not in our stars, but in ourselves
This has been a bad week. First we learned that David Bowie had died, and today we learned that Alan Rickman had joined him. Hell, even René Angélil died today. 2016 is off to a very unpromising start, but I hope it will ease its approach in the following weeks and months.
Anyway, it’s a little on-the-nose, during such a dreadful week, to watch The Seventh Seal, but I found it to be far more life-affirming and gentle than I would have expected (because yes, I’m terrible, and I’d never seen it before last night). Apologies if I’m spoiling anything, but the main point is that death is certain – no one will ever escape it – and so the only way to find joy and fulfillment in life is to love one another. It’s not all roses, of course, but I found that its reputation as an impenetrable fortress among cinéastes to be undeserved. It’s vibrant, lovely, earnest – and, far more often than I would have expected – terribly funny.
After a decade fighting in the Crusades, the knight Antonius Block (Max Von Sydow) returns home to Sweden with his squire, Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand). As they languish on a rocky beach, Antonius begins a chess game against himself. Soon, he’s joined by Death (Bengt Ekerot). Death tells him that he’s been following Antonius for a long time, and now he’s got to go. Antonius suggests that they play chess, and as long as Antonius wins, he keeps his life. Death agrees – but chess is a long game to play, and Death has other things to do. After a while, Antonius and Jöns recommence wandering. During the ten years they’ve been gone, the Black Plague has seized Sweden, along with the rest of Europe. It’s created a climate of pre-apocalyptic panic, complete with religious fanaticism: the world seems to be ending, so what can His people do to make God happy? Some think it’s by beating themselves, burning witches at the stake, that kind of thing; others are more like Jof (Nils Poppe) and Mia (Bibi Andersson), a husband and wife team touring with a not-too-scrupulous actor, Skat (Erik Strandmark). Jof and Mia and their baby Mikael are, in contrast to the gloom and muck around them, happy with each other and hopeful for their future. Antonius and Jöns meet up with the little family, and it provides just the balm Antonius’s soul needs: he can’t see, hear, touch, taste, or smell God – but he can see the love Jof and Mia have for each other, hear Jof’s joyous songs written for his wife and baby, feel the sun on his face, taste the milk they offer him, smell the fresh strawberries. After ten years fighting a brutal, meaningless war; after a lifetime wondering why God seems so absent and silent; this is all the proof he needs that life matters. When Death shows up again to play for Antonius’s life, he ensures that Death is distracted long enough for Jof and Mia to escape. After Antonius loses, Death assures him that he’ll be back to take Antonius and everyone with him. When Antonius finally returns home – where his wife has been waiting for him, alone, since he left – Death makes good on his promise. Jof sees Death leading Antonius, Jöns, and the rest of the party in a danse macabre across the horizon.
Ingmar Bergman, son of a Lutheran minister, did in some sense make a movie about the absence of God – the quest that animates and torments Antonius. After fighting in a war supposedly for God’s glory, and returning home to find so many people maimed by disease, he desperately wants to know where the Christian God, for whom he went to war. In the Middle Ages, such existential questions were – if anything – far less defined; in postwar Europe, gripped by the possibility of nuclear apocalypse, it was a daily fact of life. However, it’s not just about the absence of God. God, in the Christian sense, is meaningless and silent. Religion is a grotesque charade of suffering and hypocrisy. The only guarantee is that Death will come for us all – and so, in the face of all that, what’s the only possible answer? What’s the only way to ensure that life has meaning? Love. That’s all.
The film isn’t so hippie-dippie and feel-good as to leave it at that, however. It’s a remarkable blend of twentieth-century angst and anxiety with Medieval imagery, dirt, grime, and horror. I’m sure it’s not an entirely accurate period piece, but it’s one of the best evocations of what Medieval art and culture feel like. The sense that the world is somehow impossibly small, improbably cruel, abstract and cold and disease-ridden, is overwhelming. Furthermore, the sense isn’t that the world is this way because of anything God has done, or hasn’t done: all the horrible things in fourteenth-century Sweden (or anywhere else in Europe) are what they are because of what humans have done to each other. Sometimes they do it to each other in the name of religion, sometimes in the name of lust or greed, but the only supernatural entity (apart from Jof’s visions of Jesus and Mary) is Death – and even Death isn’t so much supernatural as all-too-natural. All the real misery comes from humans forgetting their own humanity. That’s what Jof, Mia, and Mikael remind Antonius of: his own humanity, the love he felt for his wife before he left, the way he found joy simply in being alive.
I do wonder at The Seventh Seal‘s stuffy reputation. I’d always heard it acknowledged as an indisputable classic, but only ever in hushed and reverent tones. It seemed like it would be a cold, somber, serious affair. I won’t kid you and say it’s a romp, but it’s so vibrant and beautiful and life-affirming – specifically because Death threatens them all at every corner. To find love and hope in a world as harsh and unforgiving as Medieval Sweden is no small feat – and if Jof and Mia and Mikael can do it then, we can all try to figure out how to do it now.