21 May THE SEVENTH SEAL
(Ingmar Bergman, 1958)
A Knight’s Despair: Turning Away From Love
What It Takes To Open A Heart Again
Antonius Block is a Knight in despair. A kind of despair that puts him right into a fight for his life. A fight that forces him to challenge Death to a chess game, determined to outwit him. Can he do it? What will it take to tip our Knight’s waning hourglass back in his favor? Certainly, Bergman’s famous allegory, The Seventh Seal, is about a man who has lost his faith. But, what is faith, exactly? Is it in a God? Or is faith really found in a capacity for love and human connection?
Yes, the film’s religious symbolism reflects Bergman’s questions about God originating in a childhood with his strict Minister-father. But, in just as many ways, The Seventh Seal’s chess game with Death shows us a troubling psychological struggle. Antonius Block is haunted, not only by a silent God that refuses to answer. But, by a dark depressive force – just as virulent as the Black Plague and as tormenting as the Grim Reaper – that wants to kill love and hope. And, we’ll see how one meaningful act of kindness begins to set him free.
Bergman & Problems With Love
Love originates in childhood. And, for various early reasons, Bergman spent much of his life struggling with depression and love. As a child, he lived under the threat of a harsh father who preached Satan, fire, and brimstone. A father who sent him, alone, to a dark basement as punishment. It’s no surprise Bergman was afraid of death. But, his fears were much more complicated. Love was not secure.
Bergman’s infancy was a traumatic one. He almost died after being born and his mother was too sick to care for him. So, his grandmother took him away to her country house, hiring a wet nurse to feed him. A lengthy and early separation from his mother affected his trust in love. Such experiences always do.
Silence, then, as we see in our Knight’s despair about a Silent God that refuses to answer, can also be a baby and small child’s depression, crying out for a mom that isn’t there.
When love isn’t secure for an infant, neither is faith. That first loving connection to Mother gives the original meaning to an infant’s life. Grave doubts about love later bring with them infidelities, aggression, and hurtful acts. They also bring loneliness, self-doubt, and despair. The Seventh Seal speaks to these serious struggles. It speaks to a loss of hope that love can be trusted.
Bergman tackled his personal demons through his films. He certainly had reasons to be doubtful of love and struggled over four marriages and a number of relationships until he could make love work. Finally, at age 53, with Ingrid Von Rosen. He made The Seventh Seal at 40, not yet having resolved these matters inside him.
In The Seventh Seal, Ingmar Bergman’s alter-ego is Antonius Block.
A Lost Knight’s Despair
Our Knight, Antonius Block (Max Von Sydow), has traveled far and wide. A once-religious man, he left home many years ago to fight for the Holy Land in the Crusades. Weary after a seemingly interminable battle, he’s traveling back from war. Antonius Block has lost faith in himself, in people, and in life.
A Knight, after all, doesn’t give up easily. Yet, despair can be a harder struggle than engaging in open warfare. And, although Antonius Block still searches for what could give life meaning, he is followed – tormented – by the specter of Death, a Grim Reaper that argues he doesn’t have a chance. Will he give in?
No. Antonius Block will prove he’s better than an even match for Death, challenging him to a chess game; convinced he can outwit him. What is it, though, that he must prove? That he’s a good man? Kind and loving? Despair would tell him otherwise. You see, he chose war instead of love. Turned his back on a new marriage. Left his wife.
To understand our Knight’s despair, we must ask: what are the forces that took him away from love? Sure, he had a duty. But, his loss of faith in life and love, especially his capacity to give it, would suggest that his despair is more complicated than the ravages of war. He’s at war within himself.
What is this internal war? Look at his face. A man haunted by shadows of despair – as dark as Death himself. Lonely in the world; so alone and hopeless that we imagine he has always been. It’s only well into The Seventh Seal that we discover he has a wife. At least, he did; he’s doubtful he does now. His guilt is a large part of his despair.
Searching: Where To Find Hope?
Yes, he “once had love,” Antonius Block tells Mia (wife, mother, and part of a traveling acting troupe) later in the film. But he has no certainty that his love waits. In fact, by all appearances, he’s convinced she doesn’t. In his guilt, love is not secure. Keeping a tough exterior can take a man (or woman) far away from love.
Our Knight is traveling home, but with little hope. It’s hard to imagine that such a joyless, shut down man was ever capable of romance. Oh, but he was. He wrote love songs to his wife. Yet, looking at Antonius Block now, a man with poetic sentiments is not what we’d expect. The problem is – he’s lost faith in his ability to love.
