The Seventh Seal – An Essay about Finding Utopia in Dystopia


Photo Credits: TheMysticalWarrior. on Imgur

Mariana Silva Lindner, Arts & Life Editor

The Corona Pandemic, the Ukraine war, the rising inflation accompanied by an impending recession. Society has been in a permanent crisis. But how does this affect us as human beings? Especially the Corona pandemic has brought death closer into the center of our life: as an experience, as a problem, as a danger. Death is a phenomenon that challenges us, both as individuals and as a community. Consequently, the question of the meaning of life forces itself back into our consciousness. So, how do we deal with the constant life threat and its accompanying questions? Is there any hope at all in a society that finds itself in a perpetual state of crisis? In his 1958 masterpiece, “The Seventh Seal”, filmmaker Ingmar Bergman provides us hereby with enthralling and complex answers, which can be applied to modern context.

Bergman is by no means an unknown director. On the contrary, the Swede can easily hold his position in the elite circle of the most important directors in film history, such as Kubrick, Fellini or Godard. But what distinguishes Bergman from the others? Above all is his individual, aesthetic and artistic way of making films, which also have an intellectual depth and remain in the viewer’s memory for a long time.

His movie, “The Seventh Seal”,  thereby stands out for me, personally. The technical style alone makes the film a pure feast for the eyes. As the film is consistently kept in black and white, the costumes and actors (especially from the character of the personified Death) are particularly eye-catching and impressive. But what is the movie actually about?


The Content

Returning home from the Crusades in the Holy Land, the devout knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow – yes, the guy from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “Game of Thrones”) finds his homeland in disastrous condition. Sweden is only a shadow of the glorious past, for the plague rages unceasingly and has already claimed many lives. Upon arriving on the coast, the noble knight is awaited by the incarnated and personified Death (Bengt Ekerot). He invites Antonius to step with him over the threshold of the afterlife. However, Antonius is not yet ready to die and, therefore, makes Death a proposal: if Antonius defeats him in a game of chess, he may continue to live, but if he loses the game, he must come with him. Death agrees, the game starts, and as long as it lasts, the knight may live.

Antonius uses his respite to get to the bottom of the great questions which he still needs to find an answer for. What is the meaning of his existence on earth and his life in general? Why does the supposedly merciful God test people in such a cruel and horrific way? As Death is very busy with the plague, the game has to be interrupted from time to time. Antonius has hereby the chance to go through the land and encounter a multitude of people from whom he hopes to find answers. Among those are the family Mia (Bibi Andersson), Jof (Nils Poppe) and their son Mikael (Tommy Karlsson), which are, to already reach ahead, important when we want to find the answer alongside Antonius.


Faith, Fear and Doubt – More Relevant than Ever 

In which dilemma does our knight find himself in, and which implications can be drawn to our present pandemic situation (without intending to directly compare the Black Death’s death toll with COVID-19’s)? The knight is probably what we would call an ideal, pious Christian. He never misses an opportunity to pray and, thus, show his submission to God. The very fact that Antonius took part in the Crusades suggests to us viewers the unwavering faith he has in God and Christianity.

However, his faith is put to a severe test. This doubt manifests itself in the form of the plague. And this is where we can draw a connection to our reality, the coronavirus pandemic. The plague or the pandemic question all aspects of social coexistence.

Also, the questioning of the previous circumstances of existence are simultaneously accompanied by a questioning of the spiritual. The plague (and also the pandemic) function here as a means of equating people, who can, according to Christians, be divided into believers and non-believers. But no matter whether someone believes in the Almighty or not – no one is safe from Death. 

The unconditional belief in God is, at least for Medieval Christians like those in the movie, accompanied by the promise of being in the favor of the supernatural, while non-believers were punished in reverse.ence, the reference of the film title to the Revelation of John –the Last Judgment. 

Consequently, the question arises as to whether there is a God at all when illness and death gruesomely hit both believers and non-believers.


There Is Hope – On the Joys of Life 

But how to deal with the seeming futility of life that confronts us, and how to still derive pleasure from life when death is inevitable? Bergman provides us with the answer in the form of the family Mia, Jof and Mikael. In contrast to Antonius, the couple does not look at the big challenges and goals, but rather at the small beauties which life holds (and which Antonius is unable to see.) The close-to-nature and modest lifestyle of the family, thus, offers us, the modern Western viewer, a glorious utopia. Moreover, such orientation may give us stability and gratitude during our permanent state of crisis.

Therefore, instead of focusing primarily on the horrors, as Antonius does, the family shows that it is the small things, as well as worthwile relationships which give meaning to human beings. According to Bergman, one should also rebuild a stronger bond and coexistence with nature, which, due to industrialization and growing capitalism, have alienated us in Western society.

So, is there hope after all? Yes, definitely. It is on us to build our own individual utopia in life. Have Epicurus’ quote in mind:

 “Nothing is enough for the man to whom enough is too little.”