Fathom Mag

How to Play Chess with Death

Lessons from The Seventh Seal in a time of pandemic.

Published on:
April 13, 2020
Read time:
4 min.
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While weathering the Twitter storm that prophesied the coming COVID-19 pandemic, I decided that the time was right to make a quarantine survival kit. I rummaged around in my entertainment center and found the usual suspects—a few video games, a James Bond movie, a book on the Holy Roman Empire. Hiding silently between Pitch Perfect 3 and Mamma Mia!  was the final item I needed: a copy of Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 art house classic The Seventh Seal. Given its lead actor’s recent death (Max von Sydow of The Exorcist and Force Awakens fame) and its suddenly relevant take on world pandemics, it seemed like the right time for a rewatch. Into the kit it went. 

It had been a long week. The quarantine was beginning to take its toll: no social interaction, no ministry opportunities, and no gathering with believers in any meaningful way. And in the wake of declining wages and social distancing, my clients were cancelling without mercy. Meanwhile, friends’ careers seemed to be taking off just fine. Now all that was before me was a James Bond marathon and the depressing introspection of The Seventh Seal. I should have been grateful life wasn’t worse. At the same time, I couldn’t shake the brewing irritability.

COVID-19 has taken something from all of us at this point, but from me it had taken any chance to produce something I felt was of value.

COVID-19 has taken something from all of us at this point, but from me it had taken any chance to produce something I felt was of value. As a counselor I’m trained to help people name their losses in times of difficulty. But it’s always been much harder for me to name my own losses, and it’s even harder to feel helpful in an empty office. And stuck in the prison of my home, I had lost the chance to achieve any real sense of success. I was adrift in listlessness. And I was furious. 

Furious is a good adjective to describe von Sydow’s Antonius Block in The Seventh Seal. Remembered now for its depiction of a knight playing chess with the grim reaper (a scene which Roger Ebert described as “an image so perfect it has survived countless parodies”), the film is actually an existential look at life, death, and the existence of God. On his way home from a crusade, Block finds Europe ravaged by the Black Plague. Soon after, he meets Death, who has come to take him as well. Cunning and noble, Block bargains with Death—a game of chess, with the winner taking the spoils. The game continues over the medieval landscape with Block vacillating between pious devotion towards God yet rage in the face of apparent God’s absence and his own mortality. In the end, the house is stacked in favor of Death, and the pandemic consumes all.  

This is bleak stuff, but it was meant to be. Bergman produced existential films, which were a kind of apologetic for the meaninglessness of life. Critical of religion and modern conceptions of success, Bergman wishes to convert us to a warped worldview—an Ecclesiastes sans coram Deo—where all is meaningless and death is the ultimate denominator. True success for the existentialist is found in a personally chosen act of defiance that rages “against the dying of the light.” We see this in the nobility given to the various choices made by the characters across the film, from Block’s dying heroism to the simple life of commoners Jof and Mia.

There is a truth that can be mined out of all this darkness. Bergman’s emphasis on true humanity over modern predilections reframes what’s important in a pandemic. At an immediate level, I realized that I had warped my view of myself into an industrialized robot, one whose only value could be found in production. As long as I felt useful, I felt successful. But if there’s anything we can learn from Bergman, it’s that there’s a value in simply being human, detached from the need to produce. Perhaps eating a bowl of strawberries, reading a good history, or simply being a part of God’s kingdom is a success in and of itself. No doubt this is underwritten through our creation in God’s image, but Bergman makes the point compellingly nonetheless. 

If this feels like death, it’s because in a way it is—of idolatry, of a shadow self, and of personal meaning. This death must take its time to work its way down. A game of chess.

But the film, unintentionally perhaps, says something even more profound. At the end of the journey and all out of chess pieces, Block distracts Death by giving his life so that an innocent family may go free. This is Block’s self-chosen defining moment, and it ends in sacrifice. The film ends as Block is led away to danse macabre, with the words “It is finished” pronounced over the whole affair.   

It was that last scene and its Christ imagery that wouldn’t leave me in the midst of our own pandemic. I think Bergman meant to mock Christ, but this reminder of John 15:13—greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends—indicted me. Here I was, safe in my home, doing nothing, and binging on television. I was doing none of my usual heroics, like working to save a marriage or walking someone through depression. Gospel logic, however, always has a way of turning things upside down. For in my uselessness, I was dying for others. In my quarantine, I was learning to live.

Doing my part means embracing my worst fear: the lack of success and productivity. If this feels like death, it’s because in a way it is—of idolatry, of a shadow self, and of personal meaning. This death must take its time to work its way down. A game of chess. 

I’m in the midst of it now, but I do get the sense that in dying to self one finds the truest success: conformity to Christ. And perhaps this gives meaning to my own personal crucible. On the other side of this journey, I hope I’ll find I’m more curious about the ways of God for me. My anxiety and anger have begun to subside too. But I can say that I finished Skyfall free of frustration that I wasn’t doing something useful or heroic. And for me, that’s something.   

Brian Mesimer
Brian Mesimer is a professional counselor in private practice and a doctoral student in counselor education. He loves to explore the intersections of philosophy, counseling, and theology, and his writing on this has appeared at various websites. He lives in Columbia, SC, with his wife, with whom he shares a passion for education.

Cover image by Jeswin Thomas.

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