April 10, 1997. I saw the the movie again last night. A sad experience. It seemed so great forty years ago, and now it seems so diminished. I see it with eyes that have become accustomed to giant screens, quadraphonic sounds, immense special effects, computer simulations, explosions, blood spatter . . . all the gigantism of Hollywood for the past quarter centruy. It seems so small now, black-and-white, the old-size screen, so simple and straightforward, the two very clear sides to the film. And it had meant so much to me.
I was seeing the film forty years after I first saw it at at the ancient, white clapboard, and beloved Brattle Theater in Cambridge. It's hard to remember what a thunderbolt it was. The Seventh Seal was the first movie I'd ever seen--any of us young critics, beginning professors and graduate students, had seen, really--that was willing to act out the existential questions of the day. To discuss, seriously, on the screen, the existence of god, sin, the devil, a life after death, the meaning or purpose of our lives. Right out there on the screen. And I felt that it hit me especially, because I was hovering somewhere between belief and disbelief, like the Crusader.
The Seventh Seal pictures a Crusader's quest, not in some faraway Holy Land, but in his own fourteenth-century Sweden. After ten years of holy war, the Crusader, Antonius Blok, has returned home, weary, bitter, and disillusioned. On the shore, he prays but elicits only the ominous black figure of Death who steps out of a series of striking dissolves to claim him. The Crusader, however, challenges Death to a game of chess, and Death agrees. If the knight wins, he escapes Death, and so long as the game goes on, he is free to continue his quest: to gain certain knowledge of God and to do one significant act during his lifetime. As Death and the Crusader play at intervals through the film, the knight moves on a pilgrimage through Sweden, the land itself ravaged by the Black Death, all rendered in gritty, realistic greys.
Bergman's film is both realistic and something more. His Crusader asks a question: If death is the only certainty, where is God? The knight's quest gives us the answer, although he himself never seems to learn it--or to learn that he has learned it. Accompanying him is his positivistic, materialistic squire who assures us the only reality is the body. The Crusader, however, seeks more than his foil does. He wants certainty about God, for "to believe without knowledge is to love someone in the dark who never answers."
The Crusader's questioning resonated for me, because I had been concerned for a number of years with religious belief or the lack of it. I was a recently anointed assistant professor, teaching a freshman humanities course. The idea was to give those bright M.I.T. students, bright but annoyed at the requirement, a sense of what it was like to live and think at other times and places. One of the points in history was thirteenth and fourteenth-century Florence. When I first saw The Seventh Seal, I had just been teaching medieval culture and literature: Dante, the gothic cathedrals (as beautifully read by the great Emile Mâle), histories of the Crusades--I even managed to sneak in a little Chaucer. The students were pleased to find that you could be logical, analytical, even rigorous about the humanities. It didn't have to be impressionistic mush as it had been for most of them in secondary school.
I loved being able to interpret the medieval symbolism and allegories. The best fun was to take some bawdy story like the Wife of Bath's Tale and show its religious meaning.
Now, after grad school, I had time to explore. Enchanted by symbolism, I began reading those philosophers of the symbolic, Ernest Cassirer and Suzanne Langer, and I found in their writings a philosophical base for my delight in myths and symbols. They led me to Jung, and he in turn to Freud and psychoanalytic criticism--but that is another story.
Cassirer, Langer, Jung--they persuaded me that the very act of symbolizing had a spiritual value. Our symbols both articulate and demonstrate a reality beyond our own minds. It was the essence of human nature to symbolize. Therefore what we represent by symbols must itself have a reality, a spiritual reality. Further, they said, to symbolize is to bring into being a totality, one part of which represents the rest. Thus I found in what I read justification for the organic unities that, as a critic and teacher, I sought--and, of course, found--in literature. The words-on-the-page and the meanings I found for them all formed a unity. Our human world is defined by the symbolic forms by which we represent it to ourselves. In a sense, symbols bring facts into being. They are powerful and important. I still believe that--although differently now, as a reader-response critic.
