, but he is met with no response. This conflict is never resolved and certainty remains unattainable.
The conflict between Antonius and God is similar to that of Tore and God from Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960). Tore does not comprehend why God would permit the murder of his innocent daughter Karin. The difference between Tore and Antonius is that Tore is willing to accept that contradiction seeing as he promises to build a church for God regardless of what happened to his daughter; whereas, Antonius finds it more and more difficult to remain faithful to God. Also, in The Virgin Spring certainty is achieved through the emergence of the spring. The spring symbolizes a divine miracle; God has broken his silence. In The Seventh Seal, however, Antonius never achieves certainty and God does not perform any miracles. Incidentally, Tore and Antonius are both played by Max von Sydow. Von Sydow has a very powerful presence on screen given his statuesque appearance. This makes his conflict with God that much more powerful and memorable for viewers.
In the end, none of the conflicts are resolved. Perhaps they are not meant to be resolved. It does, however, end on a hopeful note as Jof, Mia, and their baby survive the plague and watch from a distance as Death leads the other characters in a dance to their demise.
Written by Lucia Meneses