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Ingmar Bergman – The Seventh Seal

May 9, 2013 | By

This is what is most fascinating about the creation of ‘The Seventh Seal’ – it is an off-spring of a misty, ambiguous mind and of tormenting times.

“The seventh seal, an uneven film which lies close to my heart because it was made under difficult circumstances in a surge of vitality and delight …”[1]
Ingmar Bergman, The Magic Lantern

 

The Seventh Seal (The Criterion Collection) (1957)

The Seventh Seal (The Criterion Collection) (1957)

Ingmar Bergman is an artist whose works have been so extensively discussed and analysed that very little is left to be said. On the other hand he is probably one such enigmatic genius whose creation has never ceased to arouse unremitting interest among his audience, year after year.

How Bergman draws religious allegories to the majority of his works has been a subject of persistent discussion among film-enthusiasts and critics. But upon reading about his upbringing one realises that it is probably the most natural and likely thing to happen.

Bergman being the son of a Lutheran priest, growing up in the cold environs of a strict parsonage have been imbued in religious thoughts and concepts since childhood.

 

“Most of our upbringing was based on such concepts as sin, confession, punishment, forgiveness and grace, concrete factors in relationships between children and parents and God”. [2] Yet there is a surprise in the premise of such a spiritually uplifting creation as ‘The Seventh Seal’ from him since Bergman has been ironically, flagrantly honest about his disbelief in the existence of God.

“I hated God and Jesus, especially Jesus. With his revolting tone of voice his slushy communion and his blood. God didn’t exist. No one could prove he existed. If he existed then he was evidently a horrid god, petty-minded, unforgiving and biased, they could keep him!

Just read the Old Testament and there he is in all glory. And that’s supposed to be the god of love who loves everyone. The world’s a shithole just as Strindberg says!”[3]

the seventh seal

The Seventh Seal (The Criterion Collection)

He was always highly existential in his philosophy of life brimming with disapproval for god, religion and faith. Critics have often made endearing comments like Bergman translated the essence of Camus into cinema and Berman himself acknowledges “Then came existentialism–Sartre and Camus. Above all was Sartre.

Camus came later, with a sort of refined existentialism.I came into contact with it in the theatre, among other things in connection with my production of Caligula and Anders Eke at the Gothenburg City Theatre in 1946.”[4]

“All that stuff that stuff Jesus says about in my father’s house are many mansions, I don’t believe it. Not for me, thanks.”[5] Yet after years of struggle, hardship, success, failure and an all pervasive sense of dissolution, he once casually confessed to his father during an evening walk (which was one rare occasion in their lives, since they were quite estranged) that- “I indeed denied the existence of god, but I did not think I would be punished, because God, the father, with Jesus on his right hand, would see to it that I was hidden.”[6]

Year 1957, more than a decade after the world got a first-hand experience of what the apocalypse might look like, (example: Holocaust, Hiroshima, Nagasaki) springs a cinematic masterpiece. Ironically, coming, from a director who himself struggles with constant vacillation between agnosticism and a faint sense of belief, the film was listed in the “values” category of the Vatican film list.

This is what is most fascinating about the creation of ‘The Seventh Seal’ – it is an off-spring of a misty, ambiguous mind and of tormenting times. Yet lucid and pertinent when it comes to the theosophical ideas it wants to convey.

It is hardly a film about questioning the existence of god but realising the possibilities of upholding nascent humanitarian principles, even when the greater beliefs – that of in God or religion might be distant and amorphous.

It will be interesting to observe the intricacies of a creation replete with primeval metaphysical enquiries and Biblical significances, in days of tumult, destruction and hopeless indifference. Why Ingmar Bergman dealt with the metaphysics of man’s notion of god and man’s encounter with death in his film the seventh seal?

“They are destroyed from morning to evening:
They perish for ever without any regarding it.
Doth not their excellence which is in them go away?
They die, even without wisdom.”[7]
                                ~ The Book of Job 4: (20-21)

Questioning the existence of God has been a subject of reflection since the time man began to enquire, think and perceive.

The Seventh Seal (The Criterion Collection)

The Seventh Seal (The Criterion Collection)

Epicurus (342-270 BC) formalized the argument that apparently negates the proposition that there is a good and powerful God. The Greek philosopher explained that if there is indeed a good god then he would definitely not want there to be suffering.

Moreover, if he was omnipotent then he must have eradicated evil by now. Hence, as sufferance is perpetual andevil is irrevocable- God might or might not exist.

A believer may refute this argument saying that God’s power is limited by his weaknesses. For example: since Jehovah (God of the Old Testament) is absolutely holy, he cannot lie. Hence, since God has granted us freedom of choice, he is compelled to allow us exercise it, it’s we who make wrong decisions and so evil persists.

Moreover, suffering cannot be completely dissociated from goodness – example: Jesus Christ is an epitome of the assertion that goodness and suffering are not mutually exclusive – God suffers too.

We can cite another incident from the Bible which claims goodness and suffering to be compatible- example: the sacrificial life of Paul, one of the purest and noblest characters to have graced the pages of the Scriptures.

He enjoyed the approval of Jehovah, yet his divine service on behalf of Christ was laden with immense sufferance. Thus even in this intermittent argument about the presence and absence of God- some unanswered questions stay embedded in our minds. These doubts are never answered but quietened by the persistent ‘silence of God’-

“Why standest thou afar off, o Lord?
Why hidest thou thyself in times of trouble?”[8]
                                                ~ Psalm 10:1

This is what is most fascinating about the creation of ‘The Seventh Seal’ - it is an off-spring of a misty, ambiguous mind and of tormenting times.

