I read The Bible for Dummies recently. Having been an atheist my whole life, I felt like I was missing a lot of references when absorbing even non-religious bits of Euro and American culture, so I wanted a clue on some of the bigger points, like Who was this John the Baptist that kept on showing up in Renaissance painting? That said, I wasn’t about to read the entire Bible just so I would have an idea of who John the Baptist was, so for the time being I settled for the Dummies version.
Anyway, what struck me, as a reader with next to no knowledge of the Bible, was how often God appears to have opinions, attitudes, and some semblance of a personality. I didn’t realize that so many Biblical stories had God bargaining and talking directly with people, making specific demands and taking specific requests. It feels like a far cry from the version of God that I imagine when I do imagine one; the way I conjure Him up, He’s a nebulous, possibly immaterial force, deeply unknowable and even kind of alien to the inanities of human existence. But between the traffic-cone yellow covers of my Biblical executive summary, I found a God that seemed a lot more concrete and immediate than what I had dreamt up on my own.
This all came to mind as I watched The Seventh Seal this weekend. Ingmar Bergman’s classic has as its center a Crusading knight, Antonius Block, who discovers one day on a rocky beach that Death will be harvesting his soul in the near future. The unfortunate news comes from a personification of Death himself, and not one that appears as a ghostly, ethereal spirit barely able to communicate on this plane of existence. This Death is dressed like a monk, sure, but he has a surprising affinity for earthly pass times like playing chess and messing with people’s heads.
One scene in particular makes the incarnation of Death a undeniably present entity, and, at the same time fools with the sense of solidity in other, ostensibly more real phenomena. The scene is well into the movie, at a point where Death is already established as a sort of character mucking around in Block’s life, though we haven’t seen him interact with anyone else yet. Still, to put Death’s significance in context, you have to know a little about the scene that comes right before Death actually appears.
Block’s band of travelers has opted to go through the forest; their most recent addition is Plog, the big bearded blacksmith whose wife Lisa has run off with an actor, Skat. As the sequence begins, the runaway couple are unlucky enough to cross Plog’s path. The acerbic squire, Jöns, observes their confrontation at a bit of a remove from behind Plog:
Jöns chimes in, becoming a Cyrano de Bergerac of insults, feeding Plog lines and nodding approvingly when the oaf delivers them well:
Okay, so by now we know the scene is being played for laughs, and Jöns moves over to the wagon, where Jof and Mia are, and makes a comment to them that implicitly compares Plog and Skat to apes. (Maybe coincidentally, the names “Plog” and “Skat” sound little sophisticated in English.)
Now Lisa snuggles up to Plog and tries to talk her way out of her flagrant infidelities. Again with the ironic detachment, Jöns glibly and accurately predicts what tactics Lisa will use:
What I notice here is that though Jöns is speaking just a few feet from Lisa and Plog, they don’t seem to hear him. Jöns and Jof are effectively chatty theatergoers in this scene, outside of the action and apparently invisible to the main players. They are almost spectators, technically in the scene but not of the scene.
A moment later, and rather surprisingly, Skat begins arguing for his own murder. Continuing the comical tone, Plog now refuses to take revenge on Skat if the actor isn’t putting up a fight. So, instead, Skat stabs himself and seems to die. To comedic effect, Plog begins to lightly regret the death of his recent rival, but we see Jof explaining the gag to Jöns: It’s a fake knife that Skat stabs himself with.
Having pulled off the ruse and left alone, Skat gets up and decides to climb a tree to protect himself from creatures of the forest and ghosts. And yet, now Death arrives and starts cutting down his tree.
Skat begins asking about various exceptions that might be applied to him. He seems hysterically, understandably so, but his line of reasoning is humorous, as though he were trying out punchlines about he can’t die because he’s still under contract. It’s a kind of gallows humor, with Death playing the straight man, although the joke is really on the actor. This is maybe Death’s most human moment, since you have the sense that maybe he takes pleasure in rejecting the actor’s inquiries. He almost likes his job, this Death, which explains why he might be, in Gary Giddins’ excellent phrase, “the hardest-working man in eschatology.”
It also occurs to me that Death himself is the cause of death here; when the tree finally comes down, we’re spared the actual physical death of Skat, but we do see how completely unnatural the fall of the tree is:
And this is the point I really want to make: Death is maybe the least immaterial thing in the forest scene. This is an especially funny way for Death to be, I think. If we take our own existence to be a story, then Death could be thought of as the border between the subjective experiences that make up our story and the entirety of the “offstage” part of existence, the hereafter. If anything should be invisible, it ought to be the blackness (and maybe blankness) of Death.
But Death in The Seventh Seal is a “scurvy knave” that finishes a man off by hand. Then, for good contrast, in the scene leading up to that, a real-live person, Jöns, is treated by the movie like an off-screen commentator, serving up irony and observations that feel like the spectators’ own. This is how Bergman muddles — beautifully! incisively! wonderfully! — the line between what is present and concrete before us and what is intangible, distant, and out of our consciousness.