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Annie Daley

4-30-15

Film

Avoidance or Acceptance:

The Imminence of Death in Ingmar Bergman’s Films


Prolific filmmaker Ingmar Bergman is one of the most respected auteurs in the

international film industry. Between 1946 and his death in 2007 Bergman directed over

fifty films, many of which are classics. The power of Bergman’s films comes from the

complex themes he explored and the depth to which he probed. Seventh Seal and Wild

Strawberries, two of Bergman’s most famous films, and both made in 1957, explore the

theme of death and examine human reactions to—and fear of—the inevitability of death.

Bergman’s juxtaposition of the portrayal of death in Seventh Seal as a cunning,

competitive, black cloaked man with the use of a series of unsettling dreams indicating its

imminence in Wild Strawberries compares various perceptions of death. This comparison

highlights the unhealthy attitudes many people have towards the scary and unexplained

but natural and unavoidable end of life. Bergman uses Antonius Block in Seventh Seal

and Isak Borg in Wild Strawberries to explain that one can either fight the inevitability of

death—and be unable to enjoy the remainder of life—or accept it and make peace with

one’s past so as to be able to relax and enjoy life while one still lives it.

In Seventh Seal, crusader Antonius Block, on his way home after ten years at war,

meets Death. Desperate to avoid his fate, Block tries to outsmart him by playing a game

of chess against Death. If Block wins the chess game, he lives. If not he dies.

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Throughout Block’s journey home with his squire, Jöns, he meets actors Mia and Jof and

their son, Michael, a blacksmith and his wife, Lisa, a mute girl whom Jöns takes on as a

housekeeper, and a witch who is burned at the stake for her alleged sorcery. Block loses

the chess game, and shortly after arriving home for the first time in a decade, he, Jöns, the

mute girl, Lisa, her husband, and Block’s wife, Karin, die. Block’s one achievement is

that he manages to save Mia and Jof from Death by distracting Death so Mia, Jof, and

Michael can escape.

As the ill Isak Borg in Wild Strawberries nears the end of his life, he has a series

of startling dreams and flashbacks that expose his insecurities and fears about life and

about his past. As he travels with a daughter-in-law he is not particularly close to, Borg

gives three young adults a ride, one of whom, Sara, reminds him of the girl he loved as a

young man. Borg is able to make peace with his daughter-in-law and his past and,

accepting that he is nearing the end of his life, focuses on relaxing and enjoying the

people he loves and the simple joys in life.

Bergman’s personification of death and use of a chess game as a framing device

serve demonstrate Antonius Block’s conviction that death is an opponent whom he can

outsmart. In Seventh Seal, Bergman portrays death1, as a man Block believes he can beat.

The decisions to represent death as a man and to insert the competition of a strategy-

based game such as chess indicate that Block sees death as a challenge to overcome, an

opponent to beat. Block spends the entire film attempting to outsmart Death, who wins

the upper hand when he impersonates a priest and takes Block’s confessional. In the

church, Block unknowingly tells Death all about how he wants to know about God, not

simply believe. Block reveals his fear of death to be a fear of not knowing. When Death

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“death” refers to the end of life, while “Death” is the character in which Bergman
personifies this abstract concept.
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reveals himself to a horrified Block, he thanks Block for his help, and Block feels he has

helped Death one step closer to taking him. With so many people succumbing to death in

the middle of the Black Plague, Block is desperate to survive. The struggle for life over

death is well represented in a chess game; Block feels if he is clever enough, he can

outsmart even Death.

Berman also uses color to define Block’s black-and-white view of death as a

battle between good and evil. The film, though shot long after the introduction of color, is

done in grey scale. Antonius Block’s Scandinavian coloring gives him pale skin and

blond hair. Death wears a black cloak. In the chess game, Block plays with the white

pieces and Death is black. With Block representing life, the use of black and white serves

to emphasize Block’s view that life is “good” and death is inherently “evil.” The

comparison itself is very clear-cut and black and white. When juxtaposed with the

personification of death, this opinion serves to demonstrate Block’s belief that death is an

enemy to be outwitted and beaten.

Though Block does triumph by saving Mia and Jof, his goal to outsmart death

causes him great unhappiness and when he dies, he has ultimately enjoyed the end of his

life far less than he would have had he accepted death. His goal becomes an obsession.

When Block meets a girl convicted of witchcraft, he is desperate to know about the devil.

If he knew about the devil, he would know about death. Knowing about death might

provide him with the same advantage Death has over him: knowledge of weakness. Block

manages his one great achievement, to save Mia, Jof, and their baby Michael (Mia and

Jof translate into Mary and Joseph, and their son represents Jesus—again, life is good,

death is evil), but spends the entire film unable to enjoy life because he is too busy trying

to outplay Death. When Block finally dies, he does not die alone. His attempts to escape

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the inevitability of death cost the lives of his wife, his squire, his squire’s housekeeper,

the blacksmith, and Lisa.

While Block attempts to prevent his death by outwitting Death and gets

progressively more miserable, Borg eventually accepts the imminence of his death and

focuses his energies on coming to terms with his past and repairing his relationships with

the people he loves. Borg is subsequently much more at peace with the idea of death and

enjoys the end of his life much more fully than Block.

