Plague and Angst

After our last episode of Saints and Cinema, where we talked a little bit about movies for watching during a pandemic, one of our brothers commented that The Seventh Seal was the best plague movie. I had watched three or four Ingmar Bergman movies in the past year, but I had held out on The Seventh Seal.

I should have known better, but it took me until this week to finally watch it. The Seventh Seal (1957; streaming on the Criterion Channel; for rent on Amazon and elsewhere) is not what I expected, which was the knight and Death sitting around, playing chess, and discussing mortality philosophically. It is, instead, an unfolding of the different ways that people deal with the certainty of death. While Bergman released the film in the uncertain time after World War II, in the midst of the Cold War, it isn’t hard to draw obvious lines to the (seemingly interminate) discussions among politicians, commentators, Christians, and others surrounding how to deal with the novel coronavirus.

Confronted with the reality of the plague, Bergman has his characters express their concerns in language that wouldn’t sound too foreign to the way people are talking now. One man is concerned about his economic outlook: “Business would normally be good this time of year, but I’ve sold nothing.” Another (while sitting in the bar drinking and eating) criticizes others’ lack of care, “People are mad. They flee and take the plague with them.” And yet, as someone else puts it, “A man has to take care of his own so long as he can stand on his own two feet.” Or, as Raval puts it more baldly, in a different context, “It’s everyone for himself. It’s as simple as that.”And then there’s the end-times interpreter: “No one dares say it aloud, but this is the end.” And yet, they’re all very easily distracted by the crudest entertainment! (I feel judged.)

And yet, while death is often discussed now, it is discussed in terms of either statistics or anecdotes—both of which have their places—but not in terms of the sort of existential threat it is for Bergman. The knight, Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), stands at the center of the film. When Death comes for him, he makes a deal so he can stay alive while the game is going on (the silence of “about half an hour,” from Revelation 8:1). When actually speaking with Death, he puts on a confident smile, as if death is no serious threat. At other times (including unknowingly speaking to Death as to his confessor), he can’t stave off his dread.

But it’s more than just dread of death. It is dread of going to death with no God—or, what’s worse, with a silent God. “He is silent. I cry to Him in the dark, but no one seems to be there.” Without a God, “life is a senseless terror. No man can live with death knowing that everything is nothingness.” Anticipating a very modern objection to Block’s diagnosis, Death responds, “Most people never reflect on death or nothingness.” But for those who do, Block suggests, “In our fear we make an idol and call it God.” It is a sort of cowardice that seeks for a Divine comfort when there is none to be had.

But even if Block thinks that is true, he can’t unbind himself from his desire for a God, and the questions that go along with it. “Is it so hard to grasp God with one’s senses?” he asks. “Why must He hide in a mist of vague promises and unseen miracles?” And “What will become of us who want to believe but cannot? And what of those who neither will nor can believe?” As much as with any Flannery O’Connor protagonist, Block’s God-haunted conscience won’t leave him alone. “Why can I not kill God within me? Why does He go on living in this painful, humiliating way? I want to tear Him out of my heart, but He remains a mocking reality that I cannot shake off.”

Later, he says the same sort of thing to Mia: “Faith is a torment. Did you know that? It’s like loving someone in the darkness who never answers, no matter how loud you call.” Instead of looking beyond this world, past death, Block turns to the simple pleasures of this world, on this side of death. Wild strawberries, fresh milk, the faces of those around him—that’s where he’ll find his happiness. He is, though, continually inclined to look for something more. In spite of how nice it may sound to live in the moment and take whatever enjoyment can be found here and now—again, a particularly modern perspective—Block can’t help but wonder if that’s all there is.

Maybe, instead of taking whatever enjoyment he can find for himself, the purpose of life—the goal he sets for himself during his chessboard, tactical reprieve from death—is “one meaningful deed.” What is the thing that would make worthwhile everything else he’s suffered and lost and experienced? Because, regardless of what each of them may think about death and dying, neither Block nor his wife, nor Jöns, Plog, Lisa, or the silent girl, will escape him when he calls. Though it’s not explicit, Block seems to find his one meaningful deed in distracting Death while Mia, Jof, and Mikael escape through the storm (and the “angel of death” passes over them).

Mia and Jof are also called Mary and Joseph, and they escape with their young male child. Further, Jof had earlier seen a “vision” of Mary with a crown, teaching the child Jesus to walk. He says, “It’s not the reality you see, but a different kind.” His interpretation is like Revelation 12, with a crowned woman and the male Child, but for Jof it portends peace, rather than the persecution and suffering of the Church. That vision disappears, though, and in the end there is only Mia, Jof, and Mikael. The hope of life and the world, Bergman seems to say, is found in their love and their family. That fits well with the end of Through a Glass Darkly, with the search for meaning ending in a rather anemic “love.”

Throughout the film, Block and his squire, Jöns, represent the conflict between existential dread on the one hand and, on the other, an epicurean, carefree—almost fatalistic—apathy. In his conversation with the church painter over a barrel of gin, he asks why the artist is painting the dance with death. The painter says, “to remind people they’re going to die.” Jöns says, “That won’t cheer them up any.” The painter himself is skeptical of religious significance to death: “The remarkable thing is that some people think the plague is a punishment from God. Crowds wander the land whipping themselves and others to please the Lord.”

Then Jöns draws a caricature of himself and says of “Squire Jöns,” “his world exists only for himself. He grins at Death, scoffs at the Lord, laughs at himself, and leers at the girls. Absurd to all, even to himself.” And later, after the penitential procession goes by, he says, “All this ranting about doom. Do they really expect modern people to take that drivel seriously?”

Even though The Seventh Seal is probably too sincere and forthright an examination of death and God for our modern cultured despisers, Jöns is their cynical representative. In response to Block’s prayer just before they meet death, he says, “In the darkness where they say you are, where all of us probably are, there’s none to listen to your lament or be touched by your suffering. Dry your tears and reflect yourself in your own indifference.” There’s no God; go bravely to your death, even if you need a narcotic. “I could have given you something to purge you of your worries, but now it’s too late. But even in this final moment, feel the triumph of being alive!”

But Block isn’t dissuaded. Very few have any contact with God in the way that Block wants it (to grasp Him with one’s senses, immediately, apart from “vague promises and unseen miracles”), and even then, the experience fades quickly into uncertainty. Block’s prayer in the darkness battles with Jöns’s “bravery:” “Out of our darkness we call to Thee, O Lord. O God, have mercy on us, for we are small and frightened and ignorant. God, you who are somewhere, who must be somewhere, have mercy on us.”

Both Block and Jöns face the darkness of existence and death, and their different answers are still, essentially, the choices we have: either face death stoically, indifferent, pretending that life itself is the triumph, or hold to an unseen God, like Christ on the cross. We are small, frightened, and ignorant. Out of our darkness, we call to Thee. When considering their meaningless fight in the crusades, even Jöns can say what we also ought to hear: “The Lord wanted to chasten our pride. We were too well-off, too satisfied with ourselves.”

But Block isn’t completely right. Though we haven’t seen, perhaps, the miracles, God does not give vague promises. Though unseen, the resurrection of Jesus is anything but vague. It is the concrete and absolute answer to death and his destruction. It is the living hope of which St. Peter speaks: a resurrection inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading—putting to spite everything we see and experience. “Not seeing Him, you love Him. Though you do not now see Him, you believe in Him and rejoice with joy inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 3:4, 8-9).