The Seventh Seal (Bergman, 1958): Despair & Turning Away From Love

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The Seventh Seal is Bergman’s famous religious allegory about a Knight who faces Death and tries to outwit him. The film’s religious symbolism certainly reflects Bergman’s internal struggle with his Lutheran minister father and his questions about faith. But, as a psychoanalyst, I have much more to offer in looking at The Seventh Seal’s chess game with Death as a psychological struggle. I’ll explore the various ways our Knight is haunted by a dark internal depressive force, not unlike the Grim Reaper or the Black Plague, that follows him everywhere and wants to “kill” love and hope. And, we’ll see how one meaningful act of kindness begins to free him.

Bergman & Problems With Love

Bergman himself struggled with depression and love. As a child, he lived under the threat of a harsh father who preached Satan and fire and brimstone. And, also sent him to the dark basement alone as punishment. So, it’s no surprise that Bergman was afraid of death from childhood. But, his fears were complicated. There is much more.

Bergman was traumatized as an infant. He almost died and his mother was too sick to care for him. This led to a lengthy separation. There’s no question this affected his trust in love. Silence, then, as we see in our Knight’s despair and in the silence as the film begins can also be a small child’s depression, one he never felt was heard.

When love is not secure for an infant, neither is faith or a sense of meaning. Such 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 and a loss of hope about the stability of love.

Bergman tackles his demons in his films. He had reasons to be doubtful of love due to his early trauma and conflicted relationships with both parents. Struggled over four marriages and a number of relationships until he could make love work with Ingrid Von Rosen at age 53.  He made The Seventh Seal at 40.

We always see an alter-ego, a character that represents the problems Bergman was trying to work out. And, in The Seventh Seal, that alter-ego is Antonius Block.

A Lost Knight’s Search

Our Knight, Antonius Block (Max Von Sydow), has traveled far from love. He was convinced to fight for the Holy Land in the Crusades. But, we must ask, what unconscious forces took him away from love and his new marriage? He says he “once had love,” but isn’t sure it waits for him now.

We see a somber man whose face is haunted by shadows of despair - as dark as Death himself. He seems a man alone in the world; incapable of hope or love. And, it’s only well into The Seventh Seal that we find he’s married.

He wrote love songs to his wife. A man capable of poetic sentiments is not what we expect. Yet now he doesn’t know if his wife is “still there, waiting.” For Antonius Block, love is not secure.

In his uncertainty, life has lost meaning. He struggles to find hope. Yet, he hasn’t given up. He’s looking for answers. But, what answers is he searching for?

On the surface, he wants to find a kind and responsive God. But, really, isn’t he searching for love and, especially, the capacity to feel it and give it? Perhaps he’s gone far away from love, not only in his travels but in his feelings, unable to stay open even before he left?

Chess Game With Death

As The Seventh Seal begins, Antonius Block lies on a beach. A chess board, with black and white pieces, is on the edge of the ocean’s waves.  A man, monk-like, in long black robes and a hood covering most of his face approaches. “I am Death” (Bengt Ekerot). “Have you come for me?”  “I’ve been at your side for a long time.”  “That I know.”

Why does the Knight Antonius Block know that Death is following him?  He knows it in his depression. And, this too is the Black Plague that threatens to kill hope and love.

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 despair?”Antonius Block tells Death: “ If I hold out against you, I get to live. If I win, you set me free.” Death accepts Block’s challenge.

Our Knight wants to buy time to “commit one meaningful act” before he dies. What is a meaningful act if it’s not driven by love? And, we see in The Seventh Seal, there are many interferences with love, those that the Grim Reaper uses to tear down hope. Or, in the best case scenario, ones our Knight will fight and use to see.

Confessing His Despair

The Knight’s depression is a black hole of emptiness and self-loathing. He searches for a kind God, for anyone, to listen, and hear his plight. Going to confession, he hopes voicing his despair to a priest might help:

“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?”

His is a picture of utter despair: “I cry out in the dark, but no one seems to be there.”

This is the plight of a lonely man. A guilty man. The child that lives inside him,  abandoned, calling out, with no one to hear. A child that blames himself and lives in self-hate. Our Knight has turned away from human contact in seeming indifference but burning with need. A child/man that doesn’t believe in love.

The priest, Death in disguise, the voice of his depression, taunts him: “Perhaps no one is there.”  That’s his worst fear:

Death has tricked him, posing as a priest. And, the Knight now sees how difficult his problem is. As he tries to do one good deed, what must Antonius Block face in the mirror? And, if this is the despair that turning away from love creates, how is it solved?

What Our Knight Must See

All the characters in The Seventh Seal make up the psyche of Bergman and our Knight in the various conflicts that interfere with love.

To win the chess game, 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). Fear in the mute servant girl (Gunnel Lindblom). 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 possibilities in The Seventh Seal. Facing reality in the Painter (Gunnar Olsson). And, hope 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, of course, there is 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 his depression follows everywhere and tries to trick him into believing life is meaninglessness: “Don’t you all know, you’re going to die. You are all doomed … Lord have mercy on us sinners. Turn not thy face.”

Jöns, 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 will not 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. Jön lifts his face: “Where is the inn?” He sees horror, a decaying corpse, eyes eaten away. The Plague. Jöns too has lost his way: “Love is the blackest of all plagues.”

Is it? Here is the loss of hope that travels with the Knight. His Squire. The one who’s shut down feeling. Antonius Block’s search for answers carries more hope. Jöns hardened skepticism is closed to it all. This is what the Knight fights.