This is what is most fascinating about the creation of ‘The Seventh Seal’ – it is an off-spring of a misty, ambiguous mind and of tormenting times.

For Ingmar Bergman whose ‘father was a representative of God’ [9], who used to hit him mercilessly and lock him up in closets, the above question was very crucial.

Bergman in an interview, while talking about his film, The Seventh Seal, once said, “For me, in those days, the great question was: Does God exist? Or doesn’t God exist? Can we, by an attitude of faith, attain to a sense of community and a better world? Or, if God doesn’t exist, what do we do then? What does our world look like then?”[10]

 As a child and a youth, most importantly as the son of a Lutheran minister, he probably never dared to express this skepticism towards faith. It had long immersed his views till he attained the age and experience to vent out his thoughts, gathered over the years, regarding this issue. Hence The Seventh Seal… hence Antonius Block.

So in the same interview when asked which figure from the movie he felt closest to, at that time, he informed, “It’s with something more like desperation I’ve experienced the Block inside me”[11]

From boyhood days Bergman had been repelled by the thought of Christianity or any institutionalized religion, for that matter. At the same time he was always intrigued and unnerved by the concept of death.

“I was afraid of Death”. [12]
“No, Death is horrid. You don’t know what comes afterwards”.[13]
“Death’s an insoluble horror, not because it hurts, but because it’s full of beastly dreams you can’t wake up from”. [14]

These were his feelings about death in his effusive boyhood days. But with age, maturity and experience Bergman expresses his anxiety regarding death with greater poise and introspection.

In his autobiography- he paraphrases Ovid’s tale of Philemon and Baucis, narrating how an elderly farmer couple received immortality as boon by serving God for an evening.

God turns them into a huge tree to shade the farm since they do not want death to separate them. At the end of it he entails a subtle lament- “No friendly god will turn us (Ingrid Bergman and Ingmar Bergman) into a tree”.[15]

During his phase of ever changing reactions towards life and death, God and religion, belief and distrust, falls the year 1957. The year of The Seventh Seal, the year of the opportunity to “throw off the mask”[16] and reveal his confusions regarding the accepted notions of God and faith.

Hence he creates a film that voices most of his personal ambivalence through Biblical innuendos (which he has been acquainted almost with since birth) – primarily-

I.            God exists or not
II.            Enigma of Death
III.            Tenuous grip of faith over mankind

In an attempt to identify the Biblical overtones in the movie The Seventh Seal – I have realised how vital the study of religious texts is. It expands the horizon of our knowledge and perception. Knowledge of religion and mythology helps us delve deep into the crises arising between man and God, man and faith, man and religion, man and mankind.

Hence, though difficult to analyse in parts, the constant juxtaposition between Biblical-historical allegories and the main narrative of the movie- actually helps it dissolve the walls of temporality and uplift it to being a universal masterpiece.

With the alchemical touch of human emotions and biblical allusions, the seventh seal moves us and reinforces our faith in divinity and humanity alike. And justly inflates the already elephantine general notion that Bergman is a genius. Purely so.

The Seventh Seal (The Criterion Collection)

The Seventh Seal (The Criterion Collection)

 References

[1] Ingmar Bergman, The Magic Lantern, USA, Penguin Books: 1994. Pg-274

[2] Ingmar Bergman, The Magic lantern, USA, Penguin Books: 1994. Pg-7-8

[3] Ingmar Bergman, The Magic Lantern, USA, Penguin Books: 1994. Pg- 80

[4] “Torsten Manns and Jonas Sima” , “Bergman on Bergman”,

www.adherents.com,

http://www.adherents.com/people/pb/Ingmar_Bergman.html

[5] Ingmar Bergman, The Magic Lantern, USA, Penguin Books: 1994. Pg- 80-81

[6] Ingmar Bergman, The Magic Lantern, USA, Penguin Books: 1994. Pg- 279

[7]. The New Cambridge Paragraph Bible with the Apocrypha: King James Version. David Norton. Editor. London: Penguin Classics 2006. Pg 630-631

[8] The New Cambridge Paragraph Bible with the Apocrypha: King James Version. David Norton. Editor. London: Penguin Classics 2006. Pg- 683

[9] Richard A. Blake, “Finding God at the Movies.” “www.adherents.com”. http://www.adherents.com/people/pb/Ingmar_Bergman.html

[10] Torsten Manns and Jonas Sima, “Bergman on Bergman”,

“www.adherents.com”,

http://www.adherents.com/people/pb/Ingmar_Bergman.html

[11] Torsten Manns and Jonas Sima, “Bergman on Bergman”, www.adherents.com

http://www.adherents.com/people/pb/Ingmar_Bergman.html

[12] Ingmar Bergman, The Magic Lantern, Sabon, USA, Penguin Books: 1994.Pg-80.

[13] Ingmar Bergman, The Magic Lantern, Sabon, USA, Penguin Books: 1994.Pg-80.

[14] Ingmar Bergman, The Magic Lantern, Sabon, USA, Penguin Books:1994. Pg-81.

[15] Ingmar Bergman, The Magic Lantern, Sabon, USA, Penguin Books: 1994.Pg-265.

[16] Ingmar Bergman, The Magic Lantern, Sabon, USA, Penguin Books: 1994.Pg-4.

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Prerita Sen studies English literature in Jadavpur University and writes on cinema. Her interest in particular is on the films of Ingmar Bergman.
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