In exchange for traditional belief, Cassirer and Langer offered me a spiritual reality. The sacred was the believed. Mind was powerful. There was a cozy fusion of believing self and believed object. The psyche was in tune with something out there, someething cosmic. Oh, I could understand the Crusader's longing, all right, his spiritual journey, his questioning. There was something beyond us, and we had to find it, he and I.
The knight and the squire acquire followers. The squire rescues a mute woman from rape by the onetime seminarist, now thief, who had urged them to go on the Crusade in the first place. They see a trio of actors put on a bawdy skit which is interrupted by a procession of flagellants and by a burly smith's wife's running off with one of the actors. The Crusader meets Jof and Mia, actors, and their baby Michael (the squire having earlier saved Jof from being tormented by the seminarist in the tavern). The squire, however, has met the cuckolded smith, and he joins the knight, the squire, and the actors on their journey. They also pick up the smith's wife (whose actor has feigned death only to be cut down by the real Death). As they ride through the dark and terrifying woods, the troop sees a witch about to be burned. The Crusader resumes his game with Death and, by distracting him, allows Jof, Mia, and the baby to escape. Knight, squire, smith, smith's wife, squire, squire's woman--all climb up to the castle where the knight's wife, Karin, serves them a meal. Then Death comes, the silent woman speaks, and he gathers them in. In the distance, Jof, able to see visions, sees the other characters in a final Dance of Death against the horizon.
The Crusader's quest is ended, and he has achieved his one significant action, namely, rescuing Jof, Mia, and the baby. Yet what the Crusader found at first was an altogether different kind of humanity: people who believe only in God as a scourge, the cause of plagues and death, and who respond in kind. Religion for them becomes suppression, cruelty, persecution, the burning of innocent girls as witches, the gruesome realism of the crucifixes in the peasants' churches. In one of the grimmest scenes ever put on film, Bergman shows us a procession of flagellants: a line of half-naked men lashing one another; monks struggling under the weight of huge crosses or with aching arms holding skulls over their bowed heads; the faces of children who wear crowns of thorns; people walking barefoot or hobbling on their knees; a great gaunt woman whose countenance is sheer blankness; slow tears falling down the cheeks of a lovely young girl who smiles in her ecstasy of masochism. This procession interrupts the gay skit of a trio of strolling players and halts while a mad priest screams abuse, shouting out the sinfulness, mortality, and sheer fleshy ugliness and mortality of his audience, long nose or fat body or goat's face. Glutted with hate, he joyfully proclaims the wrath of God, and the procession resumes its dogged way over the parched, lifeless soil.
Such is religion, Bergman seems to say, to those who see God as hater of life. Art (as represented by a surly, tippling church painter) becomes the representation of death, both physically and allegorically, to gratify the people's lust for fear. The painter assures us, "I paint life as it is." Living, as shown in a grotesque scene in an inn, becomes a sardonic, "Eat, drink, and be merry." Cinematically, Bergman identifies this side of the ledger by great areas of blackness in the film frame and often by slow, sombre dissolves from shot to shot. Musically, the sound track treats even scenes of merrymaking with the Dies Irae theme.
Meeting a movie, things come back to you. Seeing The Seventh Seal, how could I not think about death and guilt, about, in short, religion? Or is it "in short, religion"? I suppose that is the question I am left with, after this film, or one of them.
I have had my ups and downs with religion. I had what I suppose was a conventional religious upbringing. I remember going occasionally to church with my parents (Christmas and Easter?), but mostly by myself. My mother was Episcopalian, my father Methodist. She didn't care for the services at his denomination, nor he for hers. I don't remember their going to church together much.
They were, however, believers. Every night, my father would kneel and mutter his prayers by his side of the bed. He did it when I was a child, and he did it when he was an old man. My mother was less visibly observant a believer, but no less mentally so.
They sent me to Sunday School as soon as I was able to go by myself. Over the head of my bed my mother put a sepia picture of Christ walking toward you in a dark brown frame. I dimly remember the pale green, paper-dry fronds from Palm Sunday being draped across the top. All through childhood, I too knelt at night and said my prayers to Someone Up There. Days, I attended a small private school at the northern city limits, where there was chapel every morning: hymns, prayers, and admonitions.
