Apocalypse Then - the opening of "The Seventh Seal"

The Seventh Seal
Directed by Ingmar Bergman.
Sweden 1957. BW. 95 minutes.


This reading describes the way Bergman uses mis-en-scène (together with lighting and sound) in the opening sequence of the film to establish its allegorical theme.

David Mitchell, Spring 2001

"History never repeats itself, man always does" - Voltaire

"The Seventh Seal" is an intensely symbolic, allegorical film. (1), The apocalyptic visions of the Book of Revelations are used to show us the terrible events of one age, the middle of the fourteenth century, as a mirror image of those of another, the middle of the twentieth - when the film was made.

In the ten years from 1340 to 1350, "a third of the world died", as Froissart (2), so casually put it, dying of plague within a day or so of catching it. Nor was the Black Death the only horseman of the apocalypse then at liberty. It was a time when the Hundred Years War was ravaging Europe and when the crusades and religious persecution took many to their deaths too. The Little Ice Age which began at the start of the century, and caused the Baltic to freeze over several times, led to the loss of the settlements on Greenland and a severe reduction in the cultivation of grain in Scandinavia. It's hardly surprising that many in that intensely religious period thought it was the end of the world.

Six hundred years later, Bergman, tormented by the aftermath of a tyrannical religious upbringing (his father was a pastor), saw many parallels in the world about him. Millions had died in two world wars and if there was no plague there was the even greater threat of a MAD (3) ending to the Cold War.

Bergman makes much of this parallelism clear right from the start of the film. The opening titles, in white on black, are almost silent, save for a single gong sound near the beginning. Bergman frequently uses bells, with their religious overtones, in his soundtracks. After the titles, the first shot (4) looks upwards at a cloudy, threatening sky, while the soundtrack has a choir and orchestra performing a dramatic Dies Irae from the Requiem Mass. The sky may be heaven, but the clouds and non-diegetic music show us that God is not smiling down on us - it's his 'day of wrath'.

The Dies Irae is repeated over the next shot (shot 2) which shows a bird of prey, perhaps an eagle, soaring. While we may see it as a messenger from heaven, it's not a dove of peace. In fact the image it most conjures up is of a vulture soaring over the desert, waiting for some unfortunate to become sufficiently weak to offer no resistance. Human carrion is what it seeks.

The next shot (shot 3) looks down at a rocky coast, the land black as ink, with waves breaking on a pebble beach. The sea, cold, cruel and relentless, is a barrier preventing escape. If, as we shall discover, the land is a place of disease and death, of fear and terror, the sea offers no way out either. In this black and white world the sea is a dark and forbidding place.

At this point the soundtrack has the diegetic sounds of the sea while a voice reads a short excerpt from Revelations, starting with the words:

And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour

Now we know what the 'seventh seal' of the title is and where we are. It's the Apocalypse - God's in his heaven but all is not right with the world. As we discover later the silence in heaven, the silence of God in the face of questions, is at the very heart of the film.

The quotation continues as the scene shifts slightly (shot 4) to show us two horses at the water's edge. Then we are shown two of the key characters as they sleep on the beach. The knight, Antonius Block, (shot 5) has laid out his chess set beside him - perhaps he was playing before he slept. His squire Jöns (shot 6) is lying close by, looking as though he's a castaway who's just been washed up by the waves. It's clear from their clothing that they are military men, and Antonius, who's wearing chain-mail, has a large cross on his tunic, so it's not too hard to guess they've been on a crusade. We see the two horses again (shot 7) - this time they are thirsty enough to drink the salty water.

In the next few shots (8-10) both men wake. It's dawn - we see the sun rising above the distant horizon. Even the sun has a cold, harsh glare. Both men have swords in their hands as they wake; they clearly slept that way. This is not a time to be caught defenseless at night. The knight goes and washes his face in the sea (shot 11) and then returns to the beach and sinks to his knees in prayer (shots 12-14). He prays silently, but with his eyes open. His blond hair and the way the rising sun lights one side of his face give him an almost angelic look. Something about his expression makes us think he's not pleading for forgiveness but for answers. The whole film, from his point of view, is about getting answers to his questions. As he rises to his feet, the camera pans sideways to show us his chess set again (shot 15).

