Death and The Seventh Seal

This was written as an assignment for a film class while studying at Williams College in 2001

Few films deal as explicitly and profoundly with the mammoth questions of life, death and God as does Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. The film takes us on a journey with the knight Antonius Bloch, after his return from the Crusades, as he tries to find meaning and gain answers to the questions about God which have pursued him throughout his life. We are carried through a landscape devastated by the Bubonic Plague, and where more than ever its human inhabitants are clinging desperately to their belief in the divine to account for their suffering, and to offer hope for resurrection. Yet despite this, when Antonius meets Death himself, he finds him to yield nothing. Death figures as an amoral being, unaffiliated with deity or demon, whose sole purpose is the unapologetic taking of human life. Nowhere in the film is Antonius’s quest, Death’s apparent indifference and incognisance, and the unremitting silence of God more tangible than in the sequence in the church where Antonius tries to make his confession. It is one of the most compelling sequences in the movie, and one which deals with several of the film’s more pressing themes. Antonius faces Death, and at the end we are no more sure of what secrets Death may hold, and the implications of this knowledge on what higher meaning we can cling to in our own lives. Bergman concludes this scene, and the film, with all questions left open, none of the “guarantees” that Antonius seeks, yet a quiet sense of hope of the kind that we see too in Wild Strawberries.

This confessional scene is both illustrative and pivotal to the film as a whole. Alone with his questions, time suddenly shortened by the appearance of Death, Antonius seeks to unburden his soul to a figure he believes to be a priest or confessor. His confession – succinct, direct and resonant – reveals much to us about his motivations and history, and parallels other key sequences in the film. It specifically mirrors a later scene where he presses the witch to tell him what she sees, where once again he is speaking to a figure – who in the end seems to yield nothing – through the obstacle of bars. In the confessional, however, he communicates his ongoing quest for tangible knowledge of the existence of God, his fear about what will befall those who cannot or will not believe in the presence of God, and expresses his desire to perform one last significant action before he surrenders to Death. The content of his confession, therefore, answers several of the questions in the mind of the audience. He explains his motivations for wanting to engage in this chess game with Death, creates expectations in us about what action his will perform, and suspense about whether or not he will be unable to outwit Death. However, as he unknowingly discloses his tactical plans to his very opponent, the suspense turns to a kind of heavy anticipation as we realise that he is foiled. Our attention therefore returns to the remnants of Antonius’ last hopes: about finding answers which the audience now asks with him, and if he will indeed be able to perform some sort of meaningful act. All this is conveyed through the directness and intensity of the script, the perfectly juxtaposed composure of Death, and the urgency of Antonius. But it is also achieved through a number of other filmic techniques which merit further consideration.

The Seventh Seal, like much of Bergman’s work, does not follow the style of classical Hollywood. His takes are long, the cinematography more stylised, his use of close-ups economical. The sequence begins with a quick dissolve from the squire and the fresco painter to a long establishing shot of Bloch standing below a crucifix in the church. The transition is marked by the diegetic sound of a bell chiming, a chime which continues to punctuate important cuts through the sequence. Bergman then cuts to Antonius looking up at the figure of Jesus in a high angle frame, followed by an eyeline match of the Christ’s face. The shot cuts back to Antonius, whose attention is now distracted by something offscreen to his left.  Bergman heightens our curiosity, and cuts to an medium longshot of a cloaked figure behind an iron grate who turns away, leaving his face hidden. We cut back once again to Antonius, and the camera pans and follows him as he moves toward what we now realise is the confessional.

Immediately upon entering the booth, Antonius puts his right hand up against the wall and begins his “confession”.  The sequence cuts to a medium close up of Antonius in profile – a facial shot Bergman uses frequently in Wild Strawberries and particularly in its early dream sequence – while in the background, cloaked in shadow, is the hooded figure behind the grate. As Antonius leans forward and continues, the camera zooms in on him, bringing us closer to him as his confession grows more and more poignant. As the hooded figure finally replies, Antonius leans back, and a most sophisticated and stylish shot is created wherein, while Antonius looks up at the crucifix, the hooded figure in the background – framed by the arch, Antonius’ upper body, right arm, and the wall – finally turns its head. His identity, we see, is Death. Antonius, however, does not see. Another eyeline match is made as we return to the face of Christ, at whom Bloch looks beseechingly.

