Friday, May 28, 2010

The Seventh Seal (1 of 2)

“Silence in Heaven”:
The Cinematic Theology of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal

Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film, The Seventh Seal, is a work whose religious symbolism is clear to any attentive viewer. Its hero, Antonius Block (played by Max von Sydow), newly returned from the Crusades, challenges Death to a game of chess, hoping to use the time gained to do one good, meaningful deed to overcome the doubt and uncertainty that he had been facing. Antonius and his skeptical squire, Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand), both of whom are weary and disillusioned after ten wasted years in the Crusades, are contrasted with a happy young couple named Mary (Mia) and Joseph (played by Bibi Anderson and Nils Poppe, respectively) who, as their name indicate, represent a sort of secular Holy Family. The title of the film, naturally, comes from the Book of Revelation and the film begins and ends with verses read from its eighth chapter. “There is,” as Bergman scholar Frank Gado notes, “nothing particularly abstruse about The Seventh Seal – its Gothic letter intentions are discernable in virtually every scene.” [1] It is the intention of this paper neither to examine the film’s grandiose allegorical movement nor to decode the individual symbolic elements contained therein, but rather to look at the film as an example of what might be called cinematic theology, that is, to ask what this film teaches about God, particularly by looking at depictions of the cross, and to speculate as to what might be the religious foundations of such a doctrine by considering briefly the theology of atonement with which Berman was most likely conversant as a Lutheran. The Seventh Seal is in many ways an autobiographical film, and therefore our reading will be based in large part upon Bergman’s own religious upbringing.

The film’s basic religious iconography comes from Bergman’s memory of visiting churches in the Uppland countryside with his father, a Lutheran minister. The young Bergman was fascinated by the fifteenth-century frescoes that covered the walls of the churches: “There was everything my imagination could desire – angels, saints, dragons, prophets, devils, humans. All this was surrounded by a heavenly, earthly, subterranean landscape of a strange yet familiar beauty.” Berman recalls one church in particular which depicted Death playing chess, sawing the tree of life, and leading the dance of death, “but in the other arch, the Holy Virgin was walking in a rosegarden, supporting the Child’s faltering steps.” [2] These images of medieval piety were given life in the film, both in plot and in the church paintings viewed by the knight and his squire. The contrast between cruel Death on one arch and the merciful Virgin on the other, moreover, is expressed in the film in the contrast between the knight and the squire on the one hand and Joseph and Mary on the other.

The more deeply one examines this symbolic religious world, the clearer the film’s theology becomes. Perhaps most striking is the film’s depiction of the cross. The first depiction of the cross comes when the knight enters the church in order to confess his sins to a priest. He mourns that he is indifferent to men’s suffering, that he wants to die, but only after having gained knowledge of God’s existence. He is afraid that men have made an idol of fear and call it God, that we worship our own fear of death. All the while a crucifix hangs above the knight, which the script describes in the following words: “Christ’s face is turned upward, His mouth open as if in a cry of anguish.” [3] Unbeknownst to the knight – but clear to the viewer – is that he the priest to whom he is confessing is, in fact, Death. This same crucifix is reappears later in the film, carried in the procession of flagellants and Dominican monks as they sing the Dies Irae. [4] The script emphasizes that this crucifix “is not the Christ triumphant, but the suffering Jesus with the sores, the blood, the hammered nails, and the face in convulsive pain. The Son of God, nailed to the wood of the Cross, suffering scorn and shame.” This cross remains in the background as the monk gives his sermon on the plague as God’s punishment. The young woman condemned to death for witchcraft is herself tied to a tree in a symbol of crucifixion, and here, too, the attending monk is in fact Death. One recalls as well that the first person whom the knight and the squire encounter is a monk who is discovered to be dead. The one truly evil character in the film is Ravel (Bertil Anderberg), who has gone from a career at the theological college at Roskilde, where he convinced the knight to join the crusades, to profiting from the plague by stealing from the dead.

The God of The Seventh Seal is clearly a dead God, one who is worshipped through fear. The church murals depicting the plague will send people running with fear into the arms of the priests, Jons recognizes. The painter exclaims: “the remarkable thing is that the poor creatures think the pestilence is the Lord’s punishment. Mobs of people who call themselves the Slaves of Sin are swarming over the country, flagellating themselves and others, all for the glory of God.” Meanwhile the knight, in another part of the church, confesses: “In our fear, we make an image, and that image we call God.” Being dead, this God is also silent: “I call out to Him in the dark but no one seems to be there.” In God’s absence, only Satan and Death are present. The knight, seeking knowledge, asks the accused witch to be introduced to Satan. The possessed girl assures the knight that Satan is behind us, in us, everywhere. As in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, God’s absence serves only to make the Devil’s presence more apparent; the death of God is a prelude to the resurrection of Satan. This is well summed up in the words of the squire’s song: “Up above is God almighty / So very far away, / But your brother the Devil, / You will meet on every level.”

[1] The Passion of Ingmar Bergman (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1986), 206.

[2] Program notes to The Seventh Seal, quoted in Gado, Ibid., 199.

[3] The entire script can be found on-line at . All quotations from the script are taken from this site.

[4] “Dies irae! Dies illa / Solvet saeclum in favilla / Teste David cum Sibylla!” (“Day of wrath and terror looming! / Heaven and earth to ash consuming, / David’s word Sibil’s truth foredooming.”)

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