We meet Death, the third key character, a couple of dissolves later (shot 17). He appears in almost total silence - the sound of the sea is suddenly muted. Against the dark background, wearing a black cloak and hood, all we can really see is his disembodied face, unnaturally white. It looks like the moon floating in the dark of night, a cold world devoid of life. He raises his arm (shot 25), his cloak looking almost like a wing, as he moves forward to wrap it around his victim. The gesture is almost protective. Bergman swivels the camera round during Death's advance (shots 26-27) so we get a moment of blackness and then see Block over Death's shoulder as he says "Wait a moment".

Death is not described as a supernatural being anywhere in the Bible and there's no "Angel of Death" in Christianity, but the horror and scale of the Black Death led many to invent one. Often appearing as a grinning skeleton, the "Grim Reaper" with his scythe and hourglass became a frequent subject in paintings and etchings of the period.

Bergman's Death is not like this, at least not until the famous "Danse Macabre" at the end of the film. Death talks to Block in a reassuring tone, with no intent to cause fear or even alarm. In close-up his face, while very white, is human enough, even kindly looking. He reacts to Antonius' request for a game of chess (shots 29-35) with the amused air of one who has seen everything and for whom the future holds no surprises. Why does Bergman make Death appear so human, so unlike the terrifying figure we see in the art of the time? Perhaps he wants to make the chess game between the two seem more evenly matched. Death though has no doubt of the outcome - when he says "If I may say so, I'm quite good" the humorous tone of his voice tells us it's an understatement.

Chess is a battle without blood, a war without pain. It's a mental, an intellectual struggle. It's also a world of two sides with no middle ground. His passion for chess reveals Block as a man of reason who sees things in black and white and who has enough confidence in his intellectual powers to believe he can defeat even death. "You can't play a better game than me" he boasts.

He is also enough of a man of faith to go on a crusade, an act which was presented to the faithful (5) as joining just such a battle between the forces of light and darkness. Six hundred years later millions were to go to their deaths in two World Wars for similar reasons. The Cold War of the 1950's that followed was seen in the same dualistic terms, indeed nuclear war theorists often talked in terms of strategy games like chess. The USSR and the USA each saw the other as the Evil Empire. While Sweden has been a neutral country since 1914, it stood between east and west and would have been one of the first casualties if a nuclear war had ever started. The questions to which Block wants answers are still unanswered questions six hundred years later.

As the two start to play, their game dissolves (shot 36) into the real world. It's going to be a chess game played with real pieces, with Death playing Black of course - "most appropriate" he says. We see the knight and squire pack up and prepare to leave. From the way Jöns is treated by Block and the way he reacts (shots 36 and 37) it's clear that Jöns is a very different sort of person - a man of the world, of the flesh. Interestingly, where Death's head is black and Block is so blond his hair looks white, Jöns close-cropped hair is grey.

We see the pair leaving the beach in distant long shots (shots 41-44) accompanied by music that sounds medieval. The two tiny figures are seen against a landscape of massive overpowering rocks and cliffs. The natural world we're being shown doesn't offer man food and shelter; instead it's cold, heartless and barren, dwarfing the men we see. Man is powerless here.

Jöns attitudes are made clearer by the song he sings as they leave the shore (shots 45-48). He's not troubled by metaphysical problems or much concerned with the niceties of chivalry either. His ribald lyric is a deliberate attempt to provoke the knight and when that fails to work, he switches to blasphemy instead. They've clearly known each other for a long time. (6)

When Block still shows no sign of reacting to this provocation, Jöns recounts some news of a superstitious kind (shots 50-52). We're being reminded how different our view of the world is from that of fourteenth century humanity. This is the world before the renaissance, when Greek science was all but forgotten, (7) when almost everything was inexplicable except in religious or supernatural terms. Omens and portents were important guides in people's lives and magic and witchcraft (8) were never far away.

Then they see a hooded figure apparently resting against a rock (shot 54). Jöns dismounts and asks him the way to the inn. Getting no answer, he shakes his shoulder and then turns his hooded head (shot 55). The soundtrack has a sudden clash of cymbals to make us jump as we're shown the horror of what he suddenly sees (shot 56), the mummified-looking face of someone obviously long dead. It has no eyes. (9) This is followed by a long reaction shot (shot 57) of Jöns' face which lasts almost 9 seconds. It's clear that though he's seen death before many times, he's shocked by the sight of a corpse that's been lying there for some time. This is a world where death is commonplace, where people can just die by the side of the road and where no one cares enough about such sights to do anything about them. Or perhaps they are too afraid to do anything, or worse, perhaps there too many dead and too few still living.

When Jöns gets back on his horse, we see his head clearly (shot 59). For the first time we see he has an enormous scar across the top of his head and down his forehead almost to his nose. He has indeed been close to Death before.