I remember a Presbyterian church a couple of blocks away, where a big, red-faced, beefy minister boomed at the lectern. The children's classes were in the basement, but I don't remember much about them. Evidently, though, at that Sunday School and others later, I got some knowledge of the Bible and religious traditions that came in handy, years later, for a literary critic.
At some point I was sent to a posh stone pile on Upper Fifth Avenue, the Church of the Heavenly Rest (the Church of the Heavy Rest, my father called it). The other children were the scions of rich upper East Siders, none of whom I knew, and of course, as a mi-bourgeois West Sider, I was out of place. Once a year, each child was supposed to stand before the altar during the big Sunday Service and recite--something: the Lesson, the Scripture--I've no longer remember the terms. When my turn came, the minister seemed to have forgotten this puerile element of the service. I made my way up and stood in front of everyone and said my piece while the service went right on as if I weren't there. I was utterly humiliated, and I believe that marked the end of my association with the Church of the Heavy Rest.
My embarrassments with institutional religion were not over. I think the next Sunday School was the vast, stone, vaulted Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where I took confirmation classes in a large side chapel under the tutelage of a tall, good-looking "lay sister" in a gray dress and what looked like a nurse's cap. (You can imagine what we said about her title.) One Sunday, I fainted and became thereafter "the kid who fainted," a source of merriment to my fellow-catechumens.
Why is it that one remembers from church and Sunday School just the embarrassments? Or am I the only one who does that?
Until this time, I had pretty much taken religion for granted. It was one of those things adults told you to do, and you did. No questions. But then the hormones of adolescence began their playful torment. Compulsively, but enthusiastically, I found a great enjoyment and a great guilt (from the religious teachings, Boy Scout manuals, and the like), plus a certain amount of fear (derived from the atoms of sexual information available to a boy in the 1930s and 40s). I provided the pleasure, religion provided the guilt. I felt more and more an intolerable tension between religious belief and those urgent, teen-age hormones.
As an adolescent, I took confirmation classes at St. John's. During the confirmation service itself, I remember thinking (and being ashamed of myself for thinking) what an obscene position I was in when I had to put my head between the bishop's knees for the magic moment, the laying on of hands and the conferring on my sinful, sexual self, the Apostolic Succession.
I think I started going to grown-up services at the Little Church after that. My school friends all went to churches up in their suburban neighborhoods, of course, so my churchgoing was a solitary thing, flagging down a cab on Upper Broadway, deserted of a Sunday morning, and making my way down equally deserted Fifth to that beautiful little "high" church. I sat through the hour-long Sunday sermons looking at the rector's beautiful daughter, a Venus in furs about whom I enjoyed the most delicious fantasies.
Then came college--although wartime M.I.T. was indeed a strange experience of college. Once away from home, I no longer had to do my Sunday morning obligation. Nor, perhaps, did I still regard it as an obligation.
The first God in The Seventh Seal was the God who gave us death, guilt, and punishment for sex. The first religion is the wormwood-and-gall institutional religion of suffering and crucifixion. The movie offers us another God--or at least another certainty besides death--in the simple life of the strolling actor and juggler named Jof (Joseph), his girl-wife Mia (Mary), and their baby. As if to make the low parallel to the Holy Family even more clear, Jof plays the cuckold in the troupe's little Pierrot-Columbine skit.
Jof is also the artist. He is given to visions, and Bergman shows us one, of the Virgin Mary supporting the Christ child's faltering steps. Besides the Crusader, Jof is the only one who can see the allegorical figure of Death. To the Crusader's materialistic squire, for example, Death appears not as an iconic figure but as a grisly, rotting corpse. Jof is a maker of songs whose simple melodies provide the sound track for this side of the religious ledger. Cinematically, Bergman gives us the certainty and holiness of life represented by Jof's family in light, airy frames; quick cuts tend to replace the slow dissolves used for the religion of death.
Yet even innocent Jof can be converted to a thief and a buffoon by the death-forces. In the grotesque comic scene at the inn, he is tormented with flames, forced to jump up and down on the board table in an exhausting imitation of a bear, parodying his own ability to leap beyond the ordinary human. An artist stifled in his art, he responds by becoming a rogue: he steals a bracelet as he makes his getaway.
