Ingmar Bergman's 1956
film, Det Sjunde inseglet
("The Seventh Seal"), derives its name from a passage in the Bible's
final book, "Revelation
". Toward the end of the film, the character Karin reads part of this passage—from Revelation 8
—aloud, making it even more clear that the film’s title, (and hence, perhaps its message), is based on Revelation 8, which opens with: "And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour" (Rev 8:1
). While that verse alone doesn't really tell us much, the surrounding text gives a very clear message: God will bring great suffering upon the world’s sinners, and He will do this very suddenly, at a time when the "seventh seal" has been broken.
is rather vague about exactly what circumstances will elicit God’s wrath—i.e,. exactly what that "seventh seal" is, and how we will know when it is broken. But one thing is clear; we are to fear the opening of that seventh seal because it precedes by "half an hour" a terribly destructive force directed at all sinners.
Det Sjunde inseglet is set in Sweden in the Middle Ages, just after the Crusades. A knight named Antonius Block returns eagerly to his homeland, only to find that the country has been ravaged by the Black Death (the Plague). Death is embodied in this film in the character of a person named "Death," and Death is introduced to us in the film's opening scenes. In fact, the first thing that happens is that Death comes to take away our protagonist, Antonius Block, but Block challenges him to a chess game instead, proclaiming that he already knows that Death likes to play chess, because he (Block) has seen this fact canonized in paintings. If Death wins the game, Block will be killed immediately, but if Death should lose, Block will be left to live…for awhile, anyway.
That caveat, 'for awhile, anyway,' seems crucially important. Block cannot hope to forestall Death altogether, since all people die eventually. Block must know deep down that he is only delaying, and not preventing, Death’s project.
The overriding belief of most of the characters in the film is that the plague has come to punish them for sin; that they are dying because they have been sinful. This premise affects the stances of the characters in two opposed ways. On the one hand, many characters behaved as if they intended to do everything they could do to change God's mind about them—to convince God that they would 'be good,' and repent. But on the other hand, people such as Block's squire, behaved as if there was really no point in trying to please God at this point, either because they really don’t believe in God, or if they do believe in God, they don’t believe that He will ever forgive them, since the Plague is causing such widespread, indiscriminate illness and suffering to Europe's saints and sinners alike, despite the repentance of the masses.
Be righteous and live, or be sinful and die. Something seems wrong with that dichotomy. Does not everyone die? When Antonius Block is finally beaten in the chess game, Death asks him if he has enjoyed his reprieve, seeming to suggest that it was silly to delay this inevitability. In reply, Block smiles wisely, and says that yes, he has indeed enjoyed his extra time.
But Block never specifies why this time was enjoyable, so we are left to speculate. But one thing is certain: he now recognizes that his death is inevitable, and he seems more welcoming of this reality than he was at the beginning of the film. Although at the beginning of the film, Block's reaction to meeting Death was to try to stall him (by challenging him to a chess game), his reaction at his last encounter is more resigned. It is in this final scene that Block addresses him as "Noble Lord" for the first time in the film. Compare this subordinate stance to his initial, assertive posture toward Death, in which he insisted that while his body was afraid, he was not afraid, and he felt very confident that he could beat Death in chess.
Death, (i.e., both the phenomenon and its anthropomorphosis in Bergman's film), is the most feared thing in life, because it involves the most profound change. The attitude that death is a change to be avoided at all costs, motivates Antonius Block to attempt a fruitless challenge to Death's authority (i.e., the chess game), and to embark on a fruitless quest for answers about God. Unwittingly, Block is causing his own misery; he is delaying the inevitable and searching for a God who refuses to speak to him. Only at the end of the film does he finally accept that Death is in charge here. Even if God is listening, He's certainly not speaking.