Cloak of Death:
Ingmar Bergman’s Personal Journey through The Seventh Seal
Renowned filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal is often regarded as one of his best works, if not the most imitated and parodied since its 1957 release, but it’s also perhaps his most personal in his filmography. That being said, one of Bergman’s last works, Fanny and Alexander, is universally regarded as his most autobiographical production, a confrontation on Bergman’s part against his father, of whom he had less than ideal childhood experiences with. Although Fanny and Alexander concentrates on aspects of Bergman’s life, it is arguably not as autobiographical or personal as The Seventh Seal. An exploration of theology, The Seventh Seal is a conduit in which Bergman can battle his own demons and posit questions and explore their implications through the characters, taking lifelong fear and childhood experiences as inspiration to make this film his most personal and a representation of who Bergman is.
First and foremost, The Seventh Seal continues the tradition of certain themes and motifs typical of a Bergman film. Similar to Alfred Hitchcock’s running gag of a blond female murdered in a majority of his productions, Bergman manifests the perfect woman in his films. In this case, the honor goes to Mia, coincidently played by a woman engaged in a relationship with Bergman for a number of years. Commentary on the emotional cruelty of humanity is also prevalent here, as the case of the woman who allegedly has the Devil in her displays by the cruel actions of the soldiers and (inevitably) executioners. The plague becomes a physical manifestation, in a way, of God’s cruelty and seemingly indifference. If there was a God, surely the horrors of this phenomenon would not exist, or be cast out. And therein lays the greatest theme of The Seventh Seal, the existence or lack thereof God.
As a child, Bergman was raised under strict discipline. His father, Erik Bergman, was a Lutheran minister, and his mother Karin, was a wealthy, strong and proud woman who clashed with her husband on multiple occasions. Although religion was a heavy aspect of Bergman’s childhood, he altogether did not subscribe to one. Nevertheless, he attended church with his father which lead to various visual inspirations in the final film, and increased his interest and fear of dogma and death. Another aspect of his childhood worth mentioning that undoubtedly had an impact on his obsession with matters of death and the existence of God is his job as a gardener when he was six years of age. It was his task to carry corpses from the Royal Hospital Sofia Lemmet to the mortuary. Suffice to say, Bergman is not a religious man, a skeptic and fearful man of death from childhood to old age. However, religion inevitably crept into his life, and used it for his own artistic means, making screenplays and cinema the outpost of his inner struggles.
Multiple visual images from the film originate from medieval paintings Bergman came across in his life, most likely during his time at his father’s church in Uppland with its walls and ceilings decorated with paintings. Three specific paintings are the most pronounced, becoming iconic images from the film. First is Albertus Pictor’s famous painting of Death engaged in a chess game with a knight, highly influential in Bergman’s finished production and one of the leading images representing his work. Pictor’s sizable influence leads to a physical cameo in the film, as Jons the squire engages in the painter in conversation in the films first act. Second is The Dance of Death (or Danse Macabre), a 1493 rendering by Michael Wolgemut, depicting Death summoning people to dance on graves, a reminder of the frailty of life. This painting makes its way to the renowned penultimate shot in the picture as Jof is imbued with his “vision” of Death leading the Knight and his companions in a dance. The third world renowned painting finding a physical depiction in the film is Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. Although not explicitly composed in accordance to the painting, there are similarities not only in member position (e.g., the Knight’s squire in the middle overlooking the table, the man content and full of wisdom and figurative head of the household) but the overbearing mood of the sequence. Bergman doesn’t foreshadowing the impending fate of these people, but there is the overwhelming sensation of a final supper taking place.
