Swarthmore, Ebola, and Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal”

This post originally appeared in the Fall 2014 print edition of the Swarthmore Independent.

In light of all the recent Ebola pandemonium, I figured it would be most calming and appropriate to review a movie whose story takes place in Europe during the height of the bubonic plague. Apart from its dark subject matter, one plus about the film is that it is readily available on Youtube, so if you do decide to watch it, you can do so from the privacy (and sterility) of your own home. The film is Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, and it essentially says what everyone thinks in the face of something as terrifying as a fatal epidemic: what’s this all for?

In one scene, the film’s protagonist, Antonius Block, asks Death what it is he is hiding. Death looks at him stoically and responds, “I have no secrets…I am unknowing.” This exchange is a simplified version of Block’s existential plight throughout the entirety of the film. He is in search of a tangible answer to the toils of life and death, to which death—the literal character, that is—can’t provide a sufficient response.

Released to U.S. audiences in 1958, The Seventh Seal follows the disillusioned knight, Block (Max von Sydow), and his squire, Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand), along their return from fighting in the crusades. The two Swedes—if you couldn’t tell from their names—return home to find their native country ravaged by the plague and frozen in a moment of religious hysteria. They travel across the land together hoping to find Block’s wife back at home, still alive and loyal. As this journey develops, a side story ensues in which Block and death play a game of chess. These two storylines weave together into a dramatic plot in which Block and the other characters struggle to find meaning in a quite literal plane of hell on earth.

Along the journey, there are two key scenes to note. In the first, Block and Jöns enter a church to find a man painting a depiction of Danse Macabre, or a dance of death. These works, which have been found dating back to the early 15th century, are intended to remind people about the fragilities of earthly life. Jöns and the painter have a somewhat heated dialogue in which Jöns asks why the painter wishes to scare people with images of death and pain.

“Then they think,” the painter, replies.

“And then?” Jöns asks.

“And then they’ll become more scared.”

It is not clear whether this conversation is a turning point for Jöns or if he has always held the same, nihilistic disposition. But regardless, he seems to represent a carpe diem worldview, in which one doesn’t worry about asking the grand existential questions, but instead takes life as it is.

Block is able to experience an enjoyable and unquestioned moment himself a few scenes later. He has come across the beautiful Mia who is eating strawberries and drinking milk on a sun filled pasture. He talks with her until eventually they are joined by Mia’s husband, Jof, and Jöns. They sit and eat together sharing songs, delicious food, and an almost perfect moment. Relaxed and enjoying himself, Block leans back and says, “I’ll carry this memory between my hands as if it were bowl filled to the brim with fresh milk…And it will be an adequate sign—it will be enough for me.” This is Bergman’s answer to the absurdity of life. It is only in the little moments—the relationships, the parties, and the delicious strawberries (it’s no coincidence that his other masterpieces is titled Wild Strawberries) that one can find meaning in life.

As the story moves onward toward the ending, the harsh realities of everyday life only become more pervasive in the characters’ lives. Scenes cover everything from adultery, to the public burning of a woman who is clearly mentally ill, to the wretchedness of the bubonic plague. These are the realities of the world, and the genius of Bergman is that, rather than relishing them to the background—or removing them from the film entirely—he forces them on his characters, leading them to question the purpose of it all.

Unsurprisingly, the film ends without death revealing any answers to Block. Block is, however, able to return home, where he finds his wife waiting for him, healthy and loyal. They share a beautiful moment, not having seen each other in years, in which they look at each other like two strangers. Gradually, they recognize each other and remember the lovers they used to be. She smiles and touches his face, before retreating to prepare breakfast for the visitors Block has brought with him. They eat a final breakfast, and then death comes for all of them.

Bergman doesn’t provide any answers, because just like everybody else, he doesn’t have any. What he does do, however, is demonstrate the wormhole that deep existential thought can be. Block is tortured by the search for meaning, and it is only in the brief moments of joy that cause him to suspend this search that he is able to find peace. If there’s one place on earth that needs to watch this film it’s Swarthmore College. A school littered with deep thinkers like Block—although, generally speaking, not as charismatic or likeable as the charming knight—Swarthmore is a place where the walls might as well be painted with Danse Macabres.

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