Death defined the stylistic and philosophical identity of Bergman’s filmology. “I have struggled all my life with a tortured and joyless relationship with God,” he once said. “Faith and lack of faith, punishment, grace, and rejection all were real to me, all were imperative. My prayers stank of anguish, entreaty, tnist, loathing and despair. God spoke. God said nothing.”
At the beginning of The Seventh Seal, the knight Antonius Block, washed up on the Scandinavian beach following years of fighting in the Crusades, challenges Death to a chess game that will determine his fate. He’s driven by the urge to travel through his plague-stricken homeland as he did before the religious wars, and he’s conflicted by the existence of God, unsure and unwilling to jump into the void until he gets confirmation that there is something beyond. And above else, he wishes to make one last meaningful act, which consists of protecting a family of theatre performers and peasants from Death.
Bergman’s surreal images and stories are rooted in a naturalistic “dictum” (Michaels 30) to maximize the verisimilitudes of plays, a style popularized by the dramatic playwright August Strindberg. The effect of a storyteller’s effort to generate immersiveness for the exhibition of drama is a facet through which new ideas centered on subjectivity can be communicated through linear plot development. The Seventh Seal was one of the two Bergman films that were successful outside of Sweden and boosted Bergman to international fame. Lloyd Michaels argues that while The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries are “austere in their structure and execution,” they are “more properly to the realm of the theater than the cinema” (60). He writes about the “why” of Bergman’s approach to existential filmmaking in his book on Persona (1966), in which he examines the ways in which Bergman combined his native style and genre styles that were internationally established (24). Bergman’s mainstream heritage, Michaels writes, is “his focus on telling a story and doing so with utmost clarity” and maintain that clarity in order to venture into the “twilight land of suprareality,” as Bergman himself described in his book, Images: My Life in Film (1990) (28). I think the result of this combination of native and internationally established styles, built upon theatrical modernism (Michaels 26) with subjective narrative styles, was best described by All Movie Guide in 2007 following Bergman’s death: “Bergman brought to the screen a new sense of emotional intimacy, fusing the concepts behind Freudian psychotherapy with a dreamlike sensibility …” (Parker 409).
The Seventh Seal is based on a play that Bergman himself wrote called Wood-Painting, which a 1985 review described as “what a New York theater critic writing in the fifties might have called a ‘psychodrama.’ (Pressler 96). This suggests that The Seventh Seal’s aesthetic and narrative goal is rooted in the evolution of theater in the late 1800s and early 1900s, in which naturalism begins to evolve into a much more subjective experience that sought out empathy for new ideas that examined the human psyche, with its own mysticality. (Michaels argues that The Seventh Seal doesn’t quite deviate as far from the stylistic vernacular of Swedish naturalism and toward modernistic filmmaking so much as Persona does nearly a decade later.) There certainly exists a certain mysticism that casts a shadow over The Seventh Seal, a film in which Death takes a human form and claims his deaths personally.
But at the same time, death in the material sense is always present; the plague that is devastating the country, the Church-led military campaigns running through the villages executing people based on myth, and the corpse that Jöns is greeted by shortly following Block’s encounter as he tries to ask for directions, which points to the element of Death “following” those who are attempting escape. This ambiguity of evil lessens the value of death, to the point where our characters are made to look into the void and tell us what they see—and in the process, unwrap ideas on religion and society through a subjective, empathetic lens.
Block’s squire, Jons, the sketicst to his master’s idealist, acts as a sort of guide to the norms of the land while simultaneously sharpening Block’s own perceptions about the world he’s come back to. The Seventh Seal’s screenplay, which Michael Pressler describes in Literature Film Quarterly as “complex in its subtle interweaving of different strands of action, simple in that its general significance would be apparent even at a first reading,” gives parallel treatment to Block to Jöns in terms of screen time (98). Pressler writes that this is intended to create “constant companions” in which Block represents faith and Jöns represents doubt. Jöns is also written as a dynamic character and sees his views challenged and confirmed as he experiences different events across the countryside.
