“And when he opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour. And the seven angels which had the seven trumpets prepared themselves to blow.”
The title, The Seventh Seal, is taken from this Biblical quotation straight out of The Revelation of St. John the Divine, chapter eight. Fittingly, the film tackles religiosity and the torture of doubt associated with the existence of a divine being. Highly influenced by both Akira Kurosawa and the murals in the church of Bergman’s father, The Seventh Seal is a foreign, ‘50s art house, existential allegory of religion, angst, love, and the meaning of life. It’s an intelligible masterpiece and a must-see before you meet your Maker.
The “your” is emphasized above, because The Seventh Seal spans several spiritual (or non-spiritual) viewpoints: a faithful questioner searching for proof, an existentialist, a sinner begging for forgiveness, a committed man seeking redemption, a silent believer, a sacrificial woman waiting for her love, and a knower of nothingness. Together, these seven archetypes make up the strand of souls that do the “dance of death.” The Seventh Seal also depicts a holy visionary, a possessed soul, a traitor, and a procession of flagellants.
Upon returning from the Crusades, knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) and his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) discover that their native land is savaged by the Black Plague. Simultaneously, Death (Bengt Ekerot) appears to Block and attempts to consume him under his black cloak. However, instead of accepting his fate without contest, Block challenges Death to a game of chess with his life at stake.
Meanwhile, the plague continues to spread and blanket the countryside in chaos. As people begin to anticipate the apocalypse and prepare for Judgment Day, Block and Jöns meet Jof (Nils Poppe), his wife Mia (Bibi Andersson), and their infant son Mikael (Tommy Karlsson), who turn out to play a central role in Block’s chess match. Additionally, Block and Jöns convene with a witch (Maud Hansson), Blacksmith Plog (Åke Fridell), his wife Lisa (Inga Gill), a “housekeeper” (Gunnel Lindblom), and Block’s wife Karin (Inga Landgré).
Squire Jöns is easily the film’s most existential character. Largely, it is he who causes Block to question his faith. Jöns is indifferent to God, hell, women, pain, etc. He says life is “hell with women and hell without.” He acknowledges only emptiness during and after death. And, he refers to Jesus Christ, God, and the Holy Ghost as mere “ghost stories.” In addition, Jöns “believes” that “love is the blackest of all plagues,” and it is useless to provide help/pity for the dying.
Much like Jöns serving as the symbol and catalyst of Block’s doubt, writer/director Ingmar Bergman similarly showcases symbolism throughout the film. For example, Death is an inescapable, tangible tactician who is impossible to outwit. Love is many things including a woman’s means of manipulating the male psyche. God is labeled “an idol of human fear,” and the game of chess is more importantly a “respite to perform a vital errand.” Mia and Jof (Swedish versions of Mary and Joseph) hope their baby boy will one day do an “impossible trick” — making Mikael a possible savior successor. Most interestingly, a bowl of milk reminds all that life is delicate and should be handled with care. With that said, cradle this Bergman classic “as carefully as a bowl of milk.”