The Afterlife of Bergman's The Seventh Seal

Time cannot exist without a soul (to count it).

I startle awake at 7:30. It is the second week of Lent, and I have made a promise to myself that I am going to attend morning Mass at least twice a week. Last week I went once. It is also the first day of our spring break, so I really have no excuse not to go, but then I remember the virus and the rumors that the bishop might soon give a special dispensation for mass attendance.

But I am relatively young and healthy, and trying to make a good Lent for the first time in years, and I know that there is an 8:00 a.m. in the chapel of the new engineering hall on campus. So, I quickly shower and shave, throw on clothes from a pile heaped on the back of a desk chair and drive the few minutes to campus.

 The engineering hall is an edifice with the kind of arched Gothic doorways and window tracery that has become the house style for all new campus construction. I cut through this building a few months back because it was so cold and I had forgotten a hat, so I know that inside there are sparkling glass-walled classrooms, and an enormous clean room that emits a red glow where semiconductor and nanotech research happens.

As I cross the street toward the hall, I see the stained-glass windows—now visible to me for the first time, maybe because I am looking for them. I imagine the people inside, tired and serious—looking, already kneeling in the pews.

I walk into the chapel and take a seat in the first pew inside the doorway. There are maybe a dozen of us, most gray-haired—no students, as far as I can tell. I wonder when I will see my students again. There are rumors that spring break might be extended for a week, if the virus continues to spread at the projected rate.

I kneel, close my eyes, and begin working through a long list of sins and petitions. Just as I am wrapping up my litany, the priest walks in and immediately ducks into the sacristy to my left. Within seconds I hear the sound of a spigot being turned on, water rushing, and then the strange and out of place, yet ever-present sound these days, the lathering of hands.

For days now we have been getting emails from the University about the importance of washing our hands and “social distancing,” but the sound of the priest washing his hands makes the threat and worry about the virus real for the first time. I look down and notice my tendency to grip the pew with both hands. 

The priest emerges from the side room in his vestments and we all stand in unison, tracking him with our eyes as he passes behind the altar, pauses, and bows low to kiss it—a strangely subversive moment—then moves to the side and says:

Before we begin, I want to make you aware that the diocese has given us instructions to not offer the wine at communion, but also remind you that God is fully present in the bread. Also, I want to remind you that at the sign of peace we will not shake hands but simply acknowledge one another with a nod or bow—thank you for your cooperation.

Then Mass begins—in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit—and I am suddenly self-conscious in a way I probably have not since I was a child first being coached to make the sign, that I am touching my face, something the emails also tell us to try to avoid as much as possible.

This entire time I am aware of a woman who has arrived slightly late and has been standing to my left in my peripheral vision. As we confess to almighty God, and to one another, that we have sinned, she quickly slides into the pew ahead of me.

The rest of Mass is unremarkable except for the Gospel when we make the sign of the cross on our foreheads, lips, and heart, and then at the consecration, when the woman in front of me, who had arrived late, moves from behind the pew into the aisle and kneels on the cold, slate gray tile. It is a gesture of penance that strikes me on this cold morning, during this threat of a pandemic, reminds me of the Ingmar Bergman film Winter Light whose opening scene patiently captures, in long, quiet takes, a handful of congregants gathered to celebrate the Eucharist.

I am self-conscious here of contributing to a subgenre of nonfiction that takes its thrust and stakes from a kind of coincidental irony, but when a pattern starts to emerge it is hard to ignore. Upon leaving Mass, and turning my cell phone back on, I saw on the screen an alert from The New York Times that Max von Sydow, the star of many Bergman films, had died. That is when I started to pay attention.

Lewis Hyde writes in his masterwork The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property: “Most artists are brought to their vocation when their own nascent gifts are awakened by the work of a master. That is to say, most artists are converted to art by art itself.” I have certainly found this to be true, and I am lucky to have been awakened by many masterful writers, like Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, James Baldwin, and Joan Didion; painters, like Francis Bacon and Edward Hopper, but the one filmmaker who has shaped me more than any other is Bergman.

And so, later that evening, I started a 14-day free trial of the Criterion Channel, which had, in the less than 24 hours since von Sydow’s death, created a Max von Sydow collection of several films directed by Bergman. First up—The Seventh Seal.

The Seventh Seal is part allegorical morality play, and part what Calvino calls the “lyric-poem film,” in which the images on the screen and the dialogue spoken by the characters present us with an experience that pushes against the conventions of narrative toward something more like a dream. It tells the story of Antonious Block (Max von Sydow), a Knight, and his atheist squire who have just returned from fighting in the Crusades.

The setting is 14th century Sweden and the bubonic plague is upon the land. As in Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex, the origin of the pestilence is unknown and so the people search for scapegoats to punish. Some believe it is God’s judgement upon mankind’s sinfulness; others believe it is of the Devil. The Knight’s squire tells us of apocalyptic signs being passed among the folk: graves opening up; two horses devouring one another; the sight of four suns suspended in the sky at once.

