Birgitta Steene

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 821

[The opening scene of The Seventh Seal] is not merely a piece of cinematic exposition; it is a thematic prelude: in the image of the gliding bird seen against a sky which is "a dome of lead," Bergman telescopes the knight's hopeless search for God, who remains distant and silent. (p. 92)

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Although the knight's quest is medieval, his skeptic and anxious temper is modern. To help justify such an anachronism Bergman claims that the medieval world depicted in The Seventh Seal is basically a historical metaphor for our own world threatened by atomic destruction: "In my film the Crusader returns from the Crusades as the soldier returns from the war today. In the Middle Ages, men lived in terror of the plague. Today they live in fear of the atomic bomb. The Seventh Seal is an allegory with a theme that is quite simple: man, his eternal search for God, with death as his only certainty."

Bergman's use of the term "allegory" should be taken in a general rather than medieval sense, being a story in which the spiritual content is set forth in a concrete action and with characters whose movements are realistic but whose basic function is that of abstract symbols. (p. 93)

Philosophically, The Seventh Seal departs from medieval allegory in two respects: the metaphysical uncertainty that characterizes Bergman's film has little in common with the a priori assumption of an orderly universe, which underlies original allegory; and the central character in the prototypal allegory is not haunted by doubt; his problem is his forgetfulness of God, and God emerges not as an enigma but as a father figure anxious to reach and save His straying child.

The philosophical mood of The Seventh Seal is related to the existentialist view that a human life is decided not in intellectual questioning but in the choice of action. (pp. 93-4)

Bergman juxtaposes the knight's intellectual probing and his relationship with Jof and Mia, the visionary artist and the maternal woman, whose son one day will "perform the impossible trick of making a ball stand still in the air" (i.e., like Christ he will transcend nature). The traditional function of the Crusader in medieval art was not as the colonizer of the Holy Land but as the protector of the Holy Family. Bergman's knight performs the same service. But in saving Jof and his family by distracting Death's attention away from them, Antonius Block loses the game—and his life. It is a situation of ironic blasphemy: Man redeems Christ. (p. 95)

The figure of Death stands only on the threshold of the unknown; he is not a messenger, but merely a blind instrument. But he might be considered the focal point in the film … The Seventh Seal concerns man's reactions in the face of eschatological matters. Almost all the characters can be linked to Death and evaluated according to his influence over them. While Skat and Raval live as though Death did not exist, and Tyan and the flagellants as though nothing else existed, the knight and Jöns carry on a resentful and challenging dialogue with Death. (p. 96)

Jöns is more than the hedonist he appears to be. Like Antonius Block he represents the consciousness of modern man. The knight and his squire complement each other, and depict the skeptic personality facing a world where God is silent: one in futile introspection, the other in gallant action. They do not offer an alternative. All the film seems to say is that some people can live without illusions and still function as useful social beings, while others succumb to their need to believe and lose themselves in a search for God. At one point the knight cries out: "Why can't I kill God within me? Why does He live on in this painful and humiliating way even though I curse Him and want to tear Him out of my heart? Why, in spite of everything, is He a baffling reality that I can't shake off?" In this statement we sense again the modern temper of The Seventh Seal: the realization that moral will has given way to psychological needs—which excludes a possibility of choice. Yet, both the knight and Jöns are conceived as moral agents, and in this ambivalence Bergman again establishes his affinity with existentialist philosophy and its tenet that we must live as though we had a free will. The insoluble dilemma dramatized in the fate of Antonius Block also points to one of Ibsen's central themes: the curse (i.e., the moral judgment) that falls upon a man who must follow his calling. (pp. 96-7)

Birgitta Steene, "'The Seventh Seal': An Existential Vision," in her Ingmar Bergman (copyright © 1968 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, A Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1968 (and reprinted in Focus on "The Seventh Seal," edited by Birgitta Steene, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1972, pp. 92-9).

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