The Seventh Seal as existentialist text
In Cinema, Philosophy, Bergman, Paisley Livingston addresses the question of whether cinema can be said to do philosophy, and if so by what means. I am immediately put ill at ease by his definition of philosophy, which seems unfairly skewed towards the Analytic tradition:
‘Philosophy’ refers to more or less systematic investigative, expressive, and communicative activities, at a high level of generality and abstraction, pertaining to the world and our knowledge of it; philosophers, investigate, discuss, and pronounce upon a range of significant, general topics concerning the nature of reality, and, in particular, human action and value. The priveleged, though not exclusive, methods that philosophers use in such investigations and communications include reasoning and argumentation as well as attention to examples, whether actual or imagined, that may be indicative of more general patterns and possibilities.
This seems to lean towards the notion of philosophy as a disembodied and abstract system of knowledge, aiming to generate a set of true (ethical, metaphysical, logical) propositions about the world. If Bergman is doing philosophy, I contend, he is doing existentialism — and this has aim nothing like the above. Existentialism, rather, is a way of life, an orientation towards the world, a mode of being in it. (Consider the different connotations of “I am an existentialist” vs. “I am an analytic philosopher”.) The existentialist position is not the sort of thing one sets out to acquire rational evidence for; one does not weigh up the pro et contra and then perform some kind of Bayesian calculation to determine whether or not one ought to believe in it. One simply finds oneself in angst or despair — and then wonders what sense one might make of it.
It is here that I think The Seventh Seal finds its place. Through the character of Antonius Block in particular, Bergman manifests the existential mode of being, creating the most suitable and significant situations for it to reveal and play itself out fully. In doing so he explores its tendencies and limits; he simulates its reaction to certain events and its trajectory given certain states of affairs. We do not seek to extract from Bergman’s film evidence for a philosophical doctrine, but rather interact thoughtfully with it to expand our awareness of what it means to take an existential stance. Ultimately, we hope to learn from this not propositional knowledge about the world, but how to live well in it.