It's enough to drive a man crazy; it'll break a man's faith
It's enough to make him wonder if he's ever been sane
when he's bleating for comfort from thy staff and thy rod
and the heavens' only answer is the silence of God. —Andrew Peterson
Max von Sydow was an actor whose roles were so varied, spread across so many years, and so iconic, that it's impossible to point to the one for which he's most widely known. I argue humbly that the movie he made which left the greatest mark on his art form was The Seventh Seal. The central conceit of the movie—a futile chess match in which a knight just returned from the folly of the crusades (von Sydow) tries to defeat Death (Bengt Ekerot)—has become a part of our modern apocrypha.
We all know that Antonius Block is doomed no matter how skillfully he may play, and Block must know it, too. The black plague storms across Denmark, striking people seemingly at random. The men in taverns whisper fearfully that the end times must surely be upon them. The countryside is filled with the wails of flagellants convinced the only way to stop the disease's spread is by punishing themselves enough that God forbears. Block's desperation is not rooted in trying to avoid death, but in surviving long enough to get an answer, any answer, about why God births us only to leave us to stumble blindly toward the grave.
Von Sydow died at 90 on March 8. And while he was landing roles in Star Wars and Game of Thrones right up until the end, there’s a reason so many well-wishers immediately reached for one of his earliest roles in paying their homage to him.
Death: Do you never stop asking questions?
Block: No. Never.
Death: Yet you get no answers.
A knight lies upon the shore as the waves crash, his callow squire asleep. He awakens to meet Death himself, but manages to forestall the psychopomp by wagering he can beat him at a game of chess. Death must spare Antonius Block as long as the game continues, giving him what he believes may be his last desperate attempt to get some answer on the callousness of the universe from the almighty. Block’s squire, Jöns, has already come to the conclusion that Block cannot face: God is silent because he doesn’t exist, and we’re all doomed.
The movie plays out as a series of short chapters, with Block and Jöns making their way back toward Block’s castle. As Block agonizes over his own insistence on believing in and beseeching God even in the face of the world’s random cruelty and man’s inhumanity, Jöns gets most of the hero beats: Saving a peasant girl from a rapist (only to manhandle her himself) and interceding when the very same petty man torments an innocent actor and family man, Jof. Their small fellowship grows as a blacksmith, his inconstant wife, and Jof’s family join their modest band.
The scenes, each punctuated by another tête-à-tête between Block and Death, reveal everyone’s fury and pain to be completely futile: A parade of flagellants led by a howling preacher who knows as little about the disease’s spread as anyone; a young witch who realizes only at the last that the devil is just as empty a lie as God, and her torment is to no purpose; a man who wails his last in the throes of the plague as Jöns rightly points out that compassion toward him serves only to afflict them with his disease.
Earlier in the film, Jöns berates a painter for painting a Danse Macabre—a mural depicting a parade of the dead. The foreshadowing is utterly unsubtle, and yet The Seventh Seal’s ultimate denial of any closure for Block and his companions truly stings. Even for the cynical Jöns, being proved right evokes in him only scorn for his master’s inability to face up to the void.
Block: I shall remember this hour of peace, these strawberries, this bowl of milk, your faces in the dusk. Mikael asleep, Jof with his lyre. I’ll try to remember what we spoke of … and I’ll hold this memory in my hands as carefully as a bowl brimming with fresh milk. And it will be a sign for me … and a source of great content.
As I write this, entire countries are shutting themselves down to stem the spread of the coronavirus. The century-old story in my family is that my great grandmother remembered her mother’s body being carried from her house, dead from the Spanish flu that killed millions. Our shared knowledge was so much smaller back then, and yet even with all our learning and technology, untold masses of people in developed nations are being laid low by individual hubris and ignorance.
The Seventh Seal’s point is not that 14th century Danes were just not that informed about immunology. The Seventh Seal’s point is that panic, superstition and self-interest look the same in the 20th century as they do in the 14th. The Seventh Seal is a tragedy, but Antonius Block is not the only tragic figure in it.
Block’s peaceful line about remembering the strawberries and his happy companions being “a source of great content” to him is one I’ve heard variously translated as “it will be enough for me,” or in one English dub “a sufficiency for me.” What he leaves unspoken is that it has to be enough because that is all there is.
Jof and his wife Mia and their little Mikael survive. We know it is just for today, and that it has to be enough, because that is all there is. No matter how skillfully we play, we’ll all join the dance.
Kenneth Lowe will be quiet, but under protest. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.