“This is my hand. I can move it, feel the blood pulsing through it. The sun is still high in the sky and I, Antonius Block, am playing chess with Death.”
Philosophers have long contemplated the mystery of existence and the certainty of death, but in the course of the past century these existential questions have become present topics in cinema. One director who stands above the rest with his daring film topics and existential themes is Ingmar Bergman. Bergman’s film work is unprecedented and unparalleled, daring to go where other artists will not. Existentialist thought began with the writings of Søren Kierkegaard, specifically 1843’s Fear and Trembling, in which the writer addresses the biblical tale of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham’s choice to sacrifice his only son in this biblical tale has created many existentialist films about man’s relationship with God. Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film The Seventh Seal, tells the tale of a knight returning from the Crusades, to then be met by the Black Plague and by Death, with the latter of whom he plays a game of chess and a game of wits (The Seventh Seal, 1957). This film shows not only the human existentialist dilemma, but also remnants of Kierkegaard’s three ways of life, the Tragic Hero versus the Knight of Faith, and the conditions of true faith. These topics are brilliantly explored and directed by Bergman, who, like Kierkegaard, struggled with the idea of faith and religion, and who shows the human existentialist dilemma through his protagonist, Antonius Block.
Ingmar Bergman was born in 1918 Sweden, and was raised by his strictly Lutheran father with a firm hand, locking the boy for “hours in a dark closet for infractions of his father’s rigid ethical code” (Katz 120). His religious, but constricting and punishing childhood led the director to doubt in his father’s religion and God’s silence his whole life, a theme explored in most of his films. The Seventh Seal is no exception.
On the journey home to a wife he barely remembers, Block and his squire Jöns happen upon a church, where Block attempts to speak to the Priest about his future, and his doubt in God (The Seventh Seal, 1957). Not knowing that the man in the robe behind the door in in fact his chess opponent, Death himself, Block speaks aloud. “I want knowledge. Not faith, not assumptions, but knowledge. I want God to stretch out His hand, uncover His face, and speak to me. (…) I call out to Him in the darkness, but it’s as if no one was there” (The Seventh Seal, 1957). Kierkegaard’s influence is seen in Block’s confession to Death, as he comprehends that human beings have what Kierkegaard calls the “three ways of life”, or the three levels human beings are able to reach in their lifetimes.
The first level, “aesthetic”, is based on sensory experiences and is primarily animalistic, sometimes seen in humans of a very young age. An example of a character in Bergman’s film who never makes it past this stage is the petty thief and later disease-ridden Raval, whose only desires throughout the film are to steal, to rape a young girl, and for water when he has contracted the Plague.
The second level is “ethical”, which Kierkegaard claims is where most humans remain. In the ethical stage, humans act according to the group, to group laws and ideals, they perform their duty based on the ethical desires and laws of the majority. The people at the ethical stage have “Normal Duty.” Their relation to morality and the group determines their relationship to God. The squire Jöns, is an example of someone at this level, a man who did his duty as squire in the Crusades, but does not believe in a higher power or God (The Seventh Seal, 1957). Other examples of characters at this level are most people in the film, including the flagellants, whipping themselves for a punishing God, believing organized religion, and following those who identify themselves as part of a group, is seen as true faith. Yet these people whip themselves for a God and a religion they have merely been told of, not experienced; they hope, through suffering, to escape the wrath of an angry god. Thus, these people give up their wish (which is, like most humans, to avoid pain), but not their duty (to the group and to what society says God wants from them, which is punishment).
The third level is named the “religious” by Kierkegaard, and was later named the “individual” by Existentialists. In the third way or level, humans are true individuals (which they cannot be in the ethical stage), and they give up not only their wish, but also their duty to society. The people in the third stage’s duty is an “Absolute Duty,” where their relation to God or the self determines the relationship with the group around them, or they put God or the self above relations to the group. In the Bible, Abraham, along with very few others, makes it to this stage, when he decides to sacrifice his son, although it neither is his wish (he waited ninety-nine years for this son, he is all he has ever wanted) or his duty as a father and as a member of society (sons are not supposed to die before fathers, fathers should love and protect, not perform hateful acts and kill their sons). Kierkegaard says that those who progress briefly to the religious or individual stage cannot stay there, that they eventually return to the ethical stage, with the rest of humanity, though they will now not only see the world differently, but also be seen differently by society.
