Plagues and pandemics concentrate the mind. Imagine that you have a week or a month before you die rather than the ten, twenty, or fifty years you have been vaguely counting on. Practically speaking your planning gets urgent. But at another level, philosophy comes crashing in on you, and you ask, what have you accomplished? What was your life worth? Did it have any meaning? Is it too late for some last, redemptive act? Can I still leave behind “something that will endure”? Those were the words that pointed the abbess of Mei-Tan-Fu to her future as a plague nurse (“I do not think that you will die without having done something that will endure”—Maugham, The Painted Veil).
The Seventh Seal begins when Death (in person) comes to claim the knight Antonius Block and carry him away to the dark lands. He has returned from a ten-year pilgrimage to find the land ravaged by a plague that threatens to wipe out everyone. The knight puts Death off by challenging him to a game of chess. Death agrees. As long as the game lasts, he can live; if he wins, Death gives up his claim on him.
In a later scene we learn what is driving Block. He is opening his heart in a confessional. Unbeknownst to him, the confessor is not a priest, but rather Death. He tells him proudly that he is playing chess with Death and does so to gain time. Why do you want to do that, asks Death/the priest: “My life has been a futile pursuit, a wandering… without meaning… I will use my reprieve for one meaningful deed.”
He has his chance near the end of the film. He is about to lose the game; he is down to one or two moves. Death gives him the bad news and promises to take him and his travelling companions the next time they meet. The knight gains a little time by knocking over the chess pieces. While Death resets the board, the knight looks on while a family travelling with the knight sees the danger, and escapes. Block rescued them by his desperate gesture; this is his “one meaningful deed,” the redemptive act, performed in the face of death, that gives meaning to his otherwise senseless existence. Now he can give in to Death, who meets the travellers at the knight’s castle, and takes all of them.
The family whose escape he covers is a family of actors, Jof, Mia, and their baby Michael. Jof is not only an actor and juggler, but also a visionary. When we first meet him, early in the morning, the others asleep in their wagon which doubles as a travelling stage, he wanders into a meadow, suddenly his eyes widen, he is riveted by a vision. He looks entranced at a scene across the meadow: a young woman dressed like a queen with a crown, guides her baby through what must be his first steps. Music plays, angelic voices sing, a celestial choir. He looks away briefly, wipes the tears from his eyes, and when he opens them the vision is gone. He rushes to the wagon, wakes his wife:
Jof: Mia, wake up! I’ve just seen something!
Mia: What did you see?
Jof: The Virgin Mary.
Mia takes it with gentle irony. She’s used to his invented visions.
Jof: I can’t help it if voices speak to me, if the Holy Virgin appears before me and angels and devils like my company.
His visions come in handy in the end. Jof sees the knight playing chess with death (no one else does) and understands that their number is up. His vision is advanced warning, and they can make a getaway. They escape while Death rearranges the chess pieces. The knight watches them leave. Now he has his “one meaningful deed.” He has cheated Death and saved the life of the family.
The movie ends with another of Jof’s visions. They escaped in a desperate, terrified race through the storm-torn forest. They wake in the morning. They check to make sure they’re still alive. Jof looks at a distant hill and sees the knight and his company dancing along its rim “against the dark, stormy sky.” Death leads the dance carrying his scythe and hourglass:
Jof: “They dance away toward the dark lands, while the rain washes their faces and cleans the salt tears from their cheeks.”
Mia: “You and your visions.”
Jof shakes it off, and they go on their way. The day is bright, the road open, and the angelic choir sings, sweet harmony, major key. An upbeat ending.
So death wins, as always, but his main victim saves a family. Who is it he has saved, actually? Jof is short for Joseph; Mia for Mary. So Joseph, Mary and the baby survive because Block outwits Death. He has unwittingly saved the holy family, or a least a recasting of that family.