This hard reductio ad absurdum proves, as it were, that death and the religion of death cannot be the only certainty. As a mad young girl about to be burned for a witch tells the Crusader, you find God (or the Devil who implies God) in the eyes of another human being. But the abstractly questioning Crusader says he sees only terror in her eyes.
He seems for a moment to find his certainty of God in a meal of wild strawberries and milk handed him by the gentle Mia, in effect, a communion of life as opposed to the Communion of bread and wine consecrated to Death. Strawberries are associated with the Virgin in some late northern iconography. Because the strawberry has its seeds on the outside, it can serve as an emblem of perfect righteousness. (A psychoanalytic critic might point to the milk and berries as symbols for the nipple and its nurturing fluid.)
Also, in doing his "one significant act," the Crusader has performed the service of the knight traditional in medieval art, not the colonizing of the Holy Land but the protecting of the Holy Family. He leads Joseph, Mary, and the Child through the Dark Wood. As he plays chess with Death, he sees that visionary Jof has recognized the Black One, has guessed or intuited his family's danger, and is trying to escape. To help him, the knight busies Death by knocking over the chessmen, incidentally giving Death at least the chance to cheat and win. In losing the game, the knight gives up his own life to let Jof and Mia escape (in a tumultuous, stormy scene like paintings of the Flight into Egypt).
And yet, although the Crusader has pointed the way for us in the audience, he seems not to have found it for himself. He persists in his quest for abstract answers. He leads the rest of his now doomed band, the smith, the smith's wife, the squire, and the squire's silent woman up from the seashore to his castle. There, in a curiously emotionless scene, the Crusader distantly greets his wife whom he has not seen for ten years. He admits his disillusionment but tells her he is not sorry he went on his quest. With the chess game lost and death near, he knows it is too late for him. He cannot now act out the importance of the family himself. He has, however, learned its priceless value, although he does not realize its full godly significance.
As his wife reads the lurid images of Revelation viii: "And when he had opened the seventh seal," Death, whom they all seem to await, appears. The Crusader asks once more that God prove himself. The silent woman opens her mouth (the seventh seal?) and speaks for the first time: "It is finished," the sixth of the seven last sayings from the Cross. Death gathers them all in his cloak, filling the screen with black. The mute girl's ecstatic face dissolves into Mia's as she huddles with Jof and the baby, escaping Death. Those three return to the bleak and stony seashore where the film began. They take the questioner's place.
In short, then, as I read it, the film answers its question, If Death is the only certainty, where is God?, by saying, "You find God in life." The opening shots of the film set up the contrast: first, a lowering, empty sky; then the same sky but with a single bird hovering against the wind. Life takes meaning from its opposition to death, just as Jof and Mia's simple love of life takes meaning from the love of death around them--or as a chess game takes form in a series of oppositions.
Oppositions. In my next-to-last year of secondary school, Heinz appeared. He was a Jewish refugee, who had fled Hitler's Europe, an exotic to our unintellectual American prep school, a German boy with a European education. Before long he had gathered around him the more intellectual or artistic of us, and we would go to his house to discuss things (and peek at the nudes in his father's German photography magazines). Our reading till his arrival then had been largely confined to the Saturday Evening Post or American high school textbooks containing Scott, Dickens, Silas Marner, bowdlerized Shakespeare, and lady poets with three names. Heinz got us to reading Nietzsche and Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. For the first time, I, the ever-dutiful son, began to question--things. Things I'd been told till then by school and parents and believed. The Seventh Seal questions. What is the meaning of life? And especially, is there a God?
For a time, Nietzsche-struck, I decided there wasn't, although I didn't noise this unusual and, I suspected, probably risky opinion around the school. I came to be a generalized skeptic or, as I proudly styled myself, a "cynic." The cynic proudly declared himself (to his agemates only) "down" on all the values the school pushed, school spirit, athleticism, religion. Increasingly the headmaster's morning hymn-singing and prayers seemed, not praying, but braying. Around then I managed to escape going to church but substituted forays into the Sunday evening Young People's Group at one of the churches near my school.
