Review of Ingmar Bergman’s Film “The Seventh Seal”

Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal is a deeply allegorical film about a knight just returned from the Crusades who plays a game of chess with Death. Throughout the delay of his death, granted to him for the duration of the game and longer if he wins, he assists a young couple, Mary and Joseph, and their little son Michael traverse a dark forest.  At first glance, it seems as though the 1957 film staunchly supports the idea that because there is no easily-seen, readily visible truth or purpose to life, there must therefore be none, rendering the search for meaning pointless because it is fruitless. This idea is evident in the seeming absence of any cause and effect for any of the actions that occur within the film, as well as the inability to possess any kind of definite knowledge about the universe. However, despite the bleak nature of the film, its ending points to a positive message—that is, that the search for meaning by everybody from philosophers to scientists, though the results it yields are few and fleeting, should not be discontinued.  Many of the most immediate elements of the stark film seem to suggest that the quest for enlightenment is pointless, because there simply is no truth to be learned. Because the characters in the film believe in a meaningful world, they also believe in an ordered and reasonable one, where events are the direct, predictable results of certain causes. Therefore, when the Plague strikes Crusade-era Europe, the film’s narration explains that Europeans believe that it must be a punishment by the lord for sinful behavior. They march through the death-stricken towns of Sweden, the locale of the film, lashing each other with chains and carrying heavy wooden crosses, all while singing to the lord. To the onlookers, however, their self-inflicted, grotesque punishments seem pathetic and pointless, since their efforts are not bringing about any perceptible change to the state of the Plague in Europe.  In addition, at one point a woman is condemned to be burned at the stake because she has allegedly communed with the devil and is thought to be the cause of the Plague. Right before she is taken onto the platform where she will be burned, the knight approaches her and asks her about her relationship with the devil. He himself has misgivings about whether or not there is really any purpose to his existence or to the ten years he spent battling in the Crusades, and he hopes that by receiving affirmation that there is a devil, he will be a step closer to receiving affirmation that there is structure and meaning to the universe in which he lives. However, he is disappointed by the woman, who can give no concrete evidence that she has seen the devil but still insists that he will save her from being burned at the stake; in fact, she boasts that the men who have been hired to burn her will not even be able to touch her. Immediately after she says this, however, they approach and carry her to the stake, where she is burned. This incident is the most significant evidence in the film for the lack of a meaningful and ordered universe; the woman believed that she would be saved, and yet her beliefs were obviously in vain. Furthermore, the condemners themselves were wrong too, since obviously her death did not bring an end to the Plague. All of the inhabitants of the film are searching desperately for some reason that would explain why the Plague and the Crusades had to occur, and yet the more they search, the more it seems as though there are no easy answers. Finally, as the knight and his knave are watching her burn, the knave reports cynically that her eyes are filled with horror because she is discovering that there is, in fact, no meaning to her existence. As he says this, the knight’s face contorts into a look of terror, as though he cannot help but agree with his friend, despite the years he has spent searching for Truth. After this incident, it seems as though the world of the characters is a bleak and meaningless one indeed. However, the role of Death indicates that perhaps the knave should not be so certain about the absence of Truth in the world. Death’s character throughout the film is perhaps the most difficult to interpret. Although he is usually himself, he will occasionally appear to the knight disguised as a figure from the world of the living. Crucially, he is always disguised as a religious figure, a monk or a priest. Such men make it their career to seek enlightenment, in their case according to the idea of the Christian God. This parallel seems to suggest that Death himself seeks enlightenment. Since death in reality is a state of being, not a person, one can infer that the parallel intends to open the possibility that enlightenment might be sought through death. This parallel does not suggest that there is a definite truth, only that there is the possibility of one, thus meriting a search for it. It defies the pessimistic knave’s belief that the look of horror in the burning woman’s eyes demonstrates definitively that there is no truth, and thus that there is no point in searching for it. In fact, after the knight and knave, with the family that they are assisting through the forest, leave the dying woman behind, the camera angle shifts so that the audience can follow her line of view. It is clear from this shift that the look of terror the knight and knave had seen was actually directed toward a physical object; she had seen Death, disguised as a monk, sitting on a rock and watching her. This knowledge refutes the knave’s certainty; it seems as though the woman’s look of terror is no more than acknowledgement, finally, of her imminent death. Near the end of the film, Death even admits to the knight that he, too, is unknowing of the workings of the universe. If Death himself is uncertain about the existence of truth and purpose, then certainly no human being can claim to be certain that there is none. Finally, the knight loses the game of chess, and he and the people he is travelling with all are taken into Death’s clutches. All, that is, except for the couple with the child that the knight had been escorting through the forest. The husband awakes in time to see the knight playing chess with Death, and, knowing that this cannot be a good thing, he whisks his wife and child away before dawn. At the very end of the film, the three of them watch their old friends disappear over the horizon into the unknown world beyond, and then they happily continue on the journey they have undertaken, full of hope. Their names are Joseph and Mary, a conspicuous reference to the parents of Jesus in the Bible. The couple perhaps represents a hope for the enlightenment of mankind, as Mary and Joseph of the Bible represented to their contemporaries. Their son’s name, however, is not Jesus—he is no savior. He is Michael, who in Christian belief is the gatekeeper to Heaven. Truth, in the form of Heaven, lies beyond the gate of Michael in Christian belief; perhaps, then, baby Michael survives at the end of the film to express that the journey beyond which Truth might lie should be guarded and never disregarded (note that the “garded” of disregarded actually stems from the word “guarded,” thus strengthening the relationship between these two seemingly unrelated words).  Whether or not Truth actually exists doesn’t matter; the search for it must go on, exactly because it can never be definitely proved to be real or unreal. The search for truth itself gives man meaning, just as it is in this search that meaning may be found. The act of searching for truth and enlightenment is thus the world’s beacon of hope, its opportunity to search for its purpose, if it has one. Perhaps this self-initiated purpose and truth are the only purpose and truth; perhaps not. However, without a continuous search for meaning, the whole world would be as bleak as the one that the pessimistic knave imagined to be reflected in the eyes of the woman who was at death’s door.