Cheating Death: The anti-logic of the chess match in The Seventh Seal

Ingmar Bergman had one of the longest and most distinguished carreers in the history of cinema. Three time winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, along with nominations for Best Original Screenplay, Director and Picture, and a host of other prizes. And yet, if you asked the population about Bergman’s cinema, there would be one thing that everyone would point to: the iconic chess game played against Antonius Block and Death in The Seventh Seal.

While the game in fact takes up only a minor portion of the film, it is introduced in the very first scene, and as such establishes itself as the central act in the story. At the beginning of the game, Antonius plays by the rules. He tries to outwit Death by a combination of Bishop and Knight, which apparantly Death overlooks. However, he is himself outwitted, as Death poses as his confessor and gets him to explain his strategy, thereby causing it to fail. Even after this happens, in the next chess-scene, Antonius seems pleased that he is playing with death, and even manages to check his grim opponent. However, Death starts asking questions about Antonius’ recently found followers, the actor Jof and his family, causing the knight to realize that he is playing a game he will never win, one that could take other people down with him. In the climax of the game, he tries what seems like a desperate maneuver, turning over several pieces, and claiming he has forgotten where they stood. Death seems pleased, easily recalling the placements, and happy in the knowledge he is frightening his opponent so much as to resort to pathetic and desperate moves. However, Antonius smiles. While his ruse didn’t set himself free, it caused Death to lose his focus on the sorroundings, allowing Jof and his family to escape. After this, Death quickly checkmates Antonius, and at the end of the film takes him and a host of other characters away, while Jof watches them from a distance.

Why does this sequence speak so directly to people, that it has become one of the most iconic in cinematic history? The notion of Mans relation to Death or Destiny as an unwinnable game is probably as old as gaming itself, and it pops up in several other contemporary films well. In Resnais’ famous Last Year in Marienbad, one of the key features of the mysterious second man ‘M’ is that he is seemingly unbeatable in a weird game involving matchsticks. M is not only winning, he is also always right: seemingly unbeatable in a weird game involving matchsticks. M is not only winning, he is also always right: When the central couple in the film is playfully discussing what a statue is depicting, it is M that dryly states what the actual intentions behind the statue is. In this way, we could say that truth wins out in a game against fantasy. Or we could call it reason winning against myth. This battle, reason against some kind of anti-reason, myth or fantasy, is central to The Seventh Seal as well, as it is to Bergman’s films in general. That is, if we dub this anti-reason ‘Religion’. Reason against anti-reason was also one of the central questions of the second half of the twentieth century, especially in the intellectual movements often grouped together under the term post-modernism.

The French thinker Jean-Francais Lyotard, who wrote the book ‘The Post-Modern Condition’, wrote a lot about games as central to the way humans interact with each other. As he saw it, there were two different kinds of original ‘moves’ people could choose in their lives. One was Innovation, new moves taken from inside the rules of the games. The other kind he called Paralogy, after the greek words Para – beside, past, beyond – and Logos – reason. This is the kind of moves that doesn’t belong in the game. If we now move back to the chess game between Antonius and Death, we find that the knight first tries to beat his opponent through innovation, a combination Death doesn’t know of. However, innovation cannot win the game. Only a move from beside the rules of the game – knocking the pieces over – will allow for a small win, letting a few innocent people escape for a little while.

As such, the film does actually conclude with Block cheating Death in the tiniest of ways, and therefore could be said to have a small inkling of a happy ending. However, the tragedy of the film remains the fact that there is one, big Paralogic chess-move, that remains un-takeble for the characters in the film: Faith. ‘No man can live faced with Death, knowing everything’s nothingness […] We must make an idol of our fear, and that idol we shall call God’ as Antonius states in his confession. Religion is the Paralogical, anti-reasonable chess-move par excellence. The tragedy of Antonius Block, as for so many of Bergman’s characters, is that they are unable to make this move. Bound to a game of reason, they are unable to realize that the rules are rigged anyway, and that they should make their moves according the logic or anti-logic that would give the best outcome, be it art, imagination, faith, etc. Which in a way sounds so perfectly simple, but as people keep being compelled by the agony of Antonius Block, we are shown how hard Paralogy is in practice.

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