The Seventh Seal – An Essential Humanities Text

Death is a daily event across the planet. About one hundred eight people die each minute, yet we try not to think about it. A world consciously surrounded by death, fourteenth century black plague infested Sweden, is the setting for Ingmar Bergman’s classic work of cinema The Seventh Seal. The movie portrays Death as a black robbed figure. Death follows Antonius Block, a knight who has just returned from the crusades after ten years of fighting, and his adventurous band of tagalongs as Antonius travels home.

After returning from a war that he didn’t believe in, Antonius is searching for a God to find meaning in his actions. Antonius reveals his existential crisis when he accidentally confesses to Death, disguised as a priest, in the church scene. As Antonius calmly plays a game of chess with Death that will determine whether he lives or dies, he speaks like a man caught in a deep search for meaning. In contrast to Antonius, his squire Jöns is a nihilist who finds comedy and makes jokes in a world beset by tragedy.

Throughout the movie, Christianity and the Church enhance the fear of characters instead of trying to calm those fears. The movie has scenes of religion that are paired with great pain. This is partly a product of Bergman’s own conflicted grim religious state. Juxtaposing the Church and the silent character that Death portrays, the greater tragedy of pain brought on by human ignorance is revealed. There is specifically one scene where a flogging procession interrupts the merrymaking of a troupe of actors. The wails and shaking bodies of the devoted flock portray a human sadness so gripping that no viewer can remain unaffected.

While the film is serious in one sense, it also offers much comedy. Satirical jokes and dark humor pop up throughout the film. This creates entertainment and humanizes the characters in a way that seems natural for what the film is dealing with. The jokes don’t come off as corny or out of place either, as some comedic relief does. The comedy also knows its place in the film. While it is there, it yields the main attention of the film to the deep philosophical existentialism that the characters must contemplate.

The Swedish culture and mindset permeate the film. For example, when Antonius plays chess with Death and Jöns makes jokes about death, it might seem off putting to foreign viewers. However, this portrays how death is commonly dealt with in Sweden’s artistic milieu. Another hint of Swedish influence lies in the tranquil happiness that Antonius finds with the acting troupe family. The peace with nature, good food, the shinning happiness of children, and being surrounded by loved ones, are all common features of what is culturally accepted as idyllic Swedish life.

The Seventh Seal, despite what might be seen as a dated appearance, continues to grip the emotions of audiences and effectively communicates common philosophical questions. This is what makes it a timeless classic. Many films, even with modern technology, fail to explore philosophy and remain entertaining at the same time. However, The Seventh Seal does this both in a way that is natural and uncompromising. Only films of the highest order can truly juggle artistic philosophical poignancy and capture entertainment value at the same time as this film does. The Seventh Seal lives up to its common designation as a classic in applause worthy form.