THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957)
PHILOSOPHICAL ISSUES: Philosophy of religion, problem of evil
CHARACTERS: Antonius Block (Max von Sydow, crusader knight), Jons (Block’s squire), Death, Jof (actor, Mia’s husband), Mia (actor, Jof’s wife), Raval (seminarist)
OTHER FILMS BY DIRECTOR INGMAR BERGMAN: Wild Strawberries (1957), Through a Glass Darkly (1962), The Silence (1963), Persona (1966), Fanny and Alexander (1983)
SYNOPSIS: “The Seventh Seal” is a slice of life from a 14th century Swedish village, which was experiencing the devastating effects of the plague. The film has two interwoven storylines. The first centers on Block, a disillusioned crusader who returns home after 10 years in the holy land. Meeting Death along the way, he attempts to forestall his fate by challenging Death to a game of chess in which, if the knight won, death would leave him alone. On successive days, the opponents move one chess piece at a time. Meanwhile, the knight sees villagers struggle understand their impending doom in the context of their religious faith. The second storyline involves a husband and wife acting team, who pass through the village at the same time as the night. The two are surprisingly happy, and their upbeat show stands in stark contrast to the surrounding misery. The couple meets the knight, and the group, along with some others, travel to the knights castle. Along the way the knight plays his final move with the Death. He loses, but distracts Death long enough to allow the couple to escape. The knight and the rest of the group arrive at the castle, and subsequently meet their fate at Deaths hands. As the storyline develops, the movie highlights many of the worst shortcomings of religion. Among these are religion’s inadequate explanations of human suffering, the absence of any compelling proof of God’s existence, religion’s emphasis on self-mortification, religion’s slowing the progress of scientific explanation, the misguided witch hunts by church authorities, the immoral conduct of the clergy, and the tendency of religious leaders to manipulate believers into performing immoral tasks.
1. Block states the following in his confession to death (who he thinks is a priest): “Why must God hide in vague promises and invisible miracles? ... What will become of us who want to believe but cannot? And what of those who neither will nor can believe? Why can I not kill God within me? Why does he go on living in a painful, humiliating way? I want to tear him out of my heart, but he remains a mocking reality which I cannot get rid of. ... I want knowledge. Not belief. Not surmise. But knowledge.” Why is religious knowledge so important, and why aren’t many believers satisfied with just belief or surmise?
2. Block continues in his confession that if God isn’t there, “then life is a senseless terror. No man can live with Death and know that everything is nothing.” Believers often assert that a Godless world is gloomy. Would an atheist agree, and, if not, is there much sense in the believer’s assertion?
3. Block also states in his confession that “We must make an idol of our fear and call it God.” This reflects a common view in the psychology of religion that belief in God is initially sparked by fear of the unknown. Is there any truth to this and, if so, does this undermine religion?
4. In one scene, Squire Jons prevents Raval (a former seminarist) from stealing from the dead and raping and murdering a young woman. Raval, Jons states, was the one who persuaded Block to go on his futile 10-year crusade; Raval claims that he initially did that in good faith. This scene illustrates a centuries-old problem about the moral integrity of the clergy, whose hypocrisies are highlighted all the more because their job descriptions require them to spokespersons of religious truth. To what extent do the moral deficiencies of the clergy undermine the religious message that they present?
5. One of the more shocking scenes in the film is the “procession of flagellants” in which believers march through the streets whipping each other. By doing so they aimed to purge their sins, drive away Satan and thereby escape the plague, which, they believed, God inflicted on them as a punishment. Jons asks, “Do they really expect modern people to take the drivel seriously?” Are there contemporary equivalents of this that are less extreme?
6. A group of people sitting at a table in an Inn discuss the devastating effects of the plague. The woman at the inn stated that “It’s judgment day, and the awful omens, a woman has given birth to a calf’s head.... Many have purged themselves with fire and died. But better that than hell, the priests say.” Others insist that it is the end times and judgment day. This is an interesting combining of folk superstition with more institutionalized religious beliefs. Is it possible to completely remove one from the other?
7. Jos, Mia and their child – a kind of Joseph, Mary and Jesus – represent a virtuous simplicity that overpowers evil. In this case, they succeed in cheating Death’s attempt to take their lives. According to the commentary accompanying the DVD, Bergman’s critics have argued that it’s not particularly profound to paint the most virtuous people as being the most simple and uncomplicated. What kind of virtue would be superior to this?
8. At the outset of the film Block stated that he was in quest of one action that would give meaning to his life. At the end of the film he finds that meaning by distracting Death and thereby allowing Jof and Mia to escape. Wouldn’t it take more than a single act of goodness like this to give life meaning?
9. When Death finally enters the castle, Block trembles, recites his prayers, and hopes to be rescued. Jons mocks him saying “there is no one to listen to your lament. I could have purged your worries about eternity, but now its too late. But feel, to the very end, the triumph of being alive.” What is Jons' point?
10. The DVD commentator tells us that “Many years later, Bergman was asked at a press conference about his true feelings on death. And he answered, I was afraid of this enormous emptiness. But my personal view is that when we die we die, and we go from a state of something to state of absolute nothingness. And I don’t believe for a second that there’s anything above or beyond or anything like that, and this makes me enormously secure.” Can one find security in complete anihilation as Bergman suggests?
11. The DVD commentator also states that the entire film is a conflict between Block’s idealism and Jons' hedonism. Bergman, he believes, made Jons' character and perspective more appealing. Do you agree that Jons' character is indeed more appealing?