Although visuals do play a role in The Seventh Seal’s mood, it’s the script, written by Bergman, which enjoys the greater emphasis. Visually speaking, Bergman appears restrained in the majority of his compositions, as if directing the audience’s attention to the musings of Antonius Block the Knight and asking them to place your concentration on the questions than the way they’re presented. Through Antonius Block, all of Bergman’s contemplations on the existence of God, of the existence of an afterlife, and death itself, are voiced for everyone to hear and share in his theological dilemma. In the rare instances where Bergman favors emphasizing the visual aspect of the film aside from the necessary close-up and establishing shots, he conveys a sort of symbolism in their composition. The scene between Antonius and Death in the church, shot from the side of Death, has a very specific lighting: with the exception of the two figures’ faces barely lit, all around them they are enveloped in darkness, separated by a bar that symbolically stand for the divide between life and death. The script in this scene, the Knight raging against God’s indifference, mirrors the consuming dark lighting. Undoubtedly, the words are spoken by Bergman as much as they are the Knight.
Not only is it a visually and verbally striking scene, it is also perhaps the most personal to Bergman, and also displays the autobiographical nature of the film. Living in skepticism and fear, of God and death and some sort of meaning of life (a theme also richly explored in Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru), Ingmar Bergman is, for all intents and purposes, Antonius Block. The Knight’s journey is his own, the Knight’s fears and queries his mind and mouth, and ultimately, the Knight’s fate and Bergman’s fate is inescapable. In addition to their analogous tales, they also share similar personalities. The Knight, like Bergman, speaks little, focusing instead in their introspective thoughts and meditations, and the little Antonius Block does speak, conversations of a friendly carefree manner are irregular, instead divulging his innermost thoughts and ideas. As a little nudge to Bergman’s acknowledgement of his own philosophical musings as lackluster conversation starters, in the scene between Mia and the Knight engaged in discussion outside, the Knight refers to himself as “boring company”.
As Antonius Block is the representation of Ingmar Bergman in the film, the script is a bible of Bergman’s viewpoints, questions, philosophical stances, and existential musings. By the films closing minutes, as well as Death’s ironic claim of Skat complimenting this concept, Bergman seems to accept that no one can escape death, but instead posits that the trick is banishing the fear of death. This is represented by the squire’s closing words of protest and resolution, as opposed to the Knight who remains defiant to the very end, despite his fulfillment of doing something worthwhile. If the viewer is to accept Antonius Block as Ingmar Bergman, his final stance is to lash out at Death no matter the futility of the action. Stemmed from fear and certainty of entering a state of nothingness, Antonious/Ingmar’s cry to the heavens is understandable. Indeed, the dialogue from all the characters in their final moments speak for Bergman’s conflicting feelings: the silent girl overcome with joy and fulfillment, Block’s wife and Plog the blacksmith defining themselves as who they are, Jons protestant resolution, and the Knight raging against the inevitable asking for mercy from a deity he doesn’t fully believe in. A fight of faith and reason is the quintessential theme of this movie and, by extension, Bergman’s life.
The Seventh Seal wouldn’t mark the conclusion of Bergman’s quandaries about death, as it’s a running theme in many more of his films, either as a not-too-subtle subject or a physical presence in the background. In the end, Seventh Seal didn’t answer any questions nor did it spark a profound epiphany concerning the existence of God or what awaits a person after death, but in later years his fear did diminish and Bergman finally became resolute on a position. In the 2006 documentary Bergman Island, a series of operations a number of years ago forced him to ‘go under’, and he found the ease and quickness of the transition from consciousness to unconsciousness interesting and startling simplistic. He no longer fears death as Antonius Block does, instead adamant and excited to see his late wife Ingrid Bergman waiting for him.
In the end, The Seventh Seal is Bergman’s greatest and most personal work as he posits his questions to the audiences and battles his own inner demons of fear and skepticism. There are no answers offered, as Death refuses every charge of Block’s, just the resolution that death is inevitable, and the film provides multiple different points of views from all the characters for the audience to identify and side with. The Seventh Seal is Ingmar Bergman at his greatest, wisest, and most personal state of being, and his timeless production continues to ignite debate and interest even now and undoubtedly years to come.