Questioning the purpose of life is precisely the point of Ingmar Bergman's film The Seventh Seal. The story of Crusader Knight's travels through the plague-ravaged countryside while competing with the personification of Death over a game of chess is possibly Bergman's most philosophical story. The myriad human interactions, as well as the knight's, Antonius Block's, conversation with Death while they play the ultimate 'for-keeps' game of chess is one long discourse on the nature of our existence and the question of whether a benign God rules all perched above His creations.
Block, the knight, demands of Death the answers to the questions many have asked to no avail, including how there can be a loving God when all around him people are dying horrible deaths from the bubonic plague sweeping the continent. While Bergman directed his film well-after the end of the Second World War and the revelations of the scale of death and destruction associated with the Holocaust, the questions concerning life and death and the role of a supposed Divine Being had been most frequently posed in direct connection to that sorry episode in human history.
In his film, Bergman takes a decidedly cynical view of religion, with his protagonist searching determinately for a reason to believe grounded in scientific fact rather than simply accepted as the word of Scripture. Note, for instance, the following exchange between Block and Death as they play their chess game -- a game the outcome of which will determine whether the knight lives or dies:
Antonius Block: I want knowledge! Not faith, not assumptions, but knowledge. I want God to stretch out His hand, uncover His face and speak to me.
Death: But He remains silent.
Block: I call out to Him in the darkness. But it's as if no one was there.
Death: Perhaps there isn't anyone.
Block: Then life is a preposterous horror. No man can live faced with Death, knowing everything's nothingness.
Death: Most people think neither of death nor nothingness.
Block: But one day you stand at the edge of life and face darkness.
As Block wanders the countryside accompanied by his dutiful squire, Jons, he encounters a variety of people, including an acting troupe, all of which provides the filmmaker an opportunity to expand his existential theme. Of these encounters, the one with a witch is particularly interesting for the depths to which Block will go to have an answer regarding the existence of God:
Block: They say you have consorted with the devil?
Witch: Why do you ask that?
Block: It's not out of curiosity, but because of utterly personal reasons. I would also like to meet him.
Block: I want to ask him about God. He must know. He, if anyone.
Throughout The Seventh Seal, Bergman juxtaposes the wide-scale suffering caused by the plague with the question of whether God exists. Characters ruminate upon the irreconcilable notion of such suffering alongside a Divine Being, with the suggestion of God's complicity in the suffering hanging over every encounter by Block with innocent artists and tradesmen.
The main point to remember about The Seventh Seal isn't that it provides the answers to the existential questions it raises; rather, it is content to ask these questions and allows the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions. Bergman was known for making dark, contemplative films. He used his craft as a vehicle through which to ponder the larger questions of life, including those about the nature of man's very existence. In other words, he challenges audiences to develop some notion about how you view the role of religion and reconcile the horrors of real life with the notion of a Supreme Being dispensing justice. Bergman seems to suggest that, regarding the dispensing of justice, we are all, inevitably, guilty.