“The time granted by Death via the game of chess allows the knight a chance to delay death,” writes Laura Hubner, a Bergman biographer and film writer. “Ultimately, though, this delay allows a brief moment of insight into the secret of existence.” Another Bergman film that centers around time until death, Cries and Whispers (1972), is a mix of two styles, one is a linear narrative structure, the other a nonlinear and mystical mix of both naturalist and the dreamlike visualization (Serrano 15, 22). Multiple perspectives were captured through what Aarón Rodríguez Serrano, who analyzed the narrative language that was involved in formulating a “multiple focalizations” approach to narrative structure in which there were multiple focal points that alternate throughout the runtime of Cries and Whispers “to show small details, glimpses and examples of the emotional repression of the high society of the XIX century” (19). Using Serrano’s analysis and applying it to The Seventh Seal, we find that Block and Jons’ alternating screentime is a presentation of two separate perspectives and predispositions, belonging to separate individuals who experience similar worldview shocks when exposed to the world neither we nor the characters onscreen really understand.
Lloyd Michaels’ benchmark for determining the Bergman film that most significantly broke the mold of naturalist purely natural filmmaking is the Strindberg phenomenon—which I’m using to refer to the narrative and visual development and how the imagined verisimilitude in writing is converted to stage performance and production design. The Seventh Seal is more of a narrative study of how vivid, allegorical stories could be told and remain convincing despite its fictitious and metaphysical nature. It is one piece of the Strindberg phenomenon for film: the narrative part. Michaels is correct to suggest that Persona’s visual identity represents the second part: visual and audio immersiveness. But The Seventh Seal’s significance comes in that Bergman is combining native styles with international styles, with changes in narrative structure and visual design. The Seventh Seal represents a developmental period in both Bergman’s own filmology and the European film.
Strindberg Naturalism and Modernist Filmmaking
While Swedish cinema lacked artistically in the 1930s, as talking pictures spread through Europe, due to studios’ financial focus, government funding of the film industry in Sweden during World War II provided the resources for filmmakers to put stories on the screen. In the postwar period, the creatives that developed during that era began an artistic movement that cultured the naturalist style first introduced through the playwright August Strindberg. Swedish naturalist filmmaking contrasted with the gritty neorealism of the later years of the war in Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945). A period of films taking place during the Dark Ages began to arise in the early postwar period in Scandinavian countries. Hubner writes that “Religion … became the main focus for the films of the late 1950s and early 1960s, coinciding with the period when Bergman became known outside Sweden” (Hubner 47). “[Bergman’s] early rejection of God was tied to his rejection of his father,” John Petrakis writes in a Christian Century obituary following Bergman’s death in 2007 (55). “Later the issue of God’s existence grew more complex, morphing into questions about the silence of God, which to Bergman was mysterious and cruel.” Vercruysse points out that protagonists in postwar films that took were set in the Dark Ages usually centered around characters with relevant personalities to the audience. In The Seventh Seal, Block and Jöns are returning home from years of religious wars to a home country that they do not recognize. The populace, which consists of various farms and villages on the countryside, is gripped by the Black Plague, and the Church is enforcing a militaristic cleansing operation of sorts. The process of discovering what their homeland has become as a result of religious institutions’ wrath on the masses is a narrative structure that Vercruysse writes “allows the protagonist to arrive in a world which he has to discover himself, and implicitly the audience with him” (74). And this is the sort of development we see with Antonius Block, whose desire is to know.
Religion is a sure target of Bergman’s. It is his most identifiable recurring theme, universal through his filmography. Bergman was a pioneer of this ideological movement, a rebellion against the institutions that had seemed to offer no relief but advertised so. He found no value and no stake in the institutions that were pre-established as figures of moral authority. There’s a scene in The Seventh Seal when the group happens upon an execution, in which a despondent woman is burned at a cross for being suspected of witchcraft. Vercruysse describes this scene as critical in depicting “a society in which fear and terror are widespread and where the Church, instead of offering hope or relief, is mostly responsible for [it]” (110). The Seventh Seal’s implication of the Church as an institution that wields its influence as a tool for self sustainability is mirrored by a number of films set during medieval times. Therefore, not only is Bergman leading the charge stylistically and structurally but also in terms of the substance within his films, that criticize the institutions that he perceives have failed humanity. While Luis Bunuel finds humor in the way that religious institutions think and find pleasure in breaking popular tendencies, Bergman seems to find a fury for the injustice that occurs in a world where God is silent.
