The Seventh Seal Ingmar Bergman (1957) Swedenis a film that explores, similar to most great works of art, the fabrics of the human soul. Although the film requires certain erudition and theological preparation from the spectator for it offers allusions to specific religious themes and texts, I would argue that after a painstaking scrutiny of the elements of the film one could unearth codes and meanings that transcend any concrete references. In this essay I will analyze the semiotic attributes of a film extract comprising of two scenes – the scene in which Jof and Mia are introduced and the confession of the Knight that follows.
I will start with discussing the latter one first. One of the most symbolically rich components in the sequence is the image of the knight and the stone statue of a saint. The composition of the image has a dualistic nature. It may be viewed as a pictorial delineation of the dichotomy of the soul. The anguish, the spiritual battle that takes place in Antonius’s soul along with the fundamental elements of good and evil are indirectly expressed through the binarisation of the frame. Antonius Block is in the dark while the Saint is in the light. The saint is immobile, lifeless and that implicitly indicates that it is the knight who has to make his move. He has to take upon himself the load of his choice and act alone, make the leap to the light on his own. This is reminiscent of the philosophical concept of ‘leap of faith’ present in the proto-existentialist philosophy of Soren Kierkegaard. Many critics have been emphasizing the existential tone of the Seventh Seal. In a chapter dedicated to the film Laura Hubner refers to existentialism and particularly Jean Paul Sartre’s ideas of individual’s imperative autonomy as a spiritual demand. (Hubner, 2007, p. 50) In a particular aspect the Knight may be viewed as a persona that connotatively signifies the existential concept of an archetypal human being on a spiritual crossroad, torn by conflicting internal forces of faith and despair, battling to find meaning in his existence. Furthermore, the touching fingers have iconic similarity with the famous depiction of the creation by Michelangelo, where the God’s touch gives life to Adam. Here it is the Knight whose fingers are groping for God.
In the shot of the confession itself the monologue of the Knight is complemented visually. He is disclosing his innermost tribulations and pangs of consciousness. His face emits a sense of innocence and piety. Death is cold stone almost devoid of facial expression – it is an index of something abstract which the character of Death embodies. The iron bars that separate Antonius from Death act as a symbol of the knight being on the verge, at the final threshold, balancing between the opposites. That is complemented by the graphic characteristics of the frame. The conflicting vertical and horizontals may be viewed as iconic signs referring to the cross – another indication for the Christian nature of the movie. The bar as a collection of crosses acts as an index to faith itself and connotatively, as a metonym, suggests faith. Then Antonius Block and Death are separated literally by the iron bars but allegorically by faith itself. In the same time another connotation emerges when analyzing the frame. The iron bars which the Knight has clenched with his fingers fragment his face. It appears almost unrecognizable. Here the tormented and torn between the faith and disbelief self of Antonius is allegorically hinted. Importantly his eyes are not blotted by the bars. The eyes – a conventional symbol of the soul, here figuratively represent a part of the soul, the part which is still searching and striving. His scattered in pieces soul is trying to form again, his eyes are looking for the unifier.
The statue of the crucified Christ in the church on one hand is a denotative sign. It is a symbol of faith and holiness. But the face of Christ is contorted with pain and sorrow which connotatively reflects Antonius’s own pangs and inner turbulence. Moreover, spatially the statue is behind the bars, even behind Death. Here the image works metaphorically. It is as if the knight has to go through Death, to overcome it, in order to reach the craved holiness.
The sole image of Death in the scene is worth analyzing. It is only the face that is distinguishable while the black cloak that cover’s the figure merges with the murk. The impression is that the body of Death is woven of dark and itself is a shadow which all the other shades crow from. The leitmotif utilization of shadows culminates in the shot in which the Knight is kneeling and the iron bars together with their shadows on the wall create the impression of a cage made of darkness. That image is a trope susceptible to diverse interpretations. One may be that, the fetters of doubt that Antonius carries are just a shadow that can be easily destroyed if a light intense enough illuminates his soul.
The confession scene arrives as a complete opposition of the previous one – of Jof and Mia. This pattern of semiotic contrast runs almost throughout in the whole film. In other words, the sintagmatic structure of the artwork is formed from alternating antipodes. Succinctly the two scenes signify – pious serenity and turbulent doubt. The notions of simplicity and holiness that are radiated from every image of the first scene are juxtaposed to the complexity of the following one. Regarding the characters of Mia and Jof Bergman himself states that they ‘…are infused with the concept of the holiness of the human being.’ (Bergman, 1995, p. 236). This is first recognizable iconographically, especially in the composition of the frames.
The first scene is set in a rustic landscape reminiscent of a pastoral biblical place, the forms are smooth and rounded, the illumination is natural and there are no ‘chiaroscuro’ lighting elements present in the confession sequence. As Marilyn Johns Blackwell notes ‘Jof and Mia are photographed in soft, even light-toned grays.’ (Blackwell, 2005, p. 537) Thus the iconography of the sequence is a direct antithesis to the scene that precedes it and the one that follows after. Pictorially the characters are rendered a symbolic outline. For instance both Jof and Mia wear light clothes while Antonius Block is garbed in heavy chain-mail. Thus Bergman indirectly draws distinguishing line between the contrasting nature of the protagonists. Mia herself is delineated in a sense as an antipode of Death. Her dress is white, her hair – fair. Her being is illuminated but with calm soft light and it is almost as if she herself is shining. Her face is expressive and mirthful in contrast to Death’s stone-cold, bleak appearance. Thematically the scene of Mia and Jof is an icon that bears resemblance with accounts from the Bible. The young Mikael and his mother, dressed in white and the loving father are reminiscent of the infant Christ, Virgin Mary and Joseph. While the confession sequence is visually influenced by bleak medieval woodcarving, the scene of Jof and Mia is 'drawn' with ethereal brushstrokes – much like the Renaissance masterpieces. Thus one may say that a stylistic inversion of stereotypes takes place. The holy ages of the crusades –are linked to the image of Death, while the Renaissance’s less bigoted and, to an extent less Christian, mode of thinking is related to the concept of holiness.
The Seventh Seal is a work that can be observed from countless perspectives and be understood in myriads of ways. Nevertheless, there are some primal themes that undoubtedly form the spine of the work - the themes of the tormented soul, impossible faith and inevitable death.
Bergman, Ingmar Images, My Life in Film, 1995, Faber and Faber Limited, London
Blackwell, Marilyn Cinematic Form and Cultural Criticism in Geiger, J.&Rutsky, R.L (eds), 2005, Film Analysis: A Norton Reader London: WW Norton
Hubner, Laura The Films of Ingmar Bergman: Illusions of Light and Darkness, Palgrave Macmillan, New York