Heinz was a year ahead of me, and after he graduated and left, in my own last year at school, I had the contrary experience. I had what I considered a religious revelation. I must have been fifteen. One evening, I was sitting on the northbound West Side subway headed up to some do at my school. No doubt I felt socially hopeless, athletically non-existent, sexually guilty and inept, shorter and skinnier and homelier than anyone else. I was submerged in the miseries of adolescence, when I saw two young priests sitting across from me. They looked so pink-cheeked and happy, even joyous, confident in their world and themselves. And there I was wrangling with acne and the angst of adolescence. They looked everything I did not feel at that moment and feared I would never feel again. They were up, and I was down.
So that was The Answer: believe! I seized on it. In hopes of easing my miseries, I (rather pragmaticallly, I think) swung round. I began to believe again. To be honest, I mostly manifested my new-found faith by managing to convince the school I needed Good Friday off and going to Sunday night gatherings at churches, Young People's groups, more in search of girls than God. But there was honest belief, too, although as much belief in belief as belief itself. I remember heading off to a Good Friday service with my pals and sincerely worshipping, thinking myself one of them, not the skinny, cynical intellectual, but one of the core group of the school.
This phase lasted until I went to college--M.I.T., with its ceaseless mathematicizing. Gradually, along the corridor of our dormitory, a group of us became closer and closer friends. We joyed in our all-night bull sessions, girls, sex, politics, the war, and, of course, whether God existed. Years of such conversations, particularly at so relentlessly rational an institution as MIT, eroded my fragile beliefs. The few Catholics among us repeated like a litany the cosmological argument and various forms of Anselm's ontological argument.
Years later, after college, I took a couple of philosophy courses in which I learned, formally, the fallacies in these plausible, apparently tight syllogisms. As an undergraduate, though, I simply thrashed them out with my pals. The ontological sounds silly to any but a believing Catholic. The cosmological "argument from First Causes" has a surface cogency, but fails on examination. Ditto the Argument from Design. Once I had seen the flaws in the logical arguments for the physical existence of a God, I shed any notion of a deity and therefore of any of the religious dogmas, doctrines, and practices. I settled comfortably back into my prevous skepticism. I was, I decided, an agnostic and proud of it. I had shed a burden. My religious state continued in that neutral gear for a number of years, buttressed by occasional logical disputes with a succession of Catholic roommates.
The Seventh Seal fitted perfectly into the rigorous, New Critical analyses we beginning critics prided ourselves on in those days. It was just obscure enough to cause consternation among the middlebrow newspaper reviewers we young highbrows so looked down on. Yet it yielded fairly easily to the logic of the practiced interpreter.
The film builds on a "reality" that involves two levels, natural and supernatural--that was what confused the conventional reviewers. There was the physical reality of fourteenth-century Sweden, photographed as it usually is. There was also a supernatural reality, but what confused reviewers was that Bergman presented it just as if it were a physical reality.
The juggler sees the Virgin as if she were just standing there. The Crusader sees Death like someone who has suddenly appeared on the beach to play chess. The other characters, Skat and those who have entered the Crusader's castle, see Death at the end, and, of course, we in the audience see the Totentanz, the Dance of Death, in the magnificent shot at the end. (Totally adventitious, made on the spur of the moment, with a couple of tourists as stand-ins, this last, gorgeous shot became the emblem of the whole "art" film movement of the 1950s.)
At the same time, however, that there are these surreal visions, the family of Jof (Joseph) and Mia (Mary) and their baby simply is the Holy Family at the level of the physical reality of the film. In this way, it seems to me, Bergman suggests that one way we can move from the plane of reality to the supernatural plane is by interpretation. We can look at the world on the screen as an allegory (as medieval Christians did, as Cassirer, Langer, and Jung did). We can read through it to a spiritual reality which is as real as physical reality.
The film offers a second, more literal way of reaching that other reality--going up. It is, of course, our conventional notion that heaven is "up there" somewhere. But, as I read him, Bergman develops it very precisely in this film by his use of a chess allegory that determines much of the incidental imagery of the film. (I was particularly proud of this ingenious analysis.)