And, in his self-doubt, life has lost its meaning. He struggles to find hope. Where will he find it? And, what will give him solace? On the surface, he wants to find a kind and responsive God. But, really, isn’t it that he’s searching for someone to answer; for a voice in his loneliness; to appease his guilt, and tell him he isn’t truly alone.
If I had Antonius Block on my couch, I’d give voice to the deepest reasons for why he went far away from love, not only in his travels but in his feelings, unable to stay open. To what are the sources for his problems with love. In order to find out, he needs time.
Chess Game With Death: Buying Time
As The Seventh Seal begins, Antonius Block lies on a beach. A chessboard, with black and white pieces, sits on the edge of the ocean’s waves. A man (Bengt Ekerot), monk-like, in long black robes, with hood almost covering his face, approaches: “I am Death. I’ve been at your side for a long time.” The Knight replies: “That I know.”
Why does the Knight, Antonius Block, know that Death follows him? He knows in the darkness of his depression and despair. In his anguish, that life has lost all meaning. And, we see, how the Black Plague threatens everyone, everywhere. This Plague, too, kills hope and love. Anyone can fall ill; a loved one can be taken away at any time.
The Knight isn’t ready to die. He wants answers to what’s at the root of his faithlessness. Mostly to the question: “Is there anyone there?” Does anyone hear his misery? He must find out. Antonius Block tells Death as he challenges him: “ If I hold out against you, I get to live. If I win, you set me free.” Death accepts Block’s challenge.
Our Knight is determined to rise above his despair and guilt. To “commit one meaningful act” before he dies. What is a meaningful act if it’s not driven by love? And, the reparative forces of love is what Antonius Block needs.
But, as we see in The Seventh Seal, there are many interferences to love and loving, those that the Grim Reaper uses to tear down hope. Or, in the best-case scenario, ones our Knight will fight against – and use. So that his darkness might become light.
First, he must confess and face the roots of his despair.
Confessing His Despair: A Self Loathing
The Knight’s depression is a black hole of self-loathing. That’s why he searches for a kind God, to absolve him; to hear his plight. Going to confession, he hopes that telling a priest might at least be a start:
“My heart is empty. The emptiness is a mirror in which I see my own face and it fills me with loathing and horror. My indifference to my fellow man has cut me off … what will become of us who want to believe and cannot?”
What he cannot believe in is human connection. War pits us against those who seem enemies. Internal war does the same – but against parts of ourselves; shutting us down to the possibilities an open heart can bring. Creating unnecessary loneliness.
“I cry out in the dark, but no one seems to be there.” This is the dilemma of a lonely man. Of the child that lives inside him, abandoned. A child that blames himself and lives in self-hate. Our Knight has turned away in seeming indifference but burning with need. A child/man that has stopped believing in love.
The priest, who is Death in disguise, and also the voice of depression, taunts him: “Perhaps no one is there.” Yes, that’s his worst fear. That no one waits, no one loves him, that he has pushed everyone away forever. Death has tricked him, posing as a priest. Just as depression can do, if we listen to its voice of despair.
And, now, the Knight sees how difficult his fight is. As he tries to do one good deed, what must Antonius Block face? This is important – because it is in looking at all the internal characters that create his fight against openness to loving, that the sources of his despair might be seen.
What Our Knight Must See
All the characters in The Seventh Seal make up the psyche of Bergman, our Knight, and all of us in our humanness – expressing various conflicts that interfere with love.
To win the chess game with Death, The Knight must face these many parts of himself. One he’s been traveling with all along: his Squire, Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand), the voice of his cynicism: “The Lord is up above, but Satan finds us down below.”
Yes, there is his doubt. There’s also his despair, guilt, and loss of faith. Jealousy, envy and grief in the figures of Plog (Ake Fridell), the blacksmith, and his wife, Lisa (Inga Gill). There’s fear in the mute servant girl (Gunnel Windblom). Greed and deception in Skat (Eric Strandmark).
And, there’s terror and trauma in the young girl/Satan-worshiper-supposed-witch (Maud Hansson). But, we also see hope in The Seventh Seal. Facing reality in the Painter (Gunnar Olsson). And, possibility for love’s survival in Jof (Nils Poppe), Mia (Bibi Andersson), and their baby Mikael.
But, for love to survive, these conflicts must be fought and won. And, there is the specter of Death creating threat and despair. The Chess Game is the Knight’s wish for life and love not to be defeated.
