The Seventh Seal

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"I've seen it in paintings..."
How can you outwit Death?
I see them! Over there against the stormy sky. They are all there...

The Seventh Seal (original Swedish title: Det sjunde inseglet) (1957), a film written and directed by Ingmar Bergman, follows a medieval knight and his squire as they return home from the Crusades. As the knight finds himself playing chess against a personified Death to delay his demise, the travellers discover their homeland devastated by the plague and the people turning on each other, their despair echoed in the men's own questions about faith. But some people still manage to hold on to both hope and faith.


Presented in sequential order
Narrator: And when the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour... And the seven angels which had the seven trumpets prepared themselves to sound.
[cut to Crusader Antonius Block, resting near crashing waves on the beach; silence abruptly descends, and a black-robed man with an unnaturally white face appears]
Block: Who are you?
Death: I am Death.
Block: Have you come for me?
Death: I have walked at your side for a long time now.
Block: That I know.
Death: Are you prepared?
Block: My body is afraid, but I am not.
[Death approaches Block]
Block: Wait a moment.
Death: You all say that. But I give no respite.
Block: You play chess, do you not?
Death: How do you know that?
Block: I've seen it in paintings, heard it in the songs.
Death: I really am a rather skilful chess player.
Block: Even so, you can't be more skilful than me.
Death: Why do you want to play chess with me?
Block: That is my business.
Death: You are right about that.
Block: My condition is that I may live as long as I resist you. If I checkmate you, you set me free.
[to decide who begins, Block hides a white and black piece in each hand, Death chooses the hand that has the black piece]
Block: Black for you!
Death: It becomes me well.

[Block's squire, Jöns, returns from asking directions of a man who turns out to be long dead]
Block: Did he show you the way?
Jöns: Not exactly.
Block: What did he say?
Jöns: Nothing really.
Block: Was he mute?
Jöns: No, milord. He was most eloquent.
Block: Indeed.
Jöns: Yes, eloquent. But the speech he held was gloomy. One has to say that.

[a troupe of actors prepares for a village performance]
Jof: Going to play Death?
Jonas Skat: Scaring decent folk out of their wits. … They say the plague stalks the land. The priests speculate in sudden death and moral bellyache.

[Jöns encounters a man painting a church mural about mass death]
Jöns: Why all this daubing?
Painter: To remind people of death.
Jöns: That won't make them any happier.
Painter: Why make them happy? Why not scare them?
Jöns: Then they won't look at your picture.
Painter: Yes, they will. A skull is more interesting than a naked woman.
Jöns: If you scare them—
Painter: They think—
Jöns: Then they think.
Painter: And are still more scared.
Jöns: And fall into the arms of the priests.
. . .
[Jöns points to a part of the mural with a line of suffering people]
Jöns: What's that rubbish there?
Painter: People think the plague is a punishment from God. Crowds wander the land lashing each other to please the Lord.
Jöns: Lashing each other?
Painter: Yes, it's a horrible sight. You feel like hiding when they pass.
Jöns: Give me a gin. I've had nothing but water. I feel as thirsty as a desert camel.
Painter: Scared after all?

[Block goes to confess at a confessional alcove in a church]
Block: I want to confess as best I can, but my heart is empty, and the emptiness a mirror facing me. I see myself and am filled with loathing and horror. My indifference to men has shut me out from their company. I live now in a world of ghosts, a prisoner of my dreams and fantasies.
Priest: Yet you do not want to die.
Block: Yes, I do.
[as Block looks away, we see now that the "priest" is actually Death]
Priest/Death: What are you waiting for?
Block: I want knowledge.
Priest/Death: You want guarantees.
Block: Call it what you will.
[Block kneels as if praying to the figure of Jesus]
Block: Is it so awfully unthinkable to conceive of God with one's senses? Why should He conceal Himself in a fog of half-spoken promises and unseen miracles? How are we to believe the believers when we don't believe ourselves? What will become of us who want to believe but cannot? And what of those who neither will nor can believe? Why can I not kill God within me? Why does He go on living within me in a painful, humiliating way, though I curse Him and want to tear Him out of my heart? Why does He remain a treacherous reality of which I cannot rid myself? Do you hear me?
Priest/Death: I hear you.
[Block turns to kneel before the priest behind the confessional screen]
Block: I want knowledge. Not belief. Not supposition. But knowledge. I want God to reach out to me, unveil His face, speak to me.
Priest/Death: But He is silent.
Block: I cry to Him in the darkness, but sometimes it is as if there is no one there.
Priest/Death: Perhaps there is no one there.
Block: Then life is a senseless horror. No man can live with Death before his eyes and the knowledge that all is nothing.
Priest/Death: Most people reflect neither upon Death nor nothingness.
Block: Yet they must one day stand at the last shore of life and look into the Darkness.
Priest/Death: Yes, that day.
Block: [laughs bitterly] I see what you mean. We must make an idol of our fear, and that idol we shall call God.
Priest/Death: You are uneasy.
Block: Death visited me this morning. We are playing chess. This respite enables me to perform a vital errand.
Priest/Death: What errand?
Block: My whole life has been coming and going and talking without point or consequence. It has been nothing. I say it without bitterness or self-reproach, for I know that almost all men's lives are made up just like that. But I want to use my respite for one meaningful deed.
Priest/Death: Ah. So this is why you play chess with Death.
Block: He is a dangerous and skillful tactician, [smiling] but I have not yet lost one piece.
Priest/Death: How will you outwit Death?
Block: [smiling] I am playing a a combination of bishop and knight that he has not yet detected. On my next move, I'll shatter his flank.
[the "priest" turns to face Block through the screen]
Death: I shall remember that.
[Block stands up, startled]
Block: You are a traitor and you have tricked me! But we shall meet again, and I'll find a way out.
Death: We shall meet at the inn and continue our game.

