Every Halloween here in suburban New Jersey offers a good opportunity to observe the distant, often aloof attitude middle-class Americans have towards death. For the liberal, cafeteria Catholics and mainline Protestants that populate my little corner of the world, Halloween is a secular holiday, something for children. The decorations, the fake graveyards and the inflatable giant spiders that everybody seems to have on the front lawn, indicate but do not adequately express a consciousness of death. Every time I see one of those bumper stickers that tell me to “put Christ back in Christmas” I wonder why they don’t also say “keep Halloween demonic.”
I was going open this review by saying something like “in 1956 when Ingmar Bergman released The Seventh Seal the threat of nuclear holocaust was very real,” but that would have been absurd. As long as nuclear weapons exist, the threat of a nuclear holocaust will remain every bit as much a possibility as it was during the height of the Cold War. A more accurate opening sentence would have read “in 1956 when Ingmar Bergman released The Seventh Seal the threat of a nuclear holocaust felt very real.” We have not eliminated the threat of extinction. We have merely papered it over with a collective sense of denial. Many of us live with a barely subconscious dread of dissolution and oblivion, that “quiet desperation” Thoreau talks about in Walden, yet we cannot, or dare not express what we fear.
For Ingmar Bergman the answer was to go back to the Fourteenth Century. Antonius Block, the tall, stern, philosophical knight played by a very young Max von Sydow – he was only twenty-six when he starred in Bergman’s classic film – returns to northern Europe after ten years in the Holy Land on a Crusade. Not only has he lost his faith in God. Scandinavia is being ravaged by the Black Plague. The end of the world is at hand. The opening scenes of the Seventh Seal are a tour de force in black and white photography. Block and his squire Jöns, who like his master has lost his faith, wake up on the stark, rock strewn Baltic coastline. Their horses stand knee deep in the sea. We notice that Jöns has slept on a pile of rocks, a quietly vivid image that makes it clear that he’s a rugged man accustomed to a harsh life on the road. Then Block sees Death himself. Death is not an abstraction. On the contrary, he’s a man, a terrifyingly strange man with a ghostly face and dressed all in black, but a man nonetheless. If the promise of eternal life was made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, Block’s dread of eternal oblivion has been made flesh in Bengt Ekerot‘s Grim Reaper.
Ingmar Bergman’s vision of death.
Those of you know know me online have probably seen this portrait.
Block’s reaction is not fear. Rather, it’s a renewed will to live. That death is a man like himself means that death can also be challenged to single combat, or to a game of chess. The two men cut a deal. Death will play a game of chess with the erstwhile Crusader. As long as the knight resists, he can remain on earth. If he wins, if he checksmates death himself, he will be released. If he loses, if death checkmates him, he will be taken away, perhaps to heaven, perhap to hell, perhap to simple oblivion, to non-existence. After Block wins the first round, he continues on his way, desperate to find an answer to the question we all ask. “Is there life after death?” Along the way they meet Albertus Pictor, a church painter who, unlike Ingmar Bergman, believes in a good, crude horror story, Raval, the theologian who had originally convinced Block to go on the Crusade, but who has now become a lowlife who robs the dead, a deaf woman played by Gunnel Lindlbom, Mia and Joff, a pair of traveling minstrels, and a teenage girl played by Maud Hansson, an accused witch who has been sentenced to be burned alive at the stake for consorting with Satan.
Block questions the girl. Have you spoken to the devil? An affirmative answer would give him hope. If the devil exists, then perhaps God exists. There are of course no answers be had from a mentally ill teenager who has been set up as a scapegoat for causing the plague. She genuinely seems to believe she’s seen the devil, but Block can’t be sure. Perhaps she’s simply delusional. Later, just before her immolation, he makes no attempt to interfere with her executioners, but does feed her a drug that will ease her pain, a little bit of oblivion to save her from the hell on earth that will probably end with her death. His encouner with Joff and Mia yields more. Block is touched by the sight of their year old son, the future, and Mia’s fleshy, womanly vitality. She offers him milk and wild strawberries on the beach where he had previously met death himself. The knight savors the milk and wild strawberries, pausing to enjoy a very tangible part of his last few days on earth.
I shall remember this moment. The silence, the twilight, the bowls of strawberries and milk, your faces in the evening light. Mikael sleeping, Jof with his lyre. I’ll try to remember what we have talked about. I’ll carry this memory between my hands as carefully as if it were a bowl filled to the brim with fresh milk.
For Block, however, the pagan mindset that would allow him to enjoy the last few traces of light before he descends into night and oblivion will never be sufficient. He must have answers, and since Death has made a second appearance, disguising himself as a confessor in a church, and tricking Block into revealing his strategy, the knight knows he doesn’t have much time. He will get no answers from Mia and Joff, but perhaps he can save them from the apocalypse. Mia, played by a beautiful young Bibi Andersson, is a simple woman content with that pagan enjoyment in her physical, mortal form that can’t satisfy Block. Joff who serves as Bergman’s commentary on the place of the artist, is a comic, not a tragic actor, basically a clown. There’s a magnificent set piece where Joff and Mia are performing a song about death, a smiling, satirical take on the idea of death not so very different from the silly Halloween decorations that pop up every year in suburban, New Jersey. They are interrupted by a religious procession, a terrifying, intense parade of people singing dias irae, flagellating themselves, trying to beat the understanding of death into their mortal bodies so they can save their souls before death consumes them. A priest gives a speech, a harrowing fire and brimstone sermon that recalls Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God by Jonathan Edwards.
It’s Joff, however, the clown married to the woman far too beautiful for him, or for any other man, who sees the truth long enough to save himself and his family. Joff’s visions, which Mia doesn’t take seriously, indicate that while he may be a buffoon, he understands what the knight does not. Antonius Block, like the priest at the dias irae procession sees only death. Joff has already had a vision of the Virgin Mary and even though his wife laughed at him and accused him of being drunk, he does not doubt his own eyes. He is secure in his faith, and Block, who cannot save himself, saves Joff and Mia, playing a last game of chess with Death. Death checkmates Block but Block overturns the board, forcing Death to pick up and replace the pieces, giving Joff and Mia those precious few seconds they need to steal away into the night, away from the plague and the apocalypse. Antonius Block, who has lost his faith in Christ has, nevertheless, become Christ, an existential, not a Christian Christ, a man who has given his own life so that a family can go on living in a world that has no answers.
It is the consciousness of death, in other words, not the idea of eternal life, that gives meaning to our mortal lives. That is probably why when I was twenty six, the same age as von Sydow in 1956, I was so anxious to make the idea of my own mortality real. I did not want to die. I was nowhere near death. It may have been lurking around the next corner, but in reality that corner was still very far down the road, but I needed to know it was there. You cannot live if you think your life will go on forever. It works the same way with a people, a culture. We Americans are largely protected from death, including and especially including the death caused y our own government. Do we Americans ever think about the trail of destruction we’ve left in the Middle East? Do we ever think about global warming, which could end us as a species, or the ongoing threat of nuclear war? Or do we simply deny the reality of death, even as we contemplate death, those inane secular Halloween decorations, mock graveyards and inflatable giant spiders the closest we ever get to the mortality always present in our everyday lives?