• The Seventh Seal.
The Seventh Seal was quite an interesting piece of film. It’s nice to have the opportunity in the classroom to watch a film I wouldn’t ordinarily get the opportunity to watch, and The Seventh Seal was one of these. I really enjoyed it, and it probably ranks as my second or third favorite film of the semester.
To keep the summary short, the film is about a knight (Block), who tries to cheat and slow down death with a chess game. After returning from the Crusades, he finds his homeland swamped with the Black Plague, death, and suffering. He is torn between the purpose of his existence, and whether God exists or not. It is for this reason, to find meaning and God, that he tries to cheat Death in a chess game. This theme of meaning, existence, faith, death, and God lead us to the central theme of the movie.
The film is making the attempt at explaining through it’s symbolism, characters, and dialogue the role that religion and God play in humans, and human society. Block is absolutely torn between whether God exists, and why he exists. After witnessing merciless and savage imagery of death and violence in the name of God, he’s placed in another situation with Gods absence. The theme of Gods absence, and in Blocks appearance of God as unknowable is torturous. It appears Block is standing in the middle ground, between wanting to know God, and at the same time aggressively not wanting to. Throughout the film two characters express the scope of belief. On one side we have Blocks squire, who represents defiant unbelief. On the other side we have the actor Jof and his family, who represent simple faith. Smack down in the middle is our main character Block. He admits to having a God shaped hole in his heart, yet at the same time doesn’t make the effort to believe in faith, but rather appeals to his own philosophical and intellectual senses.
This brings us to another interesting point about the film. Block makes several efforts to ask questions, and appears to want answers, but doesn’t take the steps to find them. In the case where he goes to the confession booth, he begins to toss intellectual questions instead of honest confession. We never really see Block performing the steps of a faith-based believer. We never really see him praying to God, but rather find him cursing his name and his ‘unknowable’ nature. Another interesting imagery is the scene where Block, Jof, his family and the squire are sharing a meal of strawberries and milk. The liturgical imagery is extremely obvious, and the comparison to the Eucharist is easily made. Block states that he finds an hour of peace in this simple moment, which leads us to several ideas. First we notice that Block is somewhat borrowing this happiness from the actors. It’s as if he’s feeding off their own serene nature. Another point we can draw from the scene leads us to ask why he doesn’t seek solace in the form of a church-run Mass? We would guess that in such a duplicate event, he would try out a Mass in his efforts to find serenity, but fails to do so. It’s in line with his character of asking, shouting, and questioning but not actively seeking. As before we don’t see him in honest prayer, heart-felt confession, or humbled communion. Another interesting symbol behind the strawberry meal, is how it points in the opposite direction of a normal Mass. In replicating it in symbolism (the music on Jof’s instrument, the way Block holds the bowl like a chalice, etc) we gain new imagery. For starters the strawberries and milk are natural, while in the communion we use bread and wine which are foods and drinks made by man. I believe this is an effort by the director (A self proclaimed nonbeliever, and the real-life character of Block) to show how serenity and joy can be found in the simplicity of nature and reality. This could be a way for the director to make the statement that we discover the pain of questioning our meaning, by questioning, and to borrow from Buddhist thought: we are our form of suffering. All our philosophical and theological questioning leads us to suffer from the lack of answers. This is an idea that my mind tossed around while comparing and contrasting the meal with the Christian Eucharist.
So what is this film telling us about the human condition? First, we’re getting a rather empty feeling on Gods presence. The film opens up with a reference to Revelations, which states: "When he broke open the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour" (Rev 8:1). This is a clear sign of the ‘silence’ of God in the film. We are given signs in the form of Jof and his visions, but we’re never really satisfied in knowing if they are real, or fake. His wife even jokes around about them. With this empty feeling, we’re put into the ‘silence’ of Block. We cannot gain any questions from the simple faith-based Jof, nor from the kind-hearted but strictly-atheistic squire. We’re left to question and seek with Block. The film does this wonderfully! It places us in the position of the times (Suffering, Death, etc), and in the position of following Block in his quest for meaning and existence.
All that is certain in the film is that he will die, and this does not satisfy him. The personified version of Death is the proof of this, and not even death knows of God or the meaning of existence. He merely has a job, and provides no answers. Death, in himself, is the most unknowable unknown. He provides no answer, besides that in the human condition, he is the absolute truth that we will all experience. We begin to think that Block will find meaning in a ‘meaningful act’, but even after he tricks death and saves Jof and his family (They see Block and death playing chess and run away just in time), he still finds no meaning.
What is this trying to tell us? I think the message is that without God, there is no meaning. The quest of meaning is to find God. Outside of God, no acts or philosophy can provide us meaning. You can take this two ways. As the director, you can use this as a form of comfort (in knowing that there’s nothing after death, no meaning, but annihilation), or in Jof’s case of simple faith in God, which leads to a meaningful existence.
Outside of God, only death is certain. Without God, there’s no meaning beyond ones annihilation. This is the message that the film may hint at. You crave an answer to whether God exists, but the director does an intelligent job at making you question this. It puts you in the hungry and silent position of Block.