He has a lot to fight against. The voice of depression follows everywhere, trying to trick him into believing life is meaningless: “Don’t you all know, you’re going to die. You are all doomed … Lord have mercy on us sinners. Turn not thy face.”
His Squire, asks: “You take that drivel seriously, my Lord?” Antonius Block does: “The Plague is spreading. They speak of Judgment Day.” What is this but guilt and fear of punishment for his unfeeling detachment? Unless he works it out, depression and Death won’t set him free.
Cynicism About Love
As they ride along, Jöns continues speaking: “there is talk of evil omens.” A man sits on the beach, head down. “Where is the inn,” Jöns asks, lifting up the man’s face. He sees a decaying corpse, eyes eaten away. In horror, Jöns (our Knight’s cynicism ) declares: “Love is the blackest of all plagues.”
But, is it? Isn’t this really an expression of a loss of faith and hope that travels with our Knight. His Squire: the one who’s shut down feeling. Yet, there’s another side to Antonius Block. In his search for answers, we witness some hope. Jöns’s hardened skepticism is closed to it all. And, this, within him, is what the Knight fights.
There is more that contributes to a battle against love. The young girl/child, filled with lust and longing, is condemned to be burnt at the stakes for “consorting with the Devil.” The Knight wants to speak with her; he must and will. The villagers try to stop him for fear she’ll cast a demonic spell and send the Plague further into their lives.
The Plague. Coldness to human feeling is everywhere. Jöns searches a village for water, walking into an abandoned house. He sees a man attacking a servant girl and saves her. Yet, he is callous to human feeling and we see his lack of empathy: “I could have raped you, but I’ve grown tired of this kind of love. It’s a little dull in the end …”
Why even call this love? It’s not. In Jön’s cynicism about love, infidelity can be at the next turn. He tells the girl he’s a married man but expects his wife is dead. He needs a housekeeper, and yells at her for “gaping.” But, she’s mute from trauma and fear.
Love Or Lust?
The mute servant girl joins Jöns for saving her life. With Antonius Block, they ride into the next town and meet Jof, Mia and Skat’s acting troupe. In Jof and Mia is love. But, in Skat (and Lisa), the opposite: lust, infidelity, and betrayal. There are many versions of turning away from love (which for some can feel scary and not secure.)
Pure lust isn’t love, but serves various purposes: satisfying confused longings, substituting sex for the real thing, or it can perform a rivalrous conquest. The latter, Skat seduces Lisa to run away with him. Leaving her shocked husband, Plog, cuckolded, in jealous despair. Skat, later, is severely punished by Death, who gives no reprieve from the “triumph” of his deceit.
There’s lust that arises from early trauma. From the unsatisfied longings turned to confused hunger for something mistaken for love. We see that in the girl/child/satan/witch. She’s “carnal knowledge,” thought to be “evil” in The Seventh Seal.
Really, this girl’s prisoner of a tortured mind. Likely an abandoned child. Made to feel she’s “bad” for her unmet needs; as if a concubine of Satan, punished in her shame, and with no one to care or respond. This leads to depression – or insanity.
Antonius Block, sane, but depressed, struggles to make sense of his despair. He too has rejected his needs. Meeting Mia, he sees a small family filled with love and hope. Asks about her baby: “Will he become an acrobat?” “Perhaps he’ll become a Knight.” “Not much fun in that.” “You don’t look too happy.”
“I’m in bad company,” he tells her. “Your squire?” “No, myself.” Mia understands: “I wonder why people torment themselves so.” Happy, she offers him wild strawberries and fresh milk. Her husband Jof comes home, beaten; but saved by Jöns.
One Good Deed & Saving Himself
Jof, in spite of being beaten in a bar brawl, is pure optimism. He encourages Antonius Block to share their humble meal. Here is kindness and one good deed to come.
The Knight asks where they’re headed. The plague has spread south and he’ll lead them to safety. They can stay at his home. Mia nods: “It’s wise to have company through the forest, it’s full of evil spirits and robbers.”
Yes, there is danger. Once this depressed Knight has found a modicum of hope, it can easily be taken from him. Antonius Block sighs: “There’s so much worry in life.” Mia tells him: “It’s better to be two. Have you no one?”
“I had, once. We were newly married. We played and laughed. I wrote songs to her eyes, her nose, her beautiful little ears. We danced. The house was full of life. Faith is a torment. It’s like loving someone in the darkness who never answers no matter how loud you call.” Is his wife waiting? He doesn’t think so.
