The Seventh Seal (1957): Ingmar Bergman’s Either/Or
Do you believe in God?
If your answer is “Yes,” there is a reason for everything, everything you can see, touch, taste, smell, and hear, as well as everything that is beyond your comprehension. You have a supreme being who is responsible for all that is around you and toward whom you can direct all your energies. Your life has meaning because there is a reason for your existence.
If your answer is “No,” you are adrift. The universe is one big coincidence, a cosmic happenstance. Your existence is of no real significance. Your actions have no real consequence. There is no reason for your being here. No meaning. No purpose.
Director Ingmar Bergman met this philosophical debate head-on in his stark, uncompromising film, The Seventh Seal, and gave viewers an unsettling and unforgettable experience.
A plague of body and mind
Set in fourteenth century Sweden, a knight and his squire have returned after ten years in the Crusades to find their country ravaged by the plague. The knight is visited by Death, who has come to take him. He manages to delay the inevitable by challenging Death to a chess game. The knight is not afraid to die, but he is a man plagued with doubt, tormented by questions that have shaken him to his core. In all the years he spent fighting and killing in the name of God, he never saw or experienced any proof of God’s existence. And without that proof, with nothing but this maddening silence to contend with, the knight fears all existence may be utterly meaningless. In one scene, Death poses as a priest as the knight confesses his deepest terrors:
I cry out to him in the darkness, but sometimes it feels like no one is there.
Perhaps no one is there.
Then life is just senseless horror. No man can live facing death knowing that
everything is nothingness.
Most people give no thought to death or nothingness.
One day they’ll stand on the far edge of life, peering into the darkness.
The other side of this existential conundrum is the knight’s squire. His earthy approach to life does not require a need to find answers. Indeed, he does not see any reason to ask such questions in the first place. He sums up his philosophy while sharing a canteen of gin with a cynical artist: “Here you see squire Jöns. He grins at Death, scoffs at the Lord, laughs at himself and smiles at the girls. He believes in Jöns-world, believable only to himself, ridiculous to all, including himself, meaningless to heaven and of no interest to hell.”
Along their trek back to the knight’s castle, they traverse a landscape of unspeakable suffering. At one village, they come upon a grim parade of Flagellants, whose leader unleashes a horrific sermon, declaring the plague a punishment sent by God. He accuses every man and woman of turning their backs on their creator. In essence, anyone who spends their time not serving the Lord, pursuing, instead, earthly pleasures and distractions, deserves the damnation that will befall them. These people, the Flagellants and the villagers, believe every word this orator of doom is telling them. It is an argument the knight could never bring himself to accept without the proof he desperately seeks.
Later, knight and squire run across a group of men who are taking a young woman to be burned because people believe she is the cause of the plague. The woman herself believes she is cursed with evil. She says she has spoken with the devil. Before she meets her end, the knight asks her for proof that the devil exists (if Satan is real, so is God, no?). She tells him to look into her eyes and he will see the unholy one. But the only thing he sees staring back at him is a look of terror.
Mostly, but not all gloom and doom
Although set against a backdrop of despair and devastation, The Seventh Seal is not without humor and beauty. The squire, like Shakespeare’s roustabouts and Fools, provides much needed levity with bawdy songs, pointed jibes and sarcasm.
The knight and his squire also cross paths with a troupe of performers--a young man, his wife and their infant son. Basking in the company of these strangers, this family of innocents, the knight encounters a moment of serenity. While sharing a simple meal with his new friends, he savors the succulence of wild strawberries, a fresh bowl of milk, the quiet beauty of the day--the resonating fullness of the moment and all that it has to offer.
Experiencing this simple moment of transcendence, however, does not assuage his fundamental torment (a death mask can be seen sitting on a post in the background throughout much of the scene). In a brief exchange with the young wife, he manages to crystallize his agony in language less strident than his earlier confession: “Faith is a heavy burden ... It’s like loving someone out in the darkness who never comes, no matter how loud you call.” His relentless pursuit for answers never wavers, and it is met with disappointment at every turn (even Death, the one you’d think would be able to fill in the blanks, is clueless), and when the time comes to shuffle off his mortal coil, he wails in despair.
Again, the knight’s agony does not derive from fear; his response is the anguished cry of one who desperately wants to know what happens when we are taken through the darkened doorway. Is there a God? Is there a method behind the madness of existence? Or is it all random and meaningless?
And just as there are any number of ways to skin that proverbial cat, there is more than one way to face the unimaginable. Compare the knight’s reaction to that of the others who are with him. They are about to cross the same mysterious threshold, but there is a stark difference in their reactions: you will see acquiescence, defiance, acceptance, awe.
What might your response be?
How to make great art
I don’t know if, in order to be an artist, one simply must have a tortured soul that can feel the despair of the human heart more deeply than others, or if one need only be willing to take a hard look at the deep-seated drives and yearnings propelling us through life, and hold up a pristine mirror that compels us to see our inner selves, beyond the guise of self-deception. More likely a combination of the two. You need to feel the pain in order to respond to it in some way, and you require the flinty determination of the unrelenting inquirer to pull back the mask and try to make sense of what is found behind it.
In film after film, Bergman’s unflinching exploration of the frightening truths of human existence is a testament to the courage of one who strives toward great art. In his book, Images, he confesses he was deeply troubled by life’s impermanence, and he explains how he made peace (or at the very least, came to an uneasy truce) with his personal anguish. The Seventh Seal marked the beginning of the purge:
As far back as I can remember, I carried a grim fear of death, which during puberty and my early twenties accelerated into something unbearable.
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. That I plucked up my courage and depicted Death as a white clown, a figure who conversed, played chess, and had no secrets, was the first step in my struggle against my monumental fear of death.
The films of Ingmar Bergman are a testament to an uncompromising artist willing to take on our elemental, disquieting concerns like few filmmakers ever have.