Block asks him what the man had said. While Jöns doesn't tell him any lies, he gives very misleading answers. These reveal much about his attitudes - he's a cynic, a pessimist who expects little of people and from life. But he's also a man with a dry wit, unlike Block who's inclined to take everything, particularly himself, very seriously.

At this point the sequence ends with a dissolve to whiteness (shot 61). Just around the corner the pair are about to meet Jof, Mia and their baby son, a metaphorical holy family. All of that lies in the future, but we've already learnt enough about Antonius and Jöns to know that in their nightmare world they don't have one.

References

  1. "A Distant Mirror" - Barbara Tuchmann, Penguin 1979. Tuchmann's book, as its title suggests, examines the parallels between the 14th Century and our own.
  2. "Thinking about the Unthinkable" - Herman Kahn, Horizon Press 1962. Kahn was one of the key theorists of the nuclear stalemate, parodied as Dr Strangelove in Kubrick's 1963 film.
  3. "Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey" (1991) has a parody of the chess-playing encounter with Death, except that Bill and Ted play Clue(do) and Twister rather than Chess.
  4. "Love and Death" (1975). This Woody Allen film has many references to Bergman's films, including "The Seventh Seal".

Shot Sequence:

Timings given here are approximate.

Shot

Time (secs)

Visual Elements

Soundtrack Elements

   

Opening Titles

Brief gong at start

1

0

A threatening, cloudy sky

Choir and orchestra singing "Dies Irae"

2

6

An eagle soaring

"Dies Irae"

3

13

A rocky coast, with waves breaking on a pebbly beach. The land is almost black.

"And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour."

Sea sounds.

4

28

Long shot, from a high cliff, of two horses at the sea's edge

"And I saw the seven angels which stood before God; and to them were given seven trumpets."

Sea sounds.

5

34

Long shot of a knight asleep on his back on the beach, with a chess set beside him and the sea in the background

Sea sounds continue until shot 17

6

41

Long shot of his squire asleep on his back on the beach (as though tossed there by sea)

 

7

45

Long shot of the two horses at the sea's edge as they both lower their heads to drink

 

8

50

Close-up of the knight's face as he wakes and opens his eyes. He's holding his sword in his right hand.

 

9

57

A long shot straight out to sea, with waves breaking on a rock and the sun just beginning to rise above the horizon

 

10

1.00

Mid-shot of the squire as he wakes and turns over with his knife in his right hand

 

11

1.05

Long shot of the knight walking into the shallows and bending, washes his face with his hands

 

12

1.25

Long shot of the knight as he walks back up the beach and sinks to his knees in an attitude of prayer

 

13

1.32

Close-up of the knight praying silently. He has his eyes open. The sun is rising behind him and his face is brilliantly lit to one side

 

14

1.46

Mid shot of the knight rising from his knees

 

15

1.58

The camera pans sideways to reveal a close-up of his chess set. The contrast between the black and white pieces is very marked

 

16

2.03

Slow dissolve to a long shot of the sea, with the sun rising above the horizon.

 

17

2.09

Dissolve to Death, dressed in black, with a close-fitting hood. His face is (deathly) white

Sudden dramatic reduction in sounds of the sea

18

2.12

Long shot of the knight from Death's point of view, rummaging in his pack, then looking up, towards us

"Who are you"

19

2.20

Long shot of Death

"I am Death"

20

2.22

Long shot of the knight

"Have you come for me?"

21

2.24

Long shot of Death

"I have long walked beside you"

22

2.27

Long shot of the knight

"I know"

23

2.28

Long shot of Death

"Are you prepared?"

24

2.30

Long shot of the knight

"My flesh is afraid, but I am not"

25

2.35

Long shot of Death as he raises his right arm, lifting his cloak like a wing, and walks towards us (and the knight)

 

26

2.38

Close-up of Death's white face

 

27

2.40

Blackness, then we see this is a reverse shot, from behind Death as he walks towards the knight. We see the knight's face over Death's shoulder.

 

 

"Wait a moment"

28

2.42

Long shot of Death

"You all say that but I grant no delay"

29

2.46

Long shot of the knight

"You play chess don't you?

30

2.48

Long shot of Death

"You know?"

31

2.49

Long shot of the knight, smiling

"Everyone knows you do"

32

2.54

Long shot of Death

"If I may say so, I'm quite good"

33

2.58

Long shot of the knight

"You can't play a better game than me"

34

3.00

Long shot of Death, viewed over the knight's shoulder

"Why do you want a game?"