At the level of genre (medieval allegory?) and plot (Knight in head-to-toe chainmail plays chess with Death), this film would never get green-lighted in Hollywood, unless it was a comedy, but Bergman is a master at creating entrancing sequences of images that, before you know it, have you pulled into the swirling emotional gyre of his story.

The film begins with one of the most famous and startling opening scenes in cinema history: As the sun streams down through dark clouds, a fortissimo blast of choral voices is unleashed. The shot dissolves and we see a large, dark carrion bird hovering ominously, riding a strong wind off the ocean.

Then when hear a voiceover:

And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.

Only then do we cut to our Knight and his squire lying on rocky beach, as though they have washed up there. But when you look closer at the reclining Knight, you see that by his side is a large chess board, set-up and ready to play. A few more moments pass. The Knight wades into the surf and washes himself, then turns and kneels in prayer. Then, suddenly, with no warning, not even an ominous musical cue, Death himself appears like a black pillar before the Knight. He has come to claim him, but the Knight is clever and challenges death to a chess match to buy more time.

I have always thought of the chess match between the Knight and Death—which has become a trope in Western popular culture, from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, to Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey—as not so much a symbol for The Game of Life, though I guess that is a popular thesis in many undergraduate essays, as much as it is an example of T.S. Eliot’s objective correlative: “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion.” In this case, the chess board and chess match are real—not imagined—to the Knight, though it becomes clear that the other characters cannot see Death sitting across the board from him. Even so, and perhaps even more so, the chessboard and match casts a shadow over the rest of what we see.

And in between chess moves we see so much: the witnessing of a Marian apparition by Jof, an entertainer in a traveing acting troupe; a procession of pitiful flagellants right out of a Heironymous Bosch altar piece; a young woman being held under close watch in a stockade because she thought to be possessed by the Devil, and who is eventually burned on a pyre; the attempted rape of a farmhand, and her rescue by the Knight’s squire; and an affair between one of the members of a traveling acting troupe and the wife of a blacksmith. All of these events take place within the frame of the Knight’s Odyssean journey back home to his wife.

But this is all just my memories of the film; what I remember from my first encounter, with it 23 years ago this spring in a course at Notre Dame titled “European Film Masters” taught by Professor Emeritus Donald Costello. Professor Costello was, and still is, one of the foremost Frederico Fellini scholars in the world, but, as I recall him saying that semester, a course on Fellini alone was not nearly as interesting and illuminating as a course pairing the spare, style of the agnostic Bergman with the lush, sensual, carnivalesque, and utterly Catholic atmosphere of Fellini.

The class met in the late afternoon in a screening room on the third floor of O'Shaughnessy Hall, the very building where my office is now located. The first, half of the semester (early January to spring break in early March) was, appropriately enough, dedicated to Bergman. I recall a particular run of class meetings where we watched Bergman’s “Silence of God” trilogy (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence) in back-to-back-to-back classes. The class met in the late afternoon, so I would enter just as the sun was going down, and emerged, emotionally walloped, in the cold, snowy dark.

The memories I have of that time feel nostalgic and sentimental—and they are—but I want to offer them here as a way of getting back to a place where film still felt for me like a profound social and spiritual event, especially in this moment where we cannot walk and congregate freely.

Even Bergman’s “Silence of God” films, which deal in (trigger warning) suicide, mental illness, emotional abuse, and sexual abuse, had the effect of helping me, through discussion with the other students in the class, to engage more sympathetically with those who rejected religion, or who had been hurt by it, as well as introducing me to a vocabulary for talking about theology, faith, and art.

The very notion that art could be about doubt, and that that work, though hard and uncomfortable, could be spiritually nourishing, was a revelation, especially within the context of a Catholic university. But watching Bergman’s films was especially powerful during Lent, a time when the holy water and baptismal fonts are drained, and when we “give up” those things that help us hide from, or ease the sting of, our own innate spiritual poverty.

But as I began re-watching The Seventh Seal for the first time 23 years, this time alone in my house and against the backdrop of an on-coming pandemic, I felt a deep and terrible dread. As I watched, I found that there were many things I had not remembered, or perhaps misremembered. My expectation, I think, was that watching the film would be a pleasant re-acquaintance, but instead at the first sight of Death a twinge of fear went through me.

And so I, I texted a friend and colleague and asked if he would come over and watch with me. He had never seen the film and thankfully he thought it was a good idea. He arrived within 15 minutes, I made popcorn, and we watched. I found that watching with him cut loneliness and helped me to see that things I had “forgotten” were actually things I did not have eyes to see as a 20 year-old college student.

For example, I had forgotten that Jof is traveling with his wife, and infant daughter. Their sense of cohesion and happiness, even amid the plague, has deep resonances of the Holy Family, and Trinity. They become, in the end, the focus of all that is right and good.