[Jöns is chatting with the mural painter while they drink]
Jöns: For ten years we sat in the Holy Land, bitten by snakes, mosquitoes, and wild beasts, slaughtered by the heathens, poisoned by the wine, given crabs by the women, bled by the crabs, rotted by fevers, all for the glory of God!
[They both cross themselves]
Jöns and the Painter: For the glory of God!
Jöns: I tell you, our crusade was so stupid that only a true idealist could have thought it up.

[Block is talking with Mia, the troupe's actress, as she plays with her infant son Mikael]
Block: Is Mikael going to be an acrobat?
Mia: Jof wants him to be.
Block: But not you?
Mia: No. [smiling] Perhaps he will be a knight!
Block: That's not such fun, either.
Mia: No, you don't look happy.
Block: No.
Mia: Are you tired?
Block: Yes.
Mia: Why?
Block: I'm in boring company.
Mia: You mean your squire?
Block: No, not him.
Mia: Who, then?
Block: Myself.

[Block and Jöns are treated to a meal by Jof and Mia]
Jof: I've written a song about the spring! Would you like to hear it?
[Jof gets up to fetch his instrument, but Mia stops him]
Mia: Our guest may not care for your songs.
Jöns: Oh, yes. I write songs myself.
Jof: You see!
Jöns: There's one about an enormous fish which you haven't heard.
[Block clears his throat]
Jöns: And you're not going to hear it, either.
. . .
[as Block broods, Mia offers him a bowl of wild strawberries]
Block: We worry about so much.
Mia: It's better to be two.
. . .
Block: To believe is to suffer. It is like loving someone in the dark who never answers.
. . .
Block: I shall remember this hour of peace: the strawberries, the bowl of milk, your faces in the dusk. Mikael asleep, Jof with his lute. I shall remember our words, and shall bear this memory between my hands as carefully as a bowl of fresh milk.
[he drinks from the bowl]
Block: And this will be a sign, and a great content.

[Jöns is commiserating with disconsolate blacksmith Plog]
Jöns: Love is the blackest of all plagues, but you don't even die of it, and usually it passes.
. . .
Jöns: If everything is imperfect in this world, love is perfect in its imperfection.
Plog: You're lucky. You believe in your own twaddle.
Jöns: Who says I believe it? But I like giving advice.

[Errant troupe member Jonas Skat, after escaping his amour Lisa and her angry husband Plog, hides in a tree; Death appears and begins to saw the tree]
Skat: Hey, you scurvy knave, what are you up to?
[Death continues to saw without responding]
Skat: You might at least answer. Who are you?
Death: I'm felling your tree. Your time is up.
Skat: You can't. I haven't time.
Death: Huh. You haven't time?
Skat: No. I have my performance!
Death: Cancelled, owing to Death.
Skat: My contract?
Death: Annulled.
Skat: My family…
Death: For shame, Skat!
Skat: Yes, I'm ashamed, I'm ashamed. [pauses] Is there no exemption for actors?
Death: Not in your case.
Skat: No loopholes?

