Playing Chess with Death

Last night, I watched Ingmar Bergman’s film “The Seventh Seal”.   There’s nothing like hitting a gray mood smack on the head with a black & white film about Death!  Yargh!  Into the breach, mates….

First of all, the photography.  Beach scenes, faces, clouds and silhouettes, clean, stark, intense.  They just put me in a mood to ponder dark and light without looking away.  Bring it!

Characters.  One of the questions Steve always asks after we watch a film together is “which character do you think is most like you?”  The characters in this film are icons of human stereotypes, in a way, but rather like the roles in a medieval morality play.  The knight is questing, always.  He wants to know and understand; his intellect is never satisfied.  Steve has a lot of that in him.   Jof, the juggler, is a childlike observer.  He is easy-going and happy, and he has visions.  He sees with his heart and doesn’t understand why others don’t see what he does, but he doesn’t preach about his visions, he writes songs about them.  I think Steve has some of that in him, too.  I identify with Jof myself.  The squire is shrewd, ironic, confident and direct.  He seems very grounded in his ego.  There are some other players, more simply drawn: the actor, the cuckold smith and his loose wife, Jof’s young wife and their baby, a silent girl who attaches to the squire, a witch and of course…Death.

How each of these folks engage with Death is fertile ground for the imagination.  If you’re questing, trying to find answers, strategically engaging Death in a game of chess, what is the lesson you are likely to learn?  That Death doesn’t have any answers, but he’s going to win the game.  And how would you take that?  It makes me think of my younger days, when I was in the throes of religious fervor, convinced that I was learning the big answers to the most important questions.  I wrote terribly pretentious poetry and harbored judgments about everything.  I thought I was going to “figure it all out” eventually.  That was after Death’s first visit to me, and before his second.  I had a few close calls in between that made me think I might be on the right track.  His re-appearance convinced me that I wasn’t really onto anything.  So, the questions remain.  I like how the knight gets increasingly comfortable with inviting Death to sit down and join him.  He learns a few things, he postpones the inevitable, he diverts Death’s attention away from his friends for a while, and he even shows Death that he can be happy while they play.  I am learning from his example.

The scariest part of the film is the depiction of fear itself.  The wailing and flailing and pleading for mercy is utterly desperate and triggers all kinds of panicky feelings in me as I watch.  I do NOT want to slide into that.  That’s the worst evil in the film.   Those people are being tortured and destroyed from the inside out.  It gives me the shivers!   This is a great example for me, too.  I don’t have to engage with Death in this manner.  I have other options.

The storm scene reminded me of a camping trip we took one spring.  After a balmy evening, a thunderstorm rolled in from across the hills to the west.  The sun had set and it grew quite dark, but just over the ridge, the lightning blazed up like bombs in a great war.  It was like watching a WWII movie, all black and white explosions in the distance.  And we were the only campers in the park, in a little nylon tent.   I was kind of scared.  I thought about doing the “safe and prudent” thing, striking camp and driving away.  Steve asked me, “Why?”  Well, because something bad could happen!  Bad like what?  We could get wet.  We could get hit by a falling tree or lightning.  We could, but it’s not highly likely.  We could just watch it and see what we learn.  And we can always get in the car, too, if we want.

So we stayed.  We did get wet.  We eventually went to the car.  We went home the next day.  But we saw the most amazing light show and felt the wind and heard the rain fall on every surface with a different sound.   And we experienced it together, present, honest, alive.   Take that, Fear!  Check!