Love is faith. He’s now smiling. His face looks lighter, not so tortured: “This bowl of strawberries and milk. Jof playing the lyre … I’ll hold this memory between my hands as carefully as a bowl brimming with fresh milk… it will be a sign for me and a source of content.” A sign of hope.
He walks away, his face suddenly solemn and haunted. Death follows him. How quickly hope can turn: “I’ve been waiting for you.” They continue their Chess game, Antonius Block still trying to find another chance at love: “Check.”
Death attempts to rush him. The Knight stands firm. Their game must proceed at its own pace – in the way anyone must find a path out of despair.
Beginning To See The Way
The Knight can now perform his one good deed: leading Jof, Mia, Mikael, Plog, and Jöns through the forest. Plog reflects: “The moon’s come out from behind the clouds.” Jöns, previously the picture of cynicism, responds: “Good, now we can see our way.”
Facing truth is needed to survive despair. Yet, there are still threats. Mia warns: “I don’t like the moon tonight, the trees are so still.” The music is ominous. They’re headed towards the execution grounds; where the witch/girl/accused-Satan-consort will soon be burned.
What our Knight must see is how he’s turned away from love, faith, and hope. He leans towards the girl and asks her help in seeing the Devil: “I must ask him about God. He must know or nobody does.” She replies: “You can see him … just look into my eyes. He’s with me always.” She has found no path out of her own despair.
Death, behind Antonius Block, sneers: “Don’t you ever stop asking questions. You get no answers.” Yet, continuing to ask is the Knight’s saving grace. He doesn’t give up.
Antonius Block sees nothing but terror in the girl’s eyes. Jöns tells him that her terror is seeing only “emptiness in the moonlight.” Drawn into the black hole of her hopelessness, the Knight’s despair returns. Is there really no one there?
Hope is fragile. This girl’s abject resignation is what’s in the way of love. The child self who’s been so hurt makes love seem out of reach. That’s when despair takes over and we might “die of meaninglessness.” Yet, it’s not hopeless. She, this traumatized child, searched for love in the wrong ways and the wrong places, that’s all.
And, Antonius Block closed his longings down in fear that love is gone.
A Steadfast Love Survives
The Chess game continues – his struggle to win another chance at meaning. Mia sings a song of hope and comfort to her child (and Antonius). Yet, Jof, a man of visions and fear sees the Knight playing chess with Death. He tells Mia they must flee.
No one, even in undying optimism, can run from certain realities. Life does end. But, not necessarily without meaning or love. It just takes steadfast seeing, not escape.
The Knight and his fellow travelers finally reach his home, guided by his torch. They’ve passed safely through the forest’s dangers and the Knight’s “dark night of the soul.” Karin (Inge Landgre), his wife, has waited faithfully. For now, Death’s given Antonius Block a reprieve and leaves him, “until they meet again.”
The Knight, though, can’t yet open up to Karin, despite the loyalty of her love. He’s met with the various parts of himself he had to face but is weary from the struggle. He’s still uncertain of love. It will take time.
Karin, though, is not afraid of her Knight’s distance. Her voice reaches into the silence of his heart: “Don’t you know me anymore? Now I can see, somewhere in your eyes, only hidden and frightened, is the boy who went away so many years ago.” His child self must learn to trust love again. Like Mia, she will feed him.
The Knight’s wife welcomes his friends and prepares a meal.
Love & Hope: Dancing With Death
All the travelers sit together at dinner, with Karin, reading the bible’s verse, The Seventh Seal”: “… there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour and 7 angels who had 7 trumpets prepared themselves for sound.” There’s a banging on the door. And, Death enters the room. Karin answers.
“Good evening Noble Lord, I am Karin, the Knight’s wife. I bid you welcome in my house.” Karin is not afraid of facing Death or the Knight’s hopelessness and despair.
Death bids them take hands and leads them all in a line-dance on the beach. He, Death, is at the head, with his Scythe and Hourglass. Yes, Time may have its limits. But, if the sources of depression are faced, life can be filled with love. There is hope.
For the Knight, love has been waiting all along. The storm calms. Jof, Mia, and Mikael are safe on the beach. Jof watches the procession. Angelic music plays. Love has survived. And, with his one good deed, the Knight has opened his heart to love. With that, light comes, and the weight of Antonius Block’s despair begins to lift.
I’m Dr. Sandra Cohen, a Los Angeles based psychologist and psychoanalyst. I work with people struggling with depression, despair, and loss of hope in love. I help them find their way again.