The game is over

Hans Rollmann
Send to a friend

Send this article to a friend.

The chess game is over. Death has at last claimed Ingmar Bergman, who died in his home in Sweden on July 30 at age 89.

I first heard of the Swedish director when some well-intentioned, if misguided, guardians of the public morals organized a boycott of his film The Silence (1963). They were offended by the overt sexuality of the movie.

When I saw it three years later, something in it not a specific scene or line of dialogue, but something to do with its craft and intention touched me and steered me to self-examination and eventually to religious commitment.

Knightly tale

Yet what truly affected me even more was Bergmans earlier film, The Seventh Seal (1957).

The Seventh Seal is outwardly a medieval tale of a knight who, with his squire, returns home from the Crusades. A disillusioned man, Antonius Block has lost his faith because of what he has experienced. God is for him no longer an object of faith but an intellectual provocation that he can neither suppress nor affirm. The country to which he returns is struck by the plague, and we see people around him react to its horror with despair and self-condemnation.

Antonius himself meets death in a direct and personal way, as a dark-cloaked figure, whom only he can see and whose white face resembles both a clown and a skull.

Death engages the knight in a chess game over his life and soul. The knights intellectual posture is revealed throughout the game and during a confession, in which he divulges his most secret move to the deceptive reaper, who hides in the confessional.

Touring actors

Meanwhile, a theatre group tours the country, seeking to divert people from the horrors of the plague.

These traveling actors join a condemned witch, a corrupt cleric who sent the knight to the Crusades and a group of flagellants who try to appease an angry God with their self-inflicted wounds, in interacting with the knight and his tortured soul.

In this cinematic feast, two scenes speak to me, particularly one in which Antonius overcomes isolation and loneliness in his relations with others. These encounters create a constructive and even temporary gratefulness in this agonized medieval knight with a thoroughly modern sensibility and intellect.

Seeking meaningful contact and nearness to others was a life-long preoccupation for Bergman.

My entire life as an artist, he confided once to a German journalist, is the attempt to establish contact with other people, thus to leave this loneliness.

In the first of these scenes, the knight meets a medieval Mary (Mia) and Joseph (Jof) of the theatre with their Christ-child (Mikael).

Jof, a naive but irresponsible character with second sight, is just returning home from a life-and-death struggle with callous contemporaries in an inn, while the knight finds a brief repose from his inner torture when Mia welcomes him to their table in the open air.

As Jof plays the lyre, the knight takes a simple meal by drinking from a bowl of fresh milk and eating wild strawberries. As he shares table fellowship with this latter-day holy family, peace comes over him and he speaks with liturgical diction: I shall remember this moment: the silence, the twilight, the bowl of strawberries, the bowl of milk. Your faces in the evening light. Mikael asleep, Jof with his lyre. I shall try to remember our talk. I shall carry this memory carefully in my hands as if it were a bowl brimful of fresh milk. It will be a sign to me, and a great sufficiency.

Early meeting

I was reminded of this secular but profoundly human table fellowship when I first read about the only unambiguously peaceful encounter between Beothuk and Europeans.

Three hundred and ninety-five years ago, in the fall of 1612, John Guy and his men traded and shared a common meal with Beothuk near Bull Arm in Trinity Bay.

Unable to communicate with language, Englishmen and aboriginal Newfoundlanders bridged the barriers through eating together with joy and gladness.

John Guy and his men contributed bread, butter, meat, raisins and beer, while the Beothuk reciprocated with a root vegetable and a piece of smoked deer that savoured very well.

Final good deed

The other memorable scene in the film concerns a final good deed that the knight still wishes to perform before his death.

He succeeds in saving Mia, Jof, and Mikael by distracting death just long enough through a destructive chess move in which he knocks over the chess pieces while the actors and their child escape the clutches of death. Ultimately, for him, there is no escape, but in the knights compassionate action, beyond rational self-doubt and self-absorption, he achieves after all the good deed he longed to do.

I have not followed Bergman, the son of a Lutheran pastor, in leaving behind my religious past as he did. Instead, his rich, symbolic universe and his illumination of modern alienation and despair have turned me in the opposite direction, toward a renewed listening to those quiet, religious voices that speak comfort and meaning amid secular emptiness and longing, those voices that summon us to deeper community and, perhaps, to some good deeds on the way.

Hans Rollmann is a religious studies professor at Memorial University who inflicts Bergmans The Seventh Seal on his students in Rels 1021: The Apocalypse: The End Times in Thought, Action, and Imagination. He can be reached by e-mail at

Geographic location: Sweden, Trinity Bay, Lutheran

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

Thanks for voting!

Top of page