The Seventh Seal plays in two realities. The one is the real world, existence trying to save itself without any higher intention than to live on. This is the reality of the knight’s squire. The other is a transcendent reality, supernatural, with angels, devils, God and Jesus. (Jof: “my visions are of another kind of reality, not the one you see every day”). Antonius Block has a problem that none of the others have: he is suspended between the two. He is tortured by his inability to know whether or not God exists. He cannot maintain faith without proof, but his skepticism is not strong enough to root out the image of God:
Knight: What is going to happen to those of us who want to believe but aren’t able to? And what is to become of those who neither want to nor are capable of believing?… I want knowledge, not faith, not suppositions, but knowledge. I want God to stretch out his hand toward me, reveal himself and speak to me.
Death: but he remains silent.
Knight: I call out to him in the dark but no one seems to be there.
Death: Perhaps no one is there.
Knight: Then life is an outrageous horror. No one can live in the face of death, knowing that all is nothingness.
Death: Most people never reflect about either death or the futility of life.
He cannot live without a belief in God. But his quest for proof only turns up tantalizing suggestions that God exists: “Why can I never grasp God with the senses? Why should he hide himself in a mist of half-spoken promises and unseen miracles?” The reality of Bergman’s film is porous. It leaks hints of a higher reality that may or may not surround the one we live in.
The “holy” family of Jof, Mia and Michael is one of those glimmerings of another world and of a God revealed, well, hinted at, in this world. Jof’s visions of angels and devils show his credentials as a prophet of that other world, but he is ridiculous and easily dismissed. Those hints may be deceptive. They never harden into proof of the existence of God, but they are there holding would-be-believers in a state of uncertainty. Death is no help. He ought to know where he is leading the newly dead. But evidently not. Block has this exchange with Death at the end of the chess game:
Death: When we meet again, you and your companions’ time will be up.
Knight: And you will divulge your secrets.
Death: I have no secrets.
So, there’s nothing out there beyond death—no angels or devils, no afterlife, nothing to rescue the idea that human life is about something—at least as far as Death himself knows. But maybe Death doesn’t know everything. Some elusive hope always remains that life is not, in the way Block puts it, futile.
That is the existential crisis of this depressive, despairing character, the knight. Is God real? Or a product of the imagination? If he could give up God, he would be free, like his squire, to make a life in a reality without God. But without God life is intolerable for Block. Nothing will satisfy him other than seeing face-to-face. But he can only see “through a glass darkly.” A life based on unwavering faith would heal this crisis. But no one in the Seventh Seal (or in any of Bergman’s films) has that kind of faith.
That other world of Jesus, God and redemption, keeps sending out obscure, ambiguous signals that it exists. One last tantalizing reminder comes at the end of the film when Death enters the castle. The group gathers, and they hand themselves over passively. A mysterious girl, whom the knight’s squire rescued from a rapist-murderer-corpse-robber, has been with them for the entire pilgrimage, but has never spoken. As she sits at the knight’s table and listens to the exchange with death, she looks up behind her, at a tunnel-like circular window, which slowly fills with light as she watches. She is ecstatic at the sight; tears stream down her face; and finally says the only words she speaks in the film: “It is finished.” The miraculous light and the last words of Jesus on the cross in the mouth of a mute—final glimmerings of a universe that conceals God and only lets him shine through in brief moments? Or further tricks of a mindset that makes natural events into false proofs of a non-existent God?
Which is it? It’s enough to make an existentialist of the viewer. In one way, the world of Camus’s The Plague is more stable. Give up hope, and you can establish, on the basis of good acts, a life that now and then is good, as did Dr. Rieux. But the existentialist’s goodness and happiness are as contingent as the plague itself.
Antonius Block is too skeptical to believe. What he has to justify his life is “one meaningful deed,” an act of mercy and humanity. That will have to supply some meaning in the face of death, accomplish for Block what the abbess in Painted Veil accomplished, “something that will endure”: he rescues Mary, Joseph and the baby.