[as soldiers prepare a scaffold for an accused witch, Block talks with the pale, thin girl]
Block: They say you've had commerce with the devil.
Witch: Why do you ask?
Block: Not out of curiosity, but for very personal reasons. I, too, want to meet him.
Witch: Why?
Block: I want to ask him about God. He must know, he if anyone.
Witch: You can see him any time you want.
Block: How?
Witch: You must do as I say. Look into my eyes.
[Block does so]
Witch: Well, what do you see? Do you see him?
Block: I see a stiff terror in your eyes. Nothing else.
Witch: No one? Nothing? No one?
Block: No.
Witch: Is he not standing behind your back either?
[Block quickly turns, but sees nothing]
Block: No. There is nothing there.
Witch: But he is with me everywhere. If I stretch out my hand, I feel him. He is with me even now. The fire won't hurt me.
Block: Has he said so?
Witch: I know it.
Block: Has he said so?!
Witch: I know it! I know it! You must see him somewhere, you must! The priests had no difficulty seeing him, nor the soldiers either. They are so afraid of him that they dare not even touch me.
[Block advances on the soldiers working on the scaffold]
Block: Why have you broken her hands?
Soldier: It is not us.
Block: Who?
Soldier: Ask the monk there.
[Block turns to address the monk]
Block: What have you done to the girl?
[the monk turns to reveal himself as Death, once again]
Death: Will you never stop asking questions?
Block: No. I will never stop.
Death: But you get no answer.

[the soldiers move the scaffolding into place near the fire]
Jöns: Who will look after that child? The angels? God? Satan? Emptiness? No, emptiness, milord!
Block: It cannot be!
Jöns: Look at her eyes. Her poor mind is making a discovery. Emptiness!
Block: No!
Jöns: We are helpless. We see what she sees, and her terror is ours.

[Block is distracted from the chessboard by Jof and Mia's sudden departure]
Death: Have you lost interest?
Block: Lost interest? On the contrary!
Death: You look worried. Are you hiding something?
Block: Nothing escapes you!
Death: Nothing escapes me. No one escapes me.

Death: When next we meet, the hour will strike for you and your friends.
Block: And you will reveal your secrets?
Death: I have no secrets.
Block: So you know nothing?
Death: I am unknowing.

[Death has arrived at the knight's castle]
Block: Out of the darkness we call to thee, O Lord! Oh, God, have mercy on us! For we are small and afraid and without knowledge!
Jöns: In the darkness where you claim to be, where we all probably are, in that darkness you shall find no one to listen to your laments or to be moved by your suffering. Wipe your tears and regard yourself reflected in your own insignificance.
Block: God, you who are somewhere, who must be somewhere, have mercy on us!
Jöns: I could have given you a herb to purge your worries about eternity, but it seems to be too late. But in any case, feel, to the last instant, the immense triumph in rolling your eyes and wriggling your toes!
Karin: Quiet! Quiet!
Jöns: I will be quiet, but under protest.
[Jöns's housekeeping girl approaches Death, kneels, and smiles up at him]
Girl: It is finished.

[as a new day dawns for Jof, Mia, and Mikael, Jof sees a line of people dancing on the horizon]
Jof: Mia! I see them, Mia! I see them! Over there against the stormy sky. They are all there. The smith and Lisa, the knight, Raval, Jöns, and Skat. And the strict master Death bids them dance. He wants them to hold hands and to tread the dance in a long line. At the head goes the strict master with the scythe and hourglass. But the Fool brings up the rear with his lute. They move away from the dawn in a solemn dance away towards the dark lands while the rain cleanses their cheeks of the salt from their bitter tears.
Mia: You with your visions!


Quotes about The Seventh Seal[edit]

  • The Seventh Seal was always my favourite film, and I remember seeing it with a small audience at the old New Yorker Theatre. Who would have thought that the subject matter could yield such a pleasurable experience? If I described the story and tried to persuade a friend to watch it with me, how far would I get? 'Well,' I'd say, 'it takes place in a plague-ridden medieval Sweden and explores the limits of faith and reason based on Danish — and some German — philosophical concepts.' Now this is hardly anyone' idea of a good time, and yet it's all dealt off with such stupendous imagination, suspense, and flair that one sits riveted like a child at a harrowing fairy tale. Suddenly the black figure of Death appears on the seashore to claim his victim, and the Knight of Reason challenges him to a chess game, trying to stall for time and discover some meaning to life. The tale engages and stalks forward with sinister inevitability. Again, the images are breathtaking! The flagellants, the burning of the witch (worthy of Carl Dreyer), and the finale, as Death dances off with all the doomed people to the nether lands in one of the most memorable shots in all movies.
    Bergman is prolific, and the films that followed these early works were rich and varied, as his obsession moved from God's silence to the tortured relations between anguished souls trying to make sense of their feelings.
    • Woody Allen in "Through a Life Darkly" a review of The Magic Lantern : An Autobiography as translated by Joan Tate (1988) in The New York Times (18 September 1988).

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