I checked the relationship between the English words for the chess pieces and the Swedish. Some are the same, but some are, in interesting ways, not. One pun that holds in both langauges is "play." The playing (spela) of chess matches the playing (spela) of the strolling trio of actors. Both are traditional images for the transitoriness of life (juxtaposed, for example in Don Quixote, chapter 12 of Book II). All the world's a stage, and Death robs us of our roles. Death jumbles--and humbles--the chessmen all together when they are put back in the box.
The "eight brave men," the common soldiers, who burn the witch correspond to the eight pawns, and, appropriately, "pawn" in English becomes bonde or peasant in Swedish. The "rook" or "castle" in English is torn or tower in Swedish, but the English verb "to castle" becomes in Swedish rockad, which means to cloak or to cover with armor. (For non-chess players, castling is a two-in-one move, tucking the king safely behind its castle.) Clearly, what the Crusader is doing in the film is going inside his castle, and indeed, when, in the final shots, Death gathers them all in, he enfolds them in his huge cloak, filling the screen with black.
Interestingly, the "knight" in the film is not the chess "knight" in English. Rather, the Crusader is the king in English and Swedish (kung), the piece identified by the cross it wears. The Swedish word for the chess knight is springare, or "the leaper," presumably because the chess knight jumps over other pieces. As such, it is the only piece that always moves up off the board. In Bergman's allegory of chess, it is the juggler who leaps up, and it is the juggler who customarily sees the supernatural, both Death and the Holy Mother and Child.
The only other chess piece that can rise off the plane of the board during the game is the crusader-king (in Bergman's allegory, the Crusader), but only when castling--going home, being enfolded in a cloak, like this Crusader. Thus the Crusader can see death, and he and Jof are the only ones who can. Until the end. Then, once the game is lost and the pieces--the characters--are to be lifted up off the board and put back in the box, they too can see Death. Except for the "leaper," these visions beyond the physical plane of the board, like the Crusader-king's, see only the allegorical figure of Death. The "leaper" (in Kierkegaard's "leap" of faith?) can see not only Death, but also the holy life of the Mother and Child.
In a quite literal way, then, one goes up to the level of the supernatural or the holy. The church painter, although committed to the world of the death-religion and to painting "life as it is," stands above things, on a scaffold. He is able to prefigure the events of the film in the scenes he paints of a man dying in torment, of Death sawing down a tree where a man has tried to hide, or of the Dance of Death which is the last scene of the film. The "witch," lifted up, sees Death and the existential emptiness. The actor, Skat, fleeing the burly smith he has cuckolded, climbs a tree. Up there, he can see Death, and, when Death cuts down the tree (an image from the allegorical painting), he is dead and to be put back in the box. After he is taken away, a squirrel jumps up on the felled tree--life goes on.
Jof, however, is a greater artist than the church painter or the other actor. He says his visions give "not the reality you see, but another kind." He hopes his Christ-like infant will grow up to achieve what he calls "the impossible trick," keeping the juggled ball always in the air, above the board, as it were. Jof's powers as a seer are almost exactly parodied by his tormentors' forcing him to jump up and down on the board table in the grotesque scene at the inn. Bergman himself is this kind of artist: he has called himself "a conjurer" working with a "deception of the human eye" that makes still pictures into moving pictures. He, like Jof, can see a supernatural world into being.
How much "up" is a part of my notions of religion! Perhaps it is of everyone's. Perhaps all this "up" is childish. I remember my father at prayers, addressing Someone Up There. "My words fly up . . . " I remember the picture and the palm fronds above my bed, and in that bed the feeling that Someone Up There is watching me as I go about my various sins. Up implies superiority, greater power. I felt when I shed religion the first time that a burden had been lifted up, off me, and I feel that same lightness of being now.