Silence of God: No Country for Old Men (2005)
In eternity, where there is no time, nothing can grow. Nothing can become. Nothing changes. So Death created time to grow the things it would kill.(True Detective, 2012)
Wild Strawberries paints the portrait of an old man, increasingly filled with regret as he dreams about his oncoming death and talks candidly with members of his family, as well as his interaction with a random couple on the freeway. In its introduction, Evald Borg, a professor on his way to accept an honorary degree, experiences a vivid dream signaling his own death. This is followed by a thrillingly introspective dissection of the sphere of reality of an old man blind to the world around him, which is conveyed through a story of an old man who has outgrown the world he lives in, whose eyes have finally opened to the sort of individual he’s made himself to be. Petrakis writes that this emotional theme would be “turned toward remorse, with a nasty edge, suggesting that delayed self-awareness does not offer salvation, especially not in a world where God remains silent.”
Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men is a scorching novel of drug deals and fugitive bounty hunters in the desert, as is its film adaptation by the Coen Brothers two years after its publication in 2005. The elements of the story, especially with respect to Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, who realizes he is out of his element, and has lost whatever control he thought he had over the world that it was his job to preserve. If we look at Antonius Block and Evald Borg and do a cross-examination with Sheriff Bell, we should also consider Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu calm postwar film Tokyo Story, in which similar themes of old age and regret are explored among various perspectives—similar to Serrano’s description of a multifaceted narrative avenue for Cries and Whispers—on the margins of a Japan that is quickly industrializing and leaving the older generation in the dust. Shukishi Hirayama, an old man who has lived through a decade of Japanese imperial society and is now struggling to spend time with his family, is an enigma. Throughout the first half of the movie or so he doesn’t indicate any discomfort. And it is until he is drunk and with some old friends that is able to express his acceptance of the truth: that he’s outgrown the world in which he lives, and is unable to understand or participate in the world his son is a doctor in.
Borg’s dilemma in Bergman’s Wild Strawberries isn’t necessarily centered around understanding, but rather on perception: he makes rude, sexist comments to his daughter-in-law, he experiences different tones in which he loses the love of his life, Sara, to his brother, and he fails to please his mother as he visits her. The allegorial trial sequence that concludes the film is a direct indictment of the regretful old man. There is an observable bridge here between Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal and No Country for Old Men, and it can be thought of in the following sequence question, a conversation, and an ambiguous answer. As Evald Borg stares into his dead double’s body in a coffin, he’s confronted with a deadline that he does not know. This leaves him suspended in a sort of moral review. As Antonius Block faces off Death, a physical entity here, he is fighting for his life, eager to know the answer before he is doomed to the void. We soon find that Block’s morality is now in crisis, and he feels he must do something for the good of mankind before he willingly leaves life behind. As Ed Tom Bell tracks Llewelyn Moss and the morally devoid Anton Chigurh through Texas, we get an answer to these two questions about the changing world where violence is currency for power. That answer is that not only does death signify nothing, it selects its victims randomly, and the fact that you saved a band of travelers from Bengt Ekerot in a cloak has a zero effect on way in which you die. Regret doesn’t matter because morality doesn’t determine whether or not you die. This ambiguity really embraces the melancholy of emptiness and meaninglessness, devoid of the answers that will never come.
Hubner, Laura. “Religion, Truth and Symbolism from The Seventh Seal to The Silence”, “The Films of Ingmar Bergman: Illusions of Light and Darkness”. Palgrave Macmillan, UK. 2007.
Michaels, Lloyd. “Ingmar Bergman’s Persona”. Cambridge University Press 2000.
Parker, Steve. “Ingmar Bergman, cinematic philosopher: reflections on his creativity.” Australian Journal of Adult Learning; Canberra Vol. 48, Iss. 2, (Jul 2008): 408-411.
Petrakis, John. “Angst.” Christian Century 124, no. 18 (September 4, 2007)
Pressler, Michael. “The Idea Fused in the Fact: Bergman and The Seventh Seal.” Literature Film Quarterly 13, no. 2 (June 1985): 95. pp. 98.
Serrano, Aarón Rodríguez. “Narrating Time toward Death: Film Analysis of Cries and Whispers (Viskningar Och Rop, Ingmar Bergman, 1972).” Communication & Society, vol. 30, no. 3, July 2017, pp. 13–26. EBSCOhost, doi:10.15581/003.30.3.13-28.
True Detective, season 1, HBO, 9 March 2014.