Breaking the Seal
Roman law, in the first century, required wills and codices, usually written on papyrus scrolls, to be sealed. Only after the death could the survivors break the wax bond and discover its promises. Nearly one hundred years after Christ’s death, when hopes for an immediate return had begun to fade among the new Christians, and ethnic and internecine violence had decimated Jerusalem and unsettled the full Mediterrean world, John of Patmos offered a reassuring vision of the Apocalypse, not the final catastrophe of a nihilistic Babylon, but a triumph of the Savior and his Church. Indeed, the future promised plenty of horrors, including the emergence of the Anti-Christ and the Scarlet Whore of Babylon. But John also offered glimpses into the new Jerusalem. The Jewish-Christian was admonished by John to be patient, to endure imposters and deceptions, to resist hedonism and hubris, and to trust that history, in the end, would be written by the hand of God. Only the Lamb, the true servant, could break the seal of the final scroll—the seventh—and disclose its mysteries. Even with his persistent faith in Christ’s final return, John knew that the wait was excruciating and the will of the Church at risk. His poetic vision even declares that when Christ broke the seventh seal there was “silence in heaven for half-an-hour.” Right there, at the precipice of hope and rebirth, humanity must bear with the silence of heaven a while longer.
Silence in Heaven
Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal is the story of that symbolic half-hour. In its famous opening scene, the weary, disoriented knight Antonius Block brings a troubled conscience home from the Crusades and meets Death on the dark sands of the Scandinavian shore, and the two cut a deal—one last chess game, to last “half an hour,” a final reprieve for humanity to try to outwit death and recover some reason for hope. The medieval plague that sweeps Nordic villages in the film was immediately perceived as a metaphor for the dangers of nuclear annihilation. Upon the film’s release in 1956, The New York Times declared that it represented "all mortal fears of threats beyond likely containment." When Block and his squire encounter peasants who tremble at the thought of the impending "Judgment Day," it is not hard to hear some overtones from the anxiety that filtered through Cold War Europe, caught as it was between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Bergman’s allegory is commonly understood as a concession of defeat. This is, to a great extent, a fable about God’s absence—or indifference—and the cruel things done by humanity in God’s name. “Silence in heaven”—or, more specifically, the silence of God in the world—provides the recurrent theme. The story occurs during a time of vulnerability for the Christian faith. A knight and his cynical squire return home from the Crusades, weary and disillusioned by their cause and their journey. In Sweden, a plague appears to spread in spite of the church's prayers. Traditional Christianity is in conflict with new forms of paganism. Soldiers and priests oppress the weary peasants and encourage self-torment as the path of faith.
Bergman’s Middle Period
Raised by a Lutheran pastor, Ingmar Bergman bristled against his parents' strict theology, and he left home before he was twenty in order to join the theatre. Although he is best known for his visual imagery on film, he remained fascinated and engaged with the theatre throughout his life, and The Seventh Seal began as a stage play. Bergman's early films blend Italian neorealism, stage comedy, and Hollywood social drama in awkward compounds. Not until he returned to more serious themes did he catch his stride as a filmmaker. The Seventh Seal is the first film of Bergman’s “middle period," a time defined by his obsession with the claims of faith and his own inability to believe in God. Bergman is plagued by the possibility of existence in a world without God, living only with the shadow of tragedy and annihilation.
Bittersweetness of Memory
As his work progressed, Bergman returned to many of these same existential themes, but with increasing subtlety and emotional nuance. Several of his most acclaimed films followed immediately after The Seventh Seal—including Wild Strawberries, Winter Light, Through a Glass Darkly, and Cries and Whispers. In his later years, his work became increasingly autobiographical, evoking the bittersweetness of memory. The last film he directed, Fanny and Alexander (1984), recreated scenes from his youth, while his script for The Best Intentions (1992) cast the story of his parents' courtship and marriage under both a harsh and sympathetic light. His last screenplay before his death, Sunday's Children (1994), was the story of a young man and his dying father. Appropriately, the film was directed by Bergman's own son, Daniel.