I had gone through the cycle of belief-disbelief-belief-disbelief twice now, and I was to go through it one more time. I went to graduate school in English literature and, like most students of literature in those days, discovered and worshipped T. S. Eliot. It would be hard to overstate the influence T. S. Eliot had then graduate students in English. Not his politics, of course--I remained the progressive I had become after a low-wage job one summer and the pragmatics of law school. But his religion? Suddenly all those symbols, the Rose, fish, bread, wine, genuflection, took on beauty and meaning and mana. I became entranced by the aesthetics of the Church of England. I remember enthusiastically reciting to a pair of startled Unitarians the invocation to the Virgin Mary from Four Quartets.
I was much influenced too, by a seminar in the English humanists of the Renaissance, given by that fine teacher and man, Herschel Baker. The seminar opposed two schools of thought. One, the "fideists," the bad guys, taught that faith was everything: reason was secular and worthless. The other school, the "Christian humanists," Erasmus, More, Ascham, were the good guys of the seminar: faith and reason were consistent and supported each other.
Later, when I read Eliot, Cassirer, Langer, and Jung, they carried that feeling further. One's psychic impulses toward a deity, human longings like this Crusader's, imlied that there was in fact something out there, something cosmic, something holy and divine. From Jung and the philosophers, I added to Eliot's rational-aesthetic religion a belief that our symbols had a reality beyond our own minds. There was something beyond us.
It was about that time (1956) that I read a strange book, that I became more excited abut than any book before or since: The Search for Bridey Murphy. The author, Morey Bernstein, told of hypnotizing a young woman, who then, under hypnosis, recalled a previous life in nineteenth-century Ireland. Bernstein then went to Ireland and, miraculously, found traces of that young woman, Bridey Murphey. There is something after death. There is something beyond our material selves. Jane and I were so excited we sat up all night, reading the book simultaneously, between us on the floor, turning each page together as we finished it. But then a psychologist friend told us that it was common for hypnotists to get from their subjects fabricated memories of all kinds, including previous lives. The book was, alas, a hoax.
And then, still in that period of a longing to believe, I saw The Seventh Seal. No wonder I was flabbergasted. No wonder I now associate my total religious history with it.
This film brings my lost religion back. Most days I say good riddance, but this film gives me nostalgia for the kind of spiritual experience the Crusader feels when he shares the milk and strawberries with Jof and Maria. "I shall hold this experience in my hands like a bowl of warm milk."
I read the characters by their relation to the two worlds. (As Bergman, the minister's son, was doing in his own agonizings about the harsh religion he knew as a Swedish minister's son.) (As I am doing when I respond to this film with my own religious past.)
The Crusader is the questioner. The Crusader tries to know the other reality, but can see only the figure of Death in it. That kind of (Scandinavian?) need to believe, but believe gloomily, led him to leave his young wife to follow the crazy, disillusioning Crusade.
His foil the squire is the materialist. He says the body is the only reality: he fears only the bodily reality of the plague (in the scene with the painter). He sees death as simply a dead body (after the Crusader has seen the allegorical figure of Death).
A foil to both the knower and the materialist is Jof, the artist. He sees Death but also the image of the Mother and Child--supernatural life. Jof, the artist, lives and works (as stander on head) in that realm. In other words, it is the artist who has the vision the Crusader seeks in abstract answers to abstract questions, the artist who can physically leap up to the Supernatural.
I see the various minor characters as firmly lodged at the natural level of the nature-supernature relationship. The actor Skat, the smith, and the smith's wife Lisa live in the animal reality of food and sex. Their reality consists of Skat's satyr costume, Lisa's seduction by food and animal sounds as she and Skat go into the bushes, the smith's physical power and epithets. The smith is the man with the sooty face, the mythological Black Man, who appears in other Bergman films, notably Smiles of a Summer Night, boastful, the imposter of classical comedy, the man who claims to be more than he is, the man who is doomed to die despite his pretensions.
In the last shot in the castle, the mute woman (Jons' housekeeper) speaks for the first time. The "seventh seal" is opened, and she says, "It is finished," (consummatum est--sixth of Christ's seven last words). Bergman then dissolves to Mia's face, in the same posture and position in the frame, but she is with Jof and the baby. I see a religion of life instead of death.
Notice that Bergman's women do not see the supernatural (until the end). Women embody a life force. Only when "It is finished" do women need to turn to the supernatural.