When Isak Borg realizes the imminence of death, he decides to reevaluate his

personal relationships in the hopes of leaving a part of himself behind after he dies. At

the start of the film, Borg has a poor relationship with his son and his daughter-in-law

(who has a strained relationship with her husband for different reasons). He has a “weird

and unpleasant” (Wild Strawberries) dream that highlights his anxiety about his life. The

streets he walks in are empty, symbolizing his lack of strong personal relationships (Borg

mentions in the opening sequence that his loneliness is partly his fault, having avoided

social interactions). Neither the street clock nor his pocket watch have hands, suggesting

infinite time. Eyes below the city clock seem to watch him, making Borg nervous. Borg

is clearly uncomfortable in his life. Borg approaches a man who drops dead, only there is

no body, only clothes and blood. A horse drawn carriage approaches but cannot go

anywhere because it keeps knocking its wheel against a lamppost. The carriage looses its

wheel and misbalances, at which point a coffin falls out before the horses take off again.

A hand sneaks out from the coffin and grabs Bork—it is Borg himself in the coffin, and

the corpse Borg will not release the living Borg, at which point Borg wakes up. The

corpse Borg suggests that Borg sees death coming closer and closer, and the other man

who dies represents Borg’s fear that, without any family to whom he is particularly close,

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nothing will be left of him after he dies, and that he will be forgotten.

As Borg makes the physical journey to visit his son, he also embarks on an

intrapersonal journey to accept his past. Additionally, Borg succeeds in strengthening his

relationships with the people he wants to love. When he sees the young Sara, he instantly

recognizes her as the double of the girl he had planned to marry but who had married his

brother. Both girls are named Sara, and Bibi Anderson portrays them both. After meeting

the young Sara, Borg has two more dreams, both of which feature his Sara. The dreams

move from Sara loving Borg and reprimanding another boy for being improper, to Sara

happily married, and finally to Sara watching a baby. Borg realizes that, though he loved

Sara, this was the course her life needed to take, the course in which she was happy.

Borg’s grief over losing Sara had been a block in his life, and without accepting

that it was not his fault she left him, Borg had always blamed himself. After coming to

terms with his loss of Sara, he is much more sensitive to his daughter-in-law. Eventually,

she feels she can confide in him that she is pregnant and disagreeing with her husband

about whether to keep the baby or abort. When Borg reaches his son’s house, he and his

son also manage to reconnect. Borg’s housekeeper of several decades with whom he

frequently bickers with offers to leave her door open to him after they share a gentle

conversation. Borg is much happier at the end of the film than at any other point in the

story, both because he wins recognition for his work as a doctor and because he mended

his personal relationships and has people he loves and feels important to.

Borg’s final dream reveals his acceptance of the imminence of his own death and

his strengthened love for the people in his life. The final dream, the last scene in the film,

is much more peaceful than his first three. His Sara runs to meet him, takes him by the

hand and leads him through meadows until he reaches a lake. She says she and the others

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will meet him on the other side of the island. On the other shore, his parents are fishing.

Borg appears more peaceful and at ease in this dream than in any other scene. Though

two of the other three dreams are set in the same location as this one—his childhood

home—this dream is devoid of the ominous shadows, music and staging that plagued the

other three dreams. Borg is truly happy, even with Sara, who had broken his heart. He has

forgiven her, allowing joy to replace hurt. The water represents death and the island

symbolizes the other side of the transition, heaven, Borg sees the peace of death rather

than the uncertainty. His parents are happy and relaxed, and Borg knows that people he

love—and who love him—will be waiting for him when his time comes to die.

Death is commonly considered the scariest part of life. It is the one for which

humans have the least preparation, the one that can come any time. It can be so sudden

that one does not see it coming or so drawn out that people wish it would come faster. It

is also a part of life that, by definition, one must undergo alone. Bergman’s assertions

about death are timelessly applicable. It is human nature to try to avoid death; the

survival instinct kicks in. However, Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries are cautionary.

They encourage people to put in the effort to relax, accept death as an unavoidable part of

life, and focus on enjoying life to the fullest. Bergman may have been discussing death,

but ultimately his films shed light on the joys—and sorrows—of life.

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Bibilography

Benjamin, Ludy, “Erikson’s Psychosocial Theory”

Bergman, Igmar, dir. The Seventh Seal. Svensk Filmindustri, 1957. Film.

Bergman, Ingmar, Selection from the Screenplay of The Seventh Seal

- - -, dir. Wild Strawberries. Svensk Filmindustri, 1957. Film.

Cohen, Hubert, Igmar Bergman: The Art of Confession, pp. 123-135

Donner, John, “The Role of Jöns in The Seventh Seal,” Classic Cinema, ed. By Stanley

Solomon Hall, Calvin, “Theory of Personality”

Greenberg, Harvey, Movies on Your Mind, “The Rags of Time—Igmar Bergman’s Wild

Straberries,” pp. 169-193

International Movie Database.

Mast, Gerald and Bruce Kawin, A Short History of the Movies (8th edition), pp. 325-326,;

382-391

Wood, Robert, Sexual Politics and the Narrative Film, pp. 248-261