Hope and Fear
For those looking for hope in the face of the existential gloom of The Seventh Seal, Bergman does allow us a few choices. If nothing else, we can settle for Antonious Block’s somber resignation and willingness to adjust to God’s silence and the inevitable darkness of death. The knight’s sad return from the Crusades, his retreat from religious and political zealotry, actually inflames his desire to resist Death and to discover meaning in life beyond the chauvinism that sent him with his sword to the Holy Land. That resignation, although sparse and fatalistic, suggests the same kind of dignity and courage that Bergman saw in a friend dying of cancer. “He was eroding away,” Bergman writes in The Magic Lantern, “transformed into a shriveled gnome with huge eyes and large yellow teeth. He was lying on his side, connected to a number of machines, holding his left hand close to his face and moving his fingers. He smiled a terrible smile and said: ‘Look, I can still use my fingers’ . . . I thought, it means adapting oneself, pulling back the front lines, the battle already lost, nothing more to expect . . .” Block, indeed, has pulled back, his battle lost, his expectations gone.
Perhaps the director is as well. No sooner does Bergman recall this dying friend than he alludes to Skat’s dictum in The Seventh Seal that Death allows no escape clause for the artist. Like the painter who interlaced demons and angels on the walls of the parish church, there is no special dispensation for the filmmaker: art triumphs when we have the courage to admit that the battle against Death is lost. Adaptation, for our short season of breath, is all.
But, then again, the real impediment to love and meaning may be fear. As film critic Peter Cowie writes, the characters strive "to overcome the fear of Death, rather than the fact of Death, and if, as the knight discovers, one can achieve even a single gesture of goodwill, then the long struggle of life will be justified." With all of its agnostic dread, the film seeks to discover some life-affirming principles in everyday experience. Notice, for instance, the ways that the traditional Eucharist service is imitated in a bowl of milk and a meal of wild strawberries.
And the fatalism is far less ominous in the film’s famous finale—the “Dance of Death” on a distant ridge. The scene is both ominous and playful, evident even in its spontaneous filming. Since he eschewed studio lighting for most of his outdoor scenes, Bergman was always alert for serendipitous movements of the sun and mist, and in one early evening saw just the right menacing shade and mass of clouds to capture the advent of death. “The image of the Dance of Death beneath a dark cloud was achieved at hectic speed because most of the actors had finished for the day,” Bergman later conceded. “Assistant electricians, a make-up man and two summer visitors, who never knew what it was all about, had to dress up in the costumes of those condemned to death. A camera with no sound was set up and the picture shot before the cloud dissolved.” The make-shift line of dancers is all the more comical because in the final script one of the characters cites, name by name, the people crossing over into eternity. His tone is elegaic, more reverent than usual, but not without hope, almost with the air of one who is happy for their release. There is indeed spontaneity, a pleasure in the Dance, as if the characters, like the actual actors, are only marginally aware of what is going on.
This may be, in fact, Death’s last smirk, the final sting of the sinister Pied Piper who has snared his prey and led them childishly over the portal into annihilation. Or it very well could be that the deceased know something now that, moments earlier, in the dark, thunder-struck medieval corridors of human fear and doubt, had seemed beyond possibility—that the opening of the Seventh Seal brings not gloom, but release and renewal. As Catholic columnist Stephen Greydanus observes, "in a fourteenth-century danse macabre, Death might appear as an emissary from God beckoning men to judgment and the afterlife. In Bergman’s film, Death appears as an enigmatic emissary of the unknown, bringing us unknowing into the unknowable." The ambiguity, of course, is essential: the film can merely complete the half-hour of Heaven’s silence, taking us to the brink of human mystery and unknowing. But in that Dance of Death there is at least a hint that in the Apocalypse it will be music, not fire, that will suffice.