Peter Cowie

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 913

The latent power of The Seventh Seal stems from an everpresent fear in man's mind; a fear of the unknown. That twentieth-century man lives in the shadow of nuclear catastrophe is not fundamental to the film; but it allows one to share the bewilderment of the knight and his companions. It is this search for knowledge that illuminates all Bergman's mature films. It imposes a pattern on life, which becomes a journey through time and space. The transience of human existence does not depress Bergman so much as the pitiful groping of man to comprehend the world around him.

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The Seventh Seal, like Wild Strawberries, The Face, and The Virgin Spring, ends on a note of optimism, with the Holy Family leading their wagon along the sunlit shore. And to a certain extent the book of Revelation, where the title of the film originates, is for all its violent imagery, a song of consolation…. The opening of the seals provides an interval for man to consider his significance on earth. He must realize that he cannot overcome his fear or improve the world unless he chooses the most difficult path. Thus the knight plays chess with Death, risking his entire being for the hope of committing one worthy act before the Apocalypse. Bergman shows that he loses his right to choice of action if he falls under the influence of the church. (p. 101)

Jöns and the other characters in The Seventh Seal present the knight with pointers towards a different attitude to life. "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God," is the most apposite description of Jof and Mia. They are simple folk who escape Death in the end because they never question God's existence or love. "One day is like another," says Mia. "The summer, of course, is better than the winter, because in summer you don't have to be cold. But spring is best of all." Theirs is an implicit faith in the beauty of life which relates them to other Bergman characters such as Sara in Wild Strawberries and Simson in The Face. (pp. 104-05)

The love that binds Jof and Mia is stronger than the menace of Death. When in the morning sunshine, Mia tells Jof to stop juggling and says, smiling, "I love you," the words are so tender and sincere that Death is no more than an empty mask dangling beside the caravan…. [They] are the faultless souls who survive to start a train of hope for humanity again. Bergman has said, "Whenever I am in doubt or uncertainty I take refuge in the vision of a simple and pure love. I find this love in those spontaneous women who … are the incarnation of purity." (p. 105)

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of The Seventh Seal is the way Bergman creates an atmosphere in which these afflicted people can perform so persuasively. The film begins on a rocky beach, which is viewed from a lofty angle as the knight awakes with the dawn. There is a marked feeling of desolation and all extraneous sounds are absent from the encounter with Death, giving it an unearthly quality as the landscape darkens. After the initial moves in the game of chess, the knight and his squire ride along the ridge overlooking the sea. Bergman uses a series of dissolves so that the images disintegrate in glaucous sunlight, and the heat becomes almost palpable, as it does in the flashback at the beginning of Sawdust and Tinsel. But while the sea summons up resonances of hope, of arrival and departure, the chapel where the Crusaders stop briefly has the aura of a prison. Abstract concepts are translated into hard, tangible symbols throughout The Seventh Seal, and the grille that separates Block from his opponent in the confessional bars the knight's progress towards knowledge. (p. 107)

The Seventh Seal, like the moralities, is built on stylization. The characters wear their sentiments on their sleeve. The overriding symbol, Death himself, appears like a motif at a number of crucial psychological stages in the film, culminating in his terrifying confession of ignorance to the knight after he has defeated him in the game of chess. Hope becomes a squirrel bounding on to a tree stump after Skat's death, or a ray of moonlight filling a forest glade as Raval lies dead, or a caravan with its errant, innocent owners trundling along the seashore into the sun. Disillusion becomes the rigid gaze of a girl on the stake; resignation, the tossing of a log on a fire by a listless, lonely wife; horror, the rhythmical banging of beer mugs on an inn table while a man dances for his life. It is this triumphant blend of literary antecedent and visual metaphor that makes The Seventh Seal such a profound and ambitious film, unequalled in the Swedish cinema as an exercise in tempered expressionism, less ornate than Sawdust and Tinsel, less theatrical than Miss Julie. Its theme is universal and yet particularly momentous to the Swedes; the fundamental situation of men faced by death and striving to find some meaning in life is common to the work of Strindberg and Lagerkvist. At this stage Bergman neither denies nor affirms Christian tradition. He probes, he interrogates. (pp. 108-09)

Peter Cowie, "Ingmar Bergman: The Middle Period," in his Sweden 2 (copyright © 1970 by Peter Cowie), A. S. Barnes & Co., 1970 (and reprinted in Focus on "The Seventh Seal," edited by Birgitta Steene, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1972, pp. 100-09).

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