Antonius Block has always felt separate from the rest of society: being sent to fight in the Crusades at a young age, coming back to find people dying of the plague, he has always been an individual. His self-awareness has made him alienated from the rest of society, in isolation of some sort for most of his life. During his confession, he reveals he has “been placed outside my society. Now I live in a ghost world, enclosed in my dreams and imaginings” (The Seventh Seal, 1957). Block feels as though he has done his ethical duty, to fight in the Crusades, and to then begin his journey home. Yet he wishes to go further; he longs for something more, a personal relationship with the God he so wishes to believe in and have contact with (much as Bergman wished to have a relationship both with God and with his strict, unfeeling father).
Antonius Block yearns to use his last chance to escape death for good, as “all my life, I’ve been searching, wondering, talking without meaning or context. It has been nothing. Yes, I say so without bitterness or self-reproach, as I know that almost all of people’s lives are made this way. But I want to use my respite for one meaningful act” (The Seventh Seal, 1957). Ingmar Bergman draws directly upon Kierkegaard for the character of Antonius Block, who, being no fool, knows that “for he who loved himself became great in himself, and he who loved others became great through his devotion, but he loved God became greater than all” (Kierkegaard 50). Block desires this, so he can feel like he has had meaning to his life before his time on earth has come to a close, and he believes that one truly good act will not only bring him closer to god, but give him the trust in god and in the Absurd that he craves. Block, like Abraham, wishes to have the faith in the Absurd: Abraham, knowing sacrificing his son was going against society and the ethical, still made the three-day trek and prepared to sacrifice what he loved most in the world because he had faith in God, faith which surpasses an organized religion or group religious acts (like flagellation during the plague). Abraham “had faith and did not doubt”, and Block wishes to do good with his respite not only for the act of doing good, for his doubts to cease and for God to acknowledge him (Kierkegaard 54).
According to Kierkegaard, not only is the ethical the stage most humans remain at, but true faith is one of the hardest things to come by as well. Abraham showed his true faith by not wavering, by vowing to kill his son if God desired him to do so. True faith is not easy to achieve; it is a painful process, and something Kierkegaard called “no aesthetic emotion, but something far higher, exactly because it presupposes resignation; it is not the immediate inclination of the heart but the paradox of the existence” (Kierkegaard 76). It was not easy for Abraham to decide to kill his only son, but was rather a heart wrenching, traumatic one, but an act he knew he must carry out nonetheless. Therefore, Abraham is not the literary “Tragic Hero,” who gives up his wish but not his (ethical) duty, but the much less frequent and very rare “Knight of Faith” (Kierkegaard 87). The Knight of Faith relinquishes not only his wish, but also his duty, an act that anyone in society, if “they saw this, would be paralyzed” (Kierkegaard 55). Had the people of Israel heard of Abraham’s intent, they would have been horrified; they would have cast him out of society. Abraham knew this act he was going to do was horrendous, yet he went farther than the ethical way into the religious or individual, and thus went farther than the Tragic Hero ever does, as he always remains in the group setting, the ethical stage.
When Antonius Block is asked by Death if “those whose names are Jof and Mia, and who have a small son” (Mikael) will be traveling with him to his castle, Antonius Block grows nervous (The Seventh Seal, 1957). Later, he realizes his opponent’s desire to take not only the life and soul of the knight, but also all those who travel with Block, including the most innocent human beings of all, the small acting family. When the game is drawing to a close, Antonius Block purposely knocks over the chess pieces on the board with the sleeve of his robe, so the family can escape while Death wins the game (The Seventh Seal, 1957). This act, letting the family that represent goodness and purity in a plague-ridden world get away from their imminent fate, if just for a little longer, is the knight’s noble act, his respite, his brief step into the religious, or individual stage that he so longed to enter, just once.
