After spending more continuous time with family over the last month than I have in five years, I’ve been taking a breather for the last few days. It’s great being with family, and I’ll never forget how much I missed it when I was overseas, but it can be just as exhausting as work. More in some ways.
So, to ease up a bit, naturally, I watched a Swedish existentialist movie about death. The Seventh Seal (Det Sjunde Inseglet) is a 1957 Ingmar Bergman film starring Max von Sydow set in medieval Sweden during the Black Death.
I watched the film on the advice of a medievalist, who called it one of the most accurate depictions of the medieval mentality, which I find interesting due to its profound difference from modern attitudes and mores. Religious devotion and imagery permeate the film, and are often depicted in a macabre light, perhaps reflecting the prevailing mood during the Plague, which carried away at least a third of Europe’s population.
The main characters are Antonius Block, a knight returning from a crusade, and darkest Death himself, who has come for the knight. To put off his imminent demise, the knight challenges Death to a chess match, hoping that he can accomplish something meaningful before his time is up. Death agrees, and they begin to play, making a few moves during each encounter.
In between the encounters with Death over the chess board, the knight makes his way toward his castle, meeting up with a family of minstrels along the way. The husband and wife team have a little boy, and a companion named Skat who performs with them. The husband, a light-hearted, nimble fellow, also happens to be a clairvoyant, and has religious visions. However, his pretty wife is skeptical.
Other characters include the knight’s squire Jöns, who is a cynical warrior, a blacksmith cuckold named Plod, Plod’s lusty wife, a servant girl whose entire village was taken by the plague, and a villainous preacher named Raval.
On the journey back to the castle, they encounter a religious procession, a witch-burning and other ominous scenes. Antonius, knowing the end is near, desperately seeks knowledge of God and any sign that there is some purpose to life.
I’ll leave the story and plot for readers to discover on their own, but the existentialist theme that ties the ancient medieval lifestyle to ours with one common concern – the meaning of life – suggests that despite our advanced society and relative safety, we are living in times that are as dark as medieval Europe. Antonius finally does find his meaning, and accomplishes his one good deed before Death takes him. Despite his doubt about God and the afterlife, he finds purpose and value in the young minstrel family, and manages to spare them his fate. That family, symbolizing life and goodness, was enough for him to find some acceptance of the terror and darkness that characterized the world around him.
Today, one could make the argument that the systems we have created, and our human shortcomings, are as much a threat to what is good and meaningful in the world as the Plague was in those pestilent times. Politicians and activists uproot families, sow discord and profit from misery, consuming all that is beautiful and good like ravenous wolves. If death were to appear today, wouldn’t he be different only in wearing a black robe rather than a dark cowl? As the innocent fruit of love is mowed down by a grim scythe, we hardly even bother to justify it any longer; that lust and greed are temporarily sated is enough of an excuse.
And yet as we look around, we ask “what kind of life is this, where those things dear to the human heart are devoured around us?”
As I reflect on the film, I see little difference between Antonius and myself — and most men for that matter. In our lives we make a desperate bargain with fate, trying to stave off the inevitable to create a sanctuary for the little things we secretly cherish, so that the inevitable loss will not have been entirely in vain.