The confessional scene from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal follows Antonios Block (Max von Sydow) as he struggles through a crisis of faith. The film’s opening sequence sees the physical embodiment of Death (Bengt Ekerot) come for the knight’s life but, for reasons explained during the confession scene, Block challenges Death to a game of chess to decide his fate. Traveling through a country devastated by the Black Death, Block is also dealing with the societal wreckage left in its wake. His confession in this scene is a direct response to his confrontation with the personification of Death and the actual death he has already encountered.
Bergman heightens the tension of this pivotal scene by placing Death behind the bars of the confessional, leading Block to believe he is speaking with a priest. The interaction sees Block turn from confused and faithless to proactive and driven toward one meaningful action. Bergman displays his brilliance here by not relying solely on dialogue to portray this character evolution. Within the scene, three major shot compositions underscore this message.
The first shot is indicative of the knight’s crisis of faith. Block opens the confession with the lines, “…my heart is empty. That emptiness is a mirror turned toward my own face.” The blocking here adds to the crisis of faith and lack of inner belief that the Block is speaking of. The frame is divided by a vertical line of stone outlining the confessional and Block’s hand on the wall forms a symmetrical image with that of a statue to his right. Like the empty mirror of Block’s heart, Bergman creates a split image with the knight on one side of death and the stone priest on the other. This visually represents the knight’s central problem: He is literally facing death but is met with no answers, no knowledge, no guarantees, as blind as the statue next to him.
Following this shot, we get the low point of the scene for the knight. Block’s silhouette is trapped in the shadow of the bars as he kneels below the priest we now know to be Death. Block’s downward eyeline combined with Death’s imposing presence above him visually portrays the power Death holds in this moment. Block is defeated. Another telling aspect of this scene is the repeated cutaways to a large crucifix. The insert shots convey a sense of envy; the knight desires the knowledge that Jesus experiences on the cross. He wants knowledge of the afterlife that he knows is coming shortly. The scene’s conclusion (and Block’s character arc writ large) is a response to the power that Death has over the knight at this moment.
Block’s rebuttal of Death is a beautifully simple composition. The frame is shrouded in darkness with only Block’s face, the metal bars, and Death visible. With this shot, Bergman is making it clear how close the knight is to the afterlife. In Block’s words, he is standing, “on the far edge of life, peering into the darkness.” The knight’s response is to fight back, which Bergman depicts through Block’s confrontational grip on the bars. In this moment Block decides to create meaning in life with no assurance that his action will lead to the afterlife.
Through skillful shot composition in this scene, the viewer knows that Block is approaching death with no clear answers to his fate, feels defeated by his situation and decides to face this uncertainty through direct confrontation. Putting the aesthetic beauty and power of these shots aside, this scene illustrates Bergman’s profound skill as a visual storyteller.