Though a personal relationship with God is never encountered, his one good act is one Existentialists would revere, an act of kindness, where Block becomes the best version of his individual self. Block sacrifices not only his wish, which is to live, to defeat Death in the chess game, but also his duty, as being a fair man and player of chess, as he was supposed to let Death take whomever was with Block if the time came. Antonius Block steps outside of the ethical, and makes the hard decision not only to sacrifice himself, while letting three people get away, but also to let the other people in his traveling party be taken by Death, just as he will be taken. Until he dies, Block now has on his conscience that, by losing the game, he has sealed the fate not only of himself, but also of Jöns, his ever-loyal squire, the blacksmith and his wife, the innocent village girl, and (lastly) his own wife, whom he reaches just before Death takes them all. Just like Abraham, the decision to step into true faith is not an easy one; the decision to step into the religious or individual stage for just a moment is heart wrenching and painful. Kierkegaard reflects that, because of this pain, the Knight of Faith must be strong, “has passion to concentrate the whole of the ethical that he violates into one single thing; he can be sure that he (Abraham) really loves Isaac with all his soul” (Kierkegaard 105). To do this move, to let the chess pieces scatter for the sake of the family, Block focuses on the time he has spent with the family, the happiness they provided him, the idea that maybe young Mikael will grow to be an acrobat, maybe not, maybe he will keep one ball in midair like his father so desires, and maybe not—regardless, Mikael will live, and he will have a good life with parents who raised him with affection, something that Bergman himself always yearned for but never received (The Seventh Seal, 1957). The kindness the family gave to the knight, the happiness they provided him with, if even for a short while, lets Antonius Block makes this leap of faith, briefly stepping into the role of the Knight of Faith, and into an Existentialist success.
Later, when the family is safely out of range, and Death arrives at Block’s castle, greeting all the members of the traveling party with their fate, Block, once again in the ethical stage, becomes once again classically, ethically human. He clasps his hands together, shakes with fear of the deep unknown, the fact of the silence of God, and his fate, and prays desperately for a different ending than the one he knows he sealed when he knocked the chess pieces off the board. Antonius Block, like all men, even Abraham, can only exist in the religious and individual way a short while. His one act in the highest stage was letting the family escape, the family who was so kind to him in his darkest moments. The family had provided him with companionship and peace when he needed it most, and he swore “Everything I’ve said seems meaningless and unreal while I sit here with you and your husband (…) I shall remember this moment. The silence, the twilight, (…) your faces in the evening light. Mikael sleeping, Jof with his lyre. I’ll try to remember what we have talked about. I’ll carry this memory between my hands as carefully as if it were a bowl filled to the brim with fresh milk. And it will be an adequate sign — it will be enough for me” (The Seventh Seal, 1957).
Antonius Block, however, focuses on the current moment with Death when he arrives, not on the strawberries and milk he shared with Jof, Mia, and Mikael, the kindness they shared with him. Block does not think of the strawberries, even though the truth of the reality was that that moment was enough for the Knight. It was enough in the moment of the chess game with Death; it was enough for him to carry out his grand gesture, his respite, and his leap of faith. That moment and the kindness of the people he decides to save he does not regret, yet he once again is within the group, within the ethical, giving up his wish to not die (as he knows all humans are mortal), but not giving up his duty as a man of society to pray (a sign of organized religion, as once again Block is no longer in the true faith) and wish it could end differently, that he could just have a little longer on earth. Antonius Block’s fear as Death enters his castle is proof that like Abraham, any Knight of Faith is also just a man. Any Knight of Faith eventually returns to the group, and to the emotions, like fear of death and the desire for a different ending, the group holds.
Although Ingmar Bergman lived to be eighty-nine years old, and made over sixty films, The Seventh Seal remains one of, if not the most famous of his works. A very large part of the appeal of the film is in the role of the protagonist, the worn down and questioning Antonius Block, focused only on getting home when he stumbles upon a chess game that forces terrible choices upon him. In this film, Bergman adopts a philosophical vision taken directly from Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling to introduce the concepts of Existentialism, concepts that haunt Block, and concepts he strives for, achieves, and then loses once again, in an existentialist dilemma that has no set date, whether in the age of the Black Plague or in the modern day. Bergman’s award winning film and protagonist struggle with the silence of God, the doubt in his existence, and what it means to be an ethical, religious, or truly individual human being. And though only for a short while, Bergman and Kierkegaard’s Antonius Block becomes not only a knight of the Crusades, but also a Knight of True Faith.
Katz, Ephraim, and Ronald Dean Nolan. The Film Encyclopedia. New York: Harper Collins, 2008. Print.
Kierkegaard, Soren, and Alastair Hennay.Fear and Trembling. London: Penguin,1985.