But Jof is not good because he is a father, nor because he is the recipient of these visions. It is more complicated than this. We discover that he has been known in the past to stretch the truth. Upon telling his wife that he has just seen Mary and the Christ child, she says: “The things you imagine!” He replies: “I see you don’t believe me, but it was real. Not the reality you see. A different kind.” His wife continues to doubt him bringing up the time he told her that the devil had painted the wheels of their wagon red with his tail, but then, later, found red paint under his fingernails. “Well, perhaps I did make that up,” he says, “but only so you would believe my other visions, the real one.”

I will not relate to you a scene-by-scene reading of the film, but suffice it to say that this moment in which Jof admits that he sometimes makes things up in order to convince his wife of his other visions, sits like Chekov’s proverbial revolver on the mantle of the film, waiting to go off in the final act of the film.

Jof is not the only one who claims to see visions, though. The young woman who the local soldiers say is possessed claims to see the Devil, something the Knight is fascinated by. He wants so badly to see. And so in the famous confessional scene, where the Knight believes he is unburdening himself of his existential angst to a priest, it is actually Death on the other side of the grate:

Knight: “I want knowledge. Not faith or conjecture but knowledge. I want God to reach out his hand. Show his face, speak to me.”

Death: “But he is silent.”

Knight: “I cry to him in the darkness, but sometimes it feels like no one is there.”

Death: “Perhaps no one is there.

Knight: “Then life is just senseless horror.”

The Knight goes on, frustrated and outraged at God’s silence, finally saying, “My whole life has been nothing but futile wandering and pursuits, a great deal of talk without meaning . . . But I want to use my reprieve for one meaningful act.” This scene, as von Sydow would characterize it in a 2012 interview with Charlie Rose, is “Very much Mr. Bergman . . . It’s very much an expression for his own search for a meaning, a search for the truth, the search for love.”  

What is ironic now is not that von Sydow died right as the virus became undeniably more, well, virulent, so that I am now watching this scene during Lent, a time of the liturgical year when Christians are called to repent, but that just as so many across the world were commemorating his death by re-watching his performances, we should all be cut-off from one another, denied the ability to congregate and watch together. A feeling that will only intensify and grow more troubling as we move toward Holy Week and the Passion of Christ.

After all, next to stage drama, film is our most social art form. Our experiences with it are colored by where we watch it, who we watch it with, and what is happening in our lives, as well as on the larger stage of public, national, and international events. Film’s power to help describe the times we live in is well known, but what is not so well understood, is the way film describes our experience of space and time, and the way it describes us.

Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin appropriated the term chronotope [literally: time space] (employed by Einstein in his theory of special relativity) in order to explain this phenomenon in literature. The idea is that the time in which a story is set intersects, interacts with, and gives form to the space of the story. To bring it into clearer focus, Bakhtin argues that this constructed interplay between time and space in writing determines what we know to be genre. Genres, then, which come and go in and out of fashion, are by their nature, of a specific time and place. Thus, and here, arguably, is the real take-away for readers, the image of Man in stories is chronotopic; in other words our sense of who we are as a race, is shaped by the time space of the stories we tell.

I am not here to say that The Seventh Seal is the perfect Lenten film, but in light of the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the globe, and the endless stream of information and disinformation flooding our screens, the film puts into perspective the importance of focusing our attention on the preciousness of time.

In the end, the chess game that the Knight and Death play is merely a diversion. We realize that the Knight is not playing to win—he knows he cannot—he is playing to buy time; time enough to return home to his wife, and time enough to allow Jof and his family to escape.

But what might be the biggest irony of all is Bergman’s continued influence after his death. I do not mean his legacy as a filmmaker (that was never in doubt), but his lingering presence beyond the veil.

At the end of von Sydow’s interview with Charlie Rose he recalls with a rueful laugh, his conversations with Bergman on the set of The Seventh Seal about “religious matters.” “It’s funny,” von Sydow says, “at that time I was searching too, and I was a great doubter . . . Eternal life? I don’t believe in it. We die and that’s it.” But Bergman chastised him: “No, No, No, No—I promise you you’re wrong there . . . When I’m gone I’ll show you.”

Rose, not knowing how to follow such a revelation, relates his own anecdote of a woman who told him that she did not believe in an afterlife because her mother was such a strong woman that if there was an afterlife she would have found a way to contact her. Von Sydow gives a polite laugh and then says, leaning back in his chair, “Well, I’ve heard from Bergman—many times.”

Pressed further by Rose, von Sydow demures to share details, only to say “we understood each other very well.” There was a sense of family and community on the sets of Bergman’s films, according to von Sydow. It is a quality that you can see and feel in the natural camaraderie of his actors toward one another. They seem to genuinely regard and care for one another, despite being distinctly themselves. But the apocalyptic world of The Seventh Seal draws the characters together in an even more intense way, in a way that only the threat of death can. Perhaps the better word is communion: a binding, life-giving and life-altering communion.

Featured Image: Screen capture from The Seventh Seal, fair use.


David Griffith

David Griffith is a writer and educator. His work has appeared in the Utne Reader, Paris Review Daily, Image, and Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. He is the author of A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America.

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