I believe Ingmar Bergman in The Seventh Seal has created a strange and wonderful paradox: a singularly modern medium treated in a singularly unmodern style--a medieval film. I think it is a small masterpiece, like a Grünewald. It is medieval in the trivial sense of being set in Sweden of the fourteenth century. More important, it is a traditional Dance of Death, a Totentanz or morality play. The whole film moves towards that final moment when the allegorical figure of Death, robed in black like a monk, carrying scythe and hourglass, leads the characters away in a dancing line under the dark, stormy sky. Most important, Bergman shows us, as medieval artists did, an allegorical, iconic reality, in Erich Auerbach's term, a figural reality which can be understood only by seeing that it figures forth something beyond itself.
In The Seventh Seal, as in any great work of art, theme and medium have become one. To my eye, Bergman depicts the real world objectively, with tenderness and joy, but he shows us a world in which reality signifies something beyond itself. He lifts his film out of mere physical realism and makes his audience of chessmen with tricked eyes see in their own moves something beyond the board. "My intention," Bergman wrote in a note to the film, "has been to paint in the same way as the medieval church painter," and lo and behold! he has done just exactly that.
I am the knight-Crusader, but, somewhere in my being, I would like to be Jof, the artist, the lover, the man easy in his sexuality. Or would I? would that be true to me, to my being, my identity?
I come to my old and always problem, reliance on reason and rationality. I remember the campus beauty queen who fled my class because she could not stand "the relentless analysis." I remember the faculty club pol who described me, contemptuously, as a "Freudian who believes in rationality." Yes. After all, mind is all I have. I'm not strong, good-looking, courageous, rich, skillful with people . . . I have a mind and a good one. It has to make up for the other stuff.
Spirituality? The word is much in vogue these days. Perhaps those impulses toward the spiritual and spiritual symbols are universal in humans. I once believed that they were. I thought the symbols that reach toward another, higher, "spiritual" sphere both evidenced and established that supernatural realm. I don't believe that any more. I have to say the idea seems mushy to me, a confusion. The notion that a search for truth or a love of beauty or a striving for justice is religious, is "spiritual," proves there is something supernatural? No. Not to this cynic.
I crave ideas that are crisp and hard as the material world. Either there is something supernatural out there or there isn't, and it seems likelier to me that there isn't. It's that simple. And it maddens me that people would make real-world, political decisions about welfare or abortion or Israel on the basis of these religious imaginings--ultimately, in my more hostile moments, superstitions. Nowadays, faced with worldwide fundamentalisms, I want to be hyperrational, even more committed to Enlightenment values than when I was younger. As Proust says, we age into parodies of ourselves.
Could it have been otherwise? Of Bergman's two religions, I seem, like him, to have been stuck with the religion of embarrassment and guilt, particularly sexual guilt--and ignorance and repression. How would I have turned out, religiously, had I met in my childhood a religion of love and family and strawberries, the religion of Jof and Maria? I wonder. I could nearly have accepted such a religion back in 1957--that, I think, was why I felt so struck by the film--but I think it came too late.
The squire seems almost angry that he has no faith. At other times he seems gleeful and rejoices in his atheism and cynicism. I know both those emotions, but they are over and dead for me. I have not been able to hold the religious experience in my hands like a bowl of warm milk. For me, the life in that quest, finding God, is gone. And with it, I am saddened to say, the thunderbolt that once was The Seventh Seal.
The Seventh Seal (1957). dir and scen Ingmar Bergman photog Gunnar Fischer mus Erik Nordgren art P. A. Lundgren ed Lennart Wallén cast Max von Sydow (Antonius Blok, crusader) Bengt Ekerot (Death) Gunnar Björnstrand (Jöns, the squire) Nils Poppe (Jof) Bibi Andersson (Mia) Inga Gill (Lisa, the smith's wife) Gunnel Lindblom (the squire's woman) Maud Hansson (the witch) Erik Strandmark (Skat) Bertil Anderberg (Raval) Inga Landgré (Karin, the crusader's wife) prod Svensk Filmindustri. 96'