Teaching Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal

Michael A. Ryan (University of New Mexico)

A masterpiece within the canon of cinema, Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 magnum opus, The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet) is also one of the most renowned medieval-themed films.  This bleak, but brilliant, movie uses the trauma of the medieval Black Death to serve as a backdrop for Bergman’s ninety-six-minute long meditation on existentialism.  Filmed at the height of the Cold War, when many worried that a nuclear conflagration would consume the world, Bergman uses the devastation engendered by the disease to establish the atmosphere for his film. [1]

Recent scholars have contested the historical narrative surrounding the transmission of the disease, as well as the nature of the disease itself. [2]   Yet the traditional understanding of the medieval European pandemic posits it as a combination of bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic plague that, from 1346 to 1352, followed terrestrial and maritime trading routes, sweeping from the eastern Mediterranean Sea westward and from coastal cities to locales in the interior of the continent. [3]   The speed, virulence, and horrifying symptoms of the plague fixed the plague within an apocalyptic reckoning, at least in some contemporary Europeans’ minds.  Its effects were devastating, as the disease’s initial appearance culled anywhere from a third to a half of the European populace.  Frequently reappearing in subsequent years, plague was thus a constant presence in the history of Europe throughout the later Middle Ages and early modern eras.  Johan Huizinga, in his early twentieth-century work, The Waning of the Middle Ages, viewed the plague and the social and cultural effects it engendered in European society as illustrative of a medieval civilization in its declining years, marked by senescence, superstition, and decay. [4]

In the film, a disillusioned crusader, Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), and his trusty squire, Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand), return to their native Sweden, a land devastated by the disease.  The film opens with the knight lying sprawled upon a rocky shore.  A chalk-faced Death (Bengt Ekerot) appears and threatens to take Antonius away.  However, Antonius is not ready for such a journey.  Instead, he believes that he can receive answers to nagging doubts about the nature of life, death, and God by returning to his wife and castle at Elsinore and by observing events during the course of his travels.  In order to have more time for his return home, Antonius offers to play chess with Death.  Should the knight ultimately win, he will vanquish Death.  However, should he lose, Death will take him and his companions to the Other World.  The stakes in such an existential game are thus very high indeed.

As Block and Jöns return to Elsinore, they encounter people from various stations of medieval life along their travels, including a young female servant (Gunnel Lindblom); a cuckolded blacksmith, Plog (Åke Fridell), and his unfaithful wife, Lisa (Inga Gill); and a girl, Tyan, (Maud Hansson) accused of witchcraft.  Crucially, they also meet up with a troupe of actors, introduced earlier in the film, who represent the figures of the Holy Family: Jof/Joseph (Nils Poppe), who also is a recipient of divine visions; his patient and kind wife, Mia/Mary (Bibi Andersson); and their baby, Michael (Tommy Karlsson).  In the penultimate meeting between Death and Antonius, Jof sees that which the others cannot: that the knight plays chess with death itself.  Antonius, noting that Jof has perceived his game, “accidentally” knocks over the chess pieces and pretends to forget their original location on the board, thus stalling Death long enough to permit Jof, Mia, and Michael to escape undetected.  Finally, the ragtag group arrives at Castle Elisnore, where the Lady Block (Inga Landgré), Karin, has kept a lone vigil for her husband, as the servants have all fled.  While Karin reads aloud from the Book of the Revelation attributed to John the Evangelist, Death comes for the knight and his companions.  Jof, safe in his wagon, relates to Mia what he sees: framed against a storm-tossed sky, Death leads the silhouettes of the knight and his party away, dancing towards oblivion.  Antonius leads the dance, followed by the rest of the group.  The fool, Skat (Erik Strandmark), facing away from the group and playing the lute, brings up the rear of the train.

