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Chess, Death, Insanity, and Eternity: Examining Existential Questions From Seventh Seal and Ordet

04/12/2011

A knight wakes up on a beach and does his morning prayers, seeking God, but is greeted instead by Death, a grim hooded figure with a pale white face.  The knight – later referred to as Antonius – immediately recognizes Death as an acquaintance, or almost a friend of a friend.  The purposes of this meeting are one-sided.  Death is here to claim a soul, but the knight has no desire to be claimed.  Antonius challenges Death to a game of chess, a game that parallels the life-or-death circumstances of their situation.  Interesting even that Antonius relies on the combined efforts of the Knight and Bishop pieces; also reflective of his real-world strategy as he – a knight – seeks out aid from the Church to defeat the devil.  But in both these attempts, Antonius is bested by Death.  It is a well-established maxim that you can’t cheat death, but no one ever considered that Death could cheat you.

But is Death an absolute end?  Ordet would challenge that assertion.  The one thing that Antonius truly struggles with – faith – is taken for granted by the families in Ordet.  And it is this faith that conquers death and brings one character back into the realm of the living.  Each of these films focuses on the attitudes of those people left behind, alive, striving to comprehend the need for life to end.  I do not think these films regret that death exists at all, but that such an event as the ceasing of life can occur without any explanation or apology.

Neither of these films would ever succeed in color.  But especially The Seventh Seal. The bleak look of the world and default paleness of the characters’ faces adds a mythic quality to the allegory.  The chess pieces have two colors: white and black.  These are the same two colors that the world of The Seventh Seal exists in.  Because its appearance is so different from our own, it makes those familiar elements seem all the more truthful: specifically the Knight’s search for meaning.  His common questions of eternal existence are met with silence; either deliberate or accidental, the film makes no statement.

It is the mystery that frightens our Knight.  He begs for answers from anyone who may offer knowledge of such things.  He stares into the eyes of a young girl while she burns at the stake, and asks, “What is it that she sees?”  Is it Heaven?  Hell?  The Devil?  Or possibly the absence of all of those things; an emptiness that is more awful to behold than any post-mortem torture.  Even as Antonius doubts the meaning of his own life, he still finds some reason to wrestle with Death for authority over his own soul.

The question of existential emptiness is something that all characters in these films must deal with.  In Ordet, the Atheist brother must find a new meaning to his own life after his wife dies.  In Seventh Seal, mobs of people punish themselves in an effort to throw God’s punishment off of them.  The Knight’s minstrel scorns their actions, but Antonius himself offers no mockery.  He admires that they believe in something, when he struggles to have any conclusions of faith.  He does not admire what they believe, but that they believe.  The same relationship is pointed at in a conversation between the Minstrel and a wood-cutter named Plog, in which the Minstrel gives some unrehearsed advice about life and women, to which Plog replies, “I admire you.  You believe your own drivel.”  The Minstrel counters by saying, “no I just like giving advice.”

Does the Minstrel express an attitude unfound in the rest of the world’s wisdom?  Or is this a statement that precisely describes the nature of worldly wisdom – unconfirmed answers given because the advisor enjoys giving advice?  Until the final 5 minutes of Ordet, we may have associated that attitude with the seemingly insane Johannes, or even the old religious men, Peter and Mikkel.  Those characters that should know the answers that everyone else pretends to know, are either keeping their secrets (Death) or mistaken for having none (Johannes).

What is the strategy of Death?  And are his deeds nefarious?  Would he ever have agreed to a game of chess, had he not been confident of his ability to win?  And if Antonius had won, would Death have left him forever, making his already unsatisfying life an eternal journey to answer’s end?  Bergman as a filmmaker has chosen to withhold these answers, representing the pursuit of answers as being all that life has to offer us.  Dryer offers the surprising affirmation that miracles can happen, but when underscored with quotations from scripture, we are given a condition: miracles are dependent upon human faith, and therefore, we can participate in God’s work within our own lives.

This is what the Knight Antonius lacks, a willingness to submit to the Eternal Unknown, thereby allowing its super-natural affect on his own, known, natural life.  Seventh Seal concludes with a dance of death, celebrating the end of life.  Ordet ends with a funeral, pointed with the announcement of a marriage, and ended with the dead being brought to life.  In each of these is resolution.  But it is only in the experience the characters’ have by discovering themselves at the end of their lives, that they can feel at peace with their own cosmic insignificance.

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