That's my business"

"That's your privilege"

35

3.05

Mid-shot as they sit down with the chess set between them and the sea in the background.

 

 

The knight picks up a black and white piece, puts them behind his back, then holds his clenched fists out for Death to choose.

Death chooses black - we see he's wearing gloves.

The knight switches the board around.

"You must let me live to finish the game and let me off if I checkmate you …"

 

 

 

"…You drew black"

"That's most appropriate isn't it?

36

3.27

Slow dissolve to a long shot of sea, clouds and rocks. The knight walks into shot from the left, carrying saddle and bags. He stamps lightly on something…

 

37

3.37

The camera pans down to reveal that it's the squire who's been trodden on. He glares at the knight's back, sheathes his knife, stands and picks up his bags.

 

38

3.50

Long shot of the knight, behind his horse, adjusting his bridle

 

39

3.54

Mid-shot of the squire behind his horse

 

40

3.58

Long shot of the knight mounting his horse

 

41

4.00

Long shot of the knight riding up the beach towards us with the squire walking his horse a short distance behind

Music with drums and horns …

42

4.10

Dissolve to a very long shot from a high cliff looking down at two distant figures riding along the shore

music continues

43

4.18

Very long shot of both winding their way up a rocky path

music continues, with oboes as well

44

4.28

Very long shot as they pass between two enormous rock stacks

 

45

4.33

Dissolve to white, then to a long shot of them riding along the crest of a hill as the squire sings

"Between a scarlet woman's knees…"

46

4.40

Close-up of the squire's face.

He looks quizzically at the knight riding ahead of him

"… a man like me can take his ease"

47

4.46

Mid-shot from behind the knight as he turns his head slightly but says nothing.

 

48

4.49

Mid-shot of the squire as he continues his song

 

 

Again he waits for a sign of reaction from the knight

"The Lord up there is so far away, but Satan's your brother here every day"

49

4.59

Mid-shot of the knight's back. There's no reaction.

 

50

5.02

Mid-shot of the squire

"In Fäjestad they talked of horrible portents. Two horses ate each other in the night and graves lay open…"

51

5.11

Mid-shot of the knight as the squire continues

"..and the remains of the dead were scattered about"

 

52

5.14

Mid-shot of the squire.

 

He wipes his brow.

"Yesterday they say 4 suns in the sky"

53

5.25

Mid-shot of the knight.

 

 

54

5.27

Long shot of both of them as the squire dismounts and walks over to a hooded figure lying against a rock with his back to us. A dog sits beside him.

 

"Which way is the inn?"

55

5.39

Mid-shot of the squire as he shakes the figure by the shoulder, then turns his hooded head towards the camera

 

56

5.42

Close-up of the dead man's head

Crashing cymbals

57

5.45

Long close-up reaction shot of the squire

 

58

5.54

Long shot as the squire turns, walks back to his horse and mounts up.

 

59

6.00

Close-up of the squire.

 

60

6.02

Mid-shot of the pair riding side by side

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"Did he tell you?"

"Not exactly"

"What did he say?"

"Nothing much"

"Was he dumb?"

"You couldn't really say that. On the contrary he was chatty, in a way"

"Oh yes?"

"Yes chatty, but his speech was of the dreary sort"

61

6.22

Dissolve to white - end of sequence

 

Footnotes:

  1. It's also been the subject of parody. See references 3 and 4. (back)
  2. See Tuchmann (reference 1). for extensive descriptions of the period, particularly of the plague and the cruades. (back)
  3. "Mutually Assured Destruction" - see Kahn (reference 2). If today we have less fear of a nuclear war, we have the plague of AIDS in its place. (note - this essay was written months before the events of 9/11). (back)
  4. See above. for a shot by shot description. (back)
  5. As we later discover, the priest who persuaded the knight to go in his crusade us a man utterly without morals or faith. The same could be (and was) said of several popes of the period, who organized crusades for motives that were seldom religious. (back)
  6. Later we discover that they left togather for the crusades ten years before, and Jöns was the knight's squire before that. (back)
  7. It's particularly ironic that it was the Arab world, the enemy during the Crusades, which had preserved the literature and science of the ancient world after the fall of Rome. (back)
  8. Indeed Block later meets and questions an alleged witch who's about to be burnt at the stake. (back)
  9. There are very similar scenes in both Hitchcock's "The Birds" (1963) and Spielberg's "Jaws" (1975) where a dead face without eyes is suddenly revealed. (back)

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