Antonius then kneels, now descending into hard shadow, and we cut to a shot  over his right shoulder. All around him is darkness, broken only by the shafts of light which penetrate from the upper left of the screen and cast shadows of the iron grate on the wall before him. We see him in his prison, with bars behind and before him, his own shadow looking back at him through the shadows of the bars. He speaks of the obscurity of God, mirrored powerfully in the obscurity of the darkness surrounding him and ineffectiveness of the light around him, which only further condemns him to his prison. Antonius turns to look up suddenly at the crucifix, his confession reaching an emotional climax, and once more we cut to an eyeline match of the Christ’s face before cutting back to Bloch.

With Antonius still looking up at the crucifix as he asks why he cannot kill the God within him, the camera pans to the left, taking our attention away from Antonius to Death, who has now turned to face Antonius. Death’s mystery, his character, his thoughts, remain concealed and uncertain to us as the camera zooms in on him. He is framed behind the iron grate, with most of his face – most significantly his eyes  – largely blocked by the bars. Is there an expression of sympathy on his face? Is this look mere aloof curiosity, or is he completely unmoved by Antonius’ struggle? Does he have answers to Bloch’s questions which he chooses not to reveal, as he claims? Or is he merely indifferent? And if he has no answers and is completely amoral, how can we conceive of the purpose for which we live?

Our questioning is cut short, however, as Antonius turns excitedly, and the camera cuts to a shot on the other side of the bars as Death quickly turns to the side once more, concealing his identity from Antonius. It creates a sophisticated shot where we can see both Death’s unmovingly sombre face and Bloch’s, simultaneously. Framed in a way that parallels the later scene in which Bloch is speaking with the witch through wooden bars, Antonius now peers restlessly through the bars, hoping for answers. His eyes are clear to us through the shafts of light which seem to come from above right of the screen, supposedly natural sunlight form outside the church. Death, on the other hand, seems also to be lit from beneath, with the light coming from underneath his chin, casting hard shadows on his face and accentuating the Death’s dark expression. Here, the manipulation of costume and make-up is extremely effective. The hood of Death’s robe is what cloaks him in mystery and protects his identity. At the same time, the hairlessness and pallor of his skin (presumably achieved through make-up), contrasted against the blackness of his eyes and cloak, create an imposing figure apparently void of feeling and void of life.

Now that Antonius has turned his attention to Death, the bells stop, emphasising the silence of God of which Bloch then speaks. It seems the hope of finding God has faded from Bloch’s mind, and instead he turns now to more practical matters – of how to best use the time which remains to him. Antonius reveals his desire for a last act of meaning, as well as his game plan to outwit death at their game of chess. After a take which has lasted two full minutes, we cut to a low angle shot from behind Antonius, who is still kneeling. Death turns and reveals himself to Antonius finally, and the framing of the shot makes it quite clear to us that Antonius is at Death’s mercy. Antonius rushes to his feet, and the more rapidly cut shots take us from behind Death and then once again behind Antonius until Death gives the time for their next meeting and leaves. The first non-diegetic sound emerges – orchestra and chorus – as Antonius leans back against the wall. The horn in the music gives us a hope, a sense of Bloch’s stubborn determination, but the tritone chord sung by the chorus reminds us of apparent inevitability of his demise. The light here is exquisite, focussing our attention on Antonius’s face and hand, a crafty combination of low and high-key lighting that has dominated the entire sequence.

Strangely, upon Death’s exit, we see Bloch giving an almost triumphant and ecstatic speech: “I, Antonius Bloch, am playing chess with Death!” It seems somehow unbelievable that at this moment, when his doom seems inevitable, Bloch seems so pleased with himself. But, as Bergman does throughout the film, this self-contained joy juxtaposed against the apparent hopelessness of external reality serves to provide us with a glimmer of hope. Perhaps, then, there is more to see than the gloom of Death, and perhaps Joseph’s visions create the possibility of Death holding imperfect knowledge which does not acknowledge the true existence of The Virgin and of God. Perhaps – and Bergman refuses to spoon-feed us the answer. We, as audience and participants in the process of interpretation, are left to do that work with ourselves.

Through answering questions we had accumulated from the beginning of the film, creating suspense and expectations about where the film will lead and paralleling other confessional scenes (as with Mia and Joseph on the hillside), and moments of intense inquiry (as with the witch), Bloch’s confessional scene helps drive and deepen the film’s narrative. It pointedly involves us in the questions Antonius seeks answers for, yet by the end of the film provides none. But it seems the consolation of The Seventh Seal is not to provide proof of God, to dispel our doubt, but to show us the beauty of “moments of peace” and charitable deeds which give our lives, be they in the presence of absence of God, meaning. It is the lone hope at the end of the film, in direct contrast to the despair and apparent meaninglessness of life and death. However paradoxically, it leaves us with a poignant smiles drawn across our faces, an expression perhaps only Bergman can conjure with his magic.

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