A young woman/child, condemned to be burnt at the stakes for consorting with the Devil, is next in their travels. The Knight wants to speak with her. The villagers stop him for fear she’ll cast a demonic spell and send the Plague further into their lives.

Fear and its coldness to human feeling are everywhere. Jöns searches a village for water and walks into an abandoned house. He sees a man attacking a servant girl and saves her. Yet, callously tells her: “I could have raped you, but I’ve grown tired of this kind of love. It’s a little dull in the end …” Love?

Yes, there’s not only cynicism but infidelity. He tells her he’s a married man but expects his wife is dead by now. He needs a housekeeper, and yells at her for “gaping.” She’s mute from trauma and terror.

The girl does join Jöns for saving her life. With Antonius Block, they ride into the next town, where we meet Jof, Mia and Skat's acting troupe for the first time.

Confusions: Love Versus Lust

There are many versions of turning away from love. Lust plays its part.

We’ve seen Jöns speak of lust as love. Skat seduces Lisa to run away with him. Leaving her husband, Plog, cuckolded in jealous despair. Skat, later, severely punished by Death. Who gives him no reprieve from the “triumph” of his deceit.

Then there’s the girl/child/satan/witch. She’s lust, carnal knowledge, thought to be “evil.” But, we must ask. In the confusions about love expressed in The Seventh Seal, are longings evil? This child is blamed for all the wrongs befallen the world. Satan thought to be responsible.   

Yet, she’s a traumatized soul. Likely an abandoned child. One who’s seen no other way but turning to lust to find even a misguided form of “love.” Screaming, crying, made to feel she’s “bad” - punished in her shame. With no one to care or respond. This certainly leads to depression - or insanity.

And, Antonius Block, sane, but depressed, struggles to make sense of his own despair.

He meets Mia. Her small family filled with love and hope. He 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.” “Your squire?” “No, myself.”

She understands: “I wonder why people torment themselves so.” She’s happy. Offers him wild strawberries and fresh milk. Her husband Jof comes home, beaten, but saved by Jöns.  Jof, in spite of this beating, is pure optimism in contrast to the depressive cloud following Block. He encourages Block to share their humble meal.

Here is hope, and one good deed to come.

One Good Deed & Saving Himself

The Knight asks where they’re headed. The plague has spread south and he tells them to come with him. 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, once the depressed Knight has found a little hope, it can be easily taken from him.

Antonius Block sighs: “There’s so much worry in life.” And, Mia tells him: “It’s better to be two. Have you no one?” “I had once.” “Was she your beloved?”

“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.” He doesn’t know if his wife is there any longer.

Love is faith: “I shall remember this hour of peace.” He’s now smiling. His face looks light, not 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 still trying to find another chance at love: “Check.”

Death tries to rush him, but the Knight stands firm. Their game must proceed at its own pace - in the way it takes to find a path out of any depression.

Beginning To See The Way

The Knight’s good deed is one that leads Jof, Mia, Mikael, Plog, and Jöns through the forest. Plog says: “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 necessary to survive despair.

The Knight is beginning to change. Yet, there are still threats. Mia warns: “I don’t like the moon tonight, the trees are so still.” Jöns wants a “human voice besides our own.” The music is ominous. They’re headed in the direction of the execution grounds; where the witch/girl will be burned.

The Knight must see he’s turned away from love and hope. He leans towards the girl and asks to see the Devil: “I must ask him about God. He must know or nobody does.” “You can see him anytime, just look into my eyes. He’s with me always.”

Death, behind Antonius Block, sneers: “Don’t you ever stop asking questions?” “Never.” “Yet, you get no answers.” Yet, continuing to ask is the Knight’s saving grace. He doesn’t give up.

All Antonius Block sees is terror in her eyes. Jöns tells him that her terror is seeing only “emptiness in the moonlight.” The Knight’s despair returns. Is there really no one there? Hope is fragile. Yet, we must understand.

This girl is what’s in the way of love. The child self who has been so hurt that love seems out of reach. It’s only then that despair takes over and we “die of meaninglessness.” It’s not hopeless. She, this traumatized child, searched for love in the wrong ways and the wrong places, that’s all.

A Steadfast Love Survives

Antonius Block continues his chess game - struggling to win another chance at finding meaning and love. And, Mia sings a song of hope and comfort to her child. Yet, Jof, a man of visions, sees the Knight playing chess with Death. Frightened, he tells Mia they must flee.

No one, not even undying optimism, can run from certain realities. Life does end. But, it doesn’t have to end without meaning or love. It just takes seeing, not escape.

The Knight and his fellow travelers finally reach his home, guided by his torch. Passing safely through the forest’s dangers and the Knight’s “dark night of the soul.” Karin (Inge Landgre), his wife, has waited faithfully. Death’s given Antonius Block a reprieve for now and leaves him until they meet again.

The Knight, though, can’t yet open up to Karin, although she’s been steadfast and loyal in her love. He’s met up with the various parts of himself he must face but is weary from the struggle.

Karin, though, is not afraid of the Knight’s distance. She looks for him: “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. She welcomes his friends and prepares a meal.

Love & Hope: Dancing With Death

They all sit to together at dinner, 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.

“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, despair, or the Knight’s hopelessness.

Death bids them take hands and leads them 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. Light comes. Jof, Mia, and Mikael are safe on the beach. Jof sees the procession. Angelic music plays. Love has survived. What else is there but love - to cure depression and bring hope?

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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, and I help them find their way again.

This article was originally published at Sandra E. Cohen, Ph.D.'s blog, Characters On The Couch. Reprinted with permission from the author.