Over the past two days I watched Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. This is the first of Bergman’s films I have ever seen; it was considerably shorter than Stalker, and somehow it provided relief after the long, continuous shots of Tarkovsky. I must admit slight disappointment. The Seventh Seal is a classic, and it is about the Middle Ages, and so I was hoping for something more. Make no mistake, it was well made, but there was just something lacking. I simply could not get a pulse; it had no heart.
I’ll come back to that. The story is about a Swedish knight and his nihilistic squire in the 14th century who anachronistically have just returned home after ten years on a crusade. The Black Death spreads death and ruin, wiping out sometimes whole villages at a time. The knight, who feels that God is silent, meets Death and challenges him to a chess game, the end of which will determine whether or not he lives or dies. Death notes that he always wins, but the knight declares that he wants some time to ponder the meaning of existence and do one meaningful thing in his life. Death agrees, and at intermittent times on the way back to the knight’s long-forsaken castle they stop and continue their game.
I have mentioned the nihilistic squire, whom the crusades and the rest of his life have taught that life is a meaningless pursuit in which men must engage. He mocks his pious and tortured master, instead choosing to enjoy life as much as he can and inventing his own code of ethics. Even when facing his own nonexistence, he murmurs about the triumph of mere living. He believes that there is no ultimate purpose, embraces that fact, and so coexists with the brutality of life in a cynical but carefree way, doing what he pleases without fear of Hell or hope of Heaven. He, at least, is free from pondering the existential questions and putting faith in an inconceivable God. Whether this is noble or not is left to the viewer to decide, for in a way he is the essence of contented despair, and what he says, flying in the face as it does of what the others believe, causes those others to despair. He believes in nothing, and takes pleasure in taunting others who actually hold stock in a higher justice.
Although there are other characters representing other worldviews, such as a cuckolded smith, a mute girl, and a clever actor, the others which I had better bring up are the performer and his wife. I cannot say for sure what they represent; hope for the human race, perhaps, but the sort of hope that comes with ignorance. The performer sees many things which trouble him, but he somehow manages to enjoy life. He spends his days happily in the midst of the Black Death with his wife and child, who are all he cares about. Perhaps it is significant that the one point at which the Knight seems contented are in his dealings with this family; he makes a touching speech after sharing strawberries and milk on the grass with them. The performer, however, is also a visionary. He sees the Virgin Mary sometimes; he alone, at first, can see Death. But though he takes delight in some of his visions and terror from others, he always goes back to his simple existence, his wife and fine baby boy. Perhaps he stands for the pleasures of ignorance. He does not attempt to decipher what he sees; he only sees it, runs from what trouble he can, and embraces what fleeting things life can offer to him.
The deeper meaning of this film is attributable to its overt postmodernism. Unlike for Tarkovsky, there is no redemption in this bleak world. God remains silent, and the Knight remains unanswered. Tarkovsky may not know altogether what the answer is, but at least he continues to hope that there is one. Bergman is ready to give up trying and embrace the meaninglessness of the world. Death comes to us all, and all that we can expect, when our cozy worldview is shattered by events beyond our control, is the horror of nonexistence. Tarkovsky weeps for a loss of knowledge of God, a loss of faith. Bergman gravely intones that it never existed. Nothingness alone exists, and we must struggle through it alone. Perhaps the performer represents the ideal, impossible for the intellectual and doubter, of not even trying to understand the larger things, and merely tasting and sharing the strawberries while they are still there. Man continues in the face of nothingness, and his contentment is in creating his own reason for existing.
In summary, this film was more immediately engaging, almost as aesthetic, and far more readily understood than Stalker. But it was soulless and empty: a blunt and brutal depiction of the despair of the modern man who cannot hear God. The Knight tries to find God, even if it means seeking the Devil for answers, but neither can be found. And what does Death say? “I have no secrets. I am unknowing.”