The film probably would best serve advanced high school students, those in eleventh and twelfth grades.  Unless very advanced, younger students might miss many of the nuances of the movie.  As a reflection on the nature of life and the inexorable march towards the gaping maw of the grave, the movie can be ponderous at times.  Yet the film’s slow pace is also broken up with outright scenes of terror that starkly reinforce the message of inevitable death.  These include the arrival of the procession of flagellants, who interrupt Jof and Mia’s performance by scourging themselves and loudly haranguing the assembled audience; the execution of Tyan, who is to be burned alive, yet whose suffering is mitigated by an act of kindness on Antonius’ part; and the agonizing plague death of the seminarian, Raval, whose howls of pain and fear reverberate within a forest glade.  Nevertheless, the movie is a perfect companion to discuss the spread and virulence of the first arrival of the Black Death, as well as the social, economic, and cultural changes such a demographic catastrophe engendered in medieval society.   Discussions about the resurgent interest in the late medieval/early modern literary and artistic genre known as the Danse Macabre, or the Dance of Death, which graphically portrays the certainty that death comes to all who breathe, regardless of wealth, power, or station in life, can certainly parallel the course of the movie’s narrative, especially the final scene.  For particularly advanced students, an instructor might find rewarding leading a discussion centering on Johan Huizinga’s classic work and the article written by Howard Kaminsky in 2000, which responds to, and criticizes, the endurance of Huizinga’s model. [5] Students could thus view Bergman’s film within this context and debate if it is perhaps overly beholden to Huizinga’s argument about a civilization in its waning, or “autumn,” years.

 

Online References

http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/sbook1w.html#Calamitous%20Century A collection of primary sources edited and compiled by Paul Halsall and freely available on the Web for classroom use, the Internet Medieval Sourcebook is an invaluable resource for instructors.  This particular link will lead students and teachers to more information on plague, but there are other sources as well, all of which point to a reckoning of the fourteenth-century as an era of significant crisis and change.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/middle_ages/black_01.shtml This is a link to a very good survey, produced and disseminated by the BBC, about the effects of plague in the British Isles.

http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/plague.htm This particular link provides a “crash-course,” as it were, on the plague’s spread and effects and, most notably, incorporates selections from Giovanni Boccaccio’s famous depiction of the plague in fourteenth-century Florence, which comes from the introduction to his Decameron.

 

Michael A. Ryan is Assistant Professor of History at University of New Mexico and author of A Kingdom of Stargazers: Astrology and Authority in the Late Medieval Crown of Aragon (Cornell UP, 2011).


[1] For good introductions to the film, see John Aberth, A Knight at the Movies: Medieval History on Film (New York: Routledge, 2003), 215-43 and Kevin J. Harty: The Reel Middle Ages: American, Western and Eastern European, Middle Eastern and Asian Films about Medieval Europe (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 1999), 245-47.

[2] Samuel Cohn, The Black Death Transformed: Disease and Culture in Early Renaissance Europe (London: Arnold, 2002) and, for a briefer assessment, Robert E. Lerner, “Fleas: Some Scratchy Issues Concerning the Black Death,” The Journal of the Historical Society 8:2 (June 2008), 205-28.

[3] The bibliography on the Black Death is massive.  A recent survey appears in Ole J. Benedictow, The Black Death 1346-1352: The Complete History (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2004).  Although dated, Philip Ziegler, The Black Death (New York: John Day Co., 1969), is still wildly popular among students due to its readability.

[4] Johan Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages: A Study of the Forms of Life, Thought, and Art in France and the Netherlands in the XIVth and XVth Centuries (London: E. Arnold and Co., 1924).  The University of Chicago Press published a new translation of this work in 1996, entitling it simply The Autumn of the Middle Ages.

[5] Howard Kaminsky, “From Lateness to Waning to Crisis: the Burden of the Later Middle Ages,” Journal of Early Modern History 4:1 (2000), 85-125.

 


Original Citation:  The Once and Future Classroom, Volume IX, Issue 1, Spring 2011  http://www.teamsmedieval.org/ofc/SP09/Spring2011SeventhSeal.html

NOTE: Links have been corrected and/or deleted.  The original “look and feel”  of the journal has been preserved as much as possible, but the original logos have also been removed.  No editing to the actual texts has been done since their original publication.

TEAMS: Teaching Association for Medieval Studies