I watched this film for the first time on Ash Wednesday. In the context of the present pandemic and its deadly effect on our lives, it is all the more compelling to view this film at this time. Also, as any good Catholic on that day, I was hungry, hoping to kill time until I could eat a hamburger or something. The Black Death served as part of the setting, and even as we are thankful that the present crisis is not of the magnitude as that, it was hard not to notice the existential dread, and to recognize that we are living with it, just as these characters were.
I am not a critic of either films, or popular music, in any meaningful sense. However, popular culture does often influence the way we think about life and its meaning. Indeed, we may be more influenced by the tides of popular culture than we care to admit. Still, examining the things we enjoy, and the cultural context in which we find them, is often profitable. An older film like this gives us a time capsule of sorts, to step back, so to speak, into a time when we took so many things concerning meaning and values for granted. We may even find the pieces of a shattered culture, which possibly may be reassembled at a future time.
In any case, this film increased Ingmar Bergman’s notoriety, as well as that of its star, Max von Sydow. Von Sydow of course would become known even more by American audiences for his portrayal of Jesus, in “The Greatest Story Ever Told” (1965). We lost Max von Sydow just a short time ago, but he was widely celebrated, and rightly so, for performances in numerous and varied roles.
In this film, he plays Antonius Block, a Swedish knight returning after going on a crusade in the 14th century. This is a bit anachronistic, but it is an interesting premise, which will be joined by an even more interesting story fulcrum. Block is soon joined by the person of Death, who has come to claim him. There is an intriguing element immediately, as the conversation proceeds, because Block— though weary of life, and of himself— is not ready to go. It is vaguely reminiscent of Abram’s intercessions on behalf of the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah: Block hopes to divert Death with conversation. Recalling that Death is portrayed in art as playing chess, Antonius Block invites him to have a game. If Block wins, he lives; if Death wins, he dies. With that, they begin to play.
Block has begun to consider that his life has been a waste, having now become aware that no matter the outcome, his time is very limited. Block himself is haunted by his faithlessness, and his lack of concern for others. He wants to do one meaningful act before his death. Interestingly, he discloses all this during the celebration of the Catholic sacrament of Reconciliation, also known as Penance, or Confession. It is odd as confessions go, because he does not follow the strict instructions given to penitents receiving the sacrament from time immemorial: declare only the number and kind of one’s sins since one’s last confession, and only offer explanations when asked to do so by the priest. Even so, we will allow Bergman his artistic license.
In any case, Block does not know that his confessor is Death himself. It offers us an opportunity to hear the nature of Antonius Block’s struggle with faith. He seems to want to understand God through his human senses. Why can God not reveal Himself plainly and obviously to him, such that faith would be a straightforward matter? For me though, this brought up an interesting philosophical and theological point of contention: just how accessible to unaided human reason is particular knowledge of God?
On the one hand, if the contents of divine revelation— for example, in the Bible— were readily apparent to reason, they would not be in a sense, supernatural. On the other hand, if all possible knowledge of God were inaccessible to human reason, then faith in God would be unreasonable, completely reliant on a fideistic appeal to some sort of supernatural authority. There is another interesting aspect of Antonius Block’s story: he’s not sure he’s able to believe, but he is unable to fully embrace unbelief. His awareness of God’s presence in the inner rooms of his soul feels like a mocking, an unwelcome reminder of his deficient piety, or his unprincipled attempts at atheism.
The other most crucial character for our purposes is the squire, Jons. Going forward, I’ll just refer to him as “J”. J is an open cynic, and atheist. He is loyal to Block, but Bergman in a sense offers J as a way to look at the same elements in the story through atheist lenses. The behavior of characters acting upon the dictates of Church teaching and the relevant Church authorities, is either completely intelligible in a Christian context, or a fearful panic response, in the face of the certainty of death. The brilliance of Bergman is that he can sketch all this out for us without telling us how to feel or think. I could recognize through J’s eyes elements of moral panic in the face of existential dread. On the other hand, I could see myself through the eyes of the more pious characters, for whom death is a tragedy, but not a hopeless one.
Returning to the philosophical questions, it seems to me that Søren Kierkegaard, and his “leap of faith,” is at the forefront of the way that Block will frame his crisis. It seemed to me anyway that Bergman resolves the theological tension between reason and unreason heavily in favor of faith-apart-from-reason. There is no sense in which Antonius Block’s quest for human sight concerning the things of God is prideful, if understandable. We are not offered another way to resolve the tension.
On the other hand, for all his struggling, Antonius Block falls back upon faith, in the crucial climactic moments of the story. The mute servant girl demonstrates unreserved piety, expressed in a most unexpected way. And that piety is not mocked, or shown to be the fruit of panic, but the logical consequence of living and believing in a true reality governed by Christ.
Finally, what I find most intriguing about both Block and J are the unexpected moments of compassion and wisdom, from two men who claim neither to possess, or to desire, either one. I felt I was invited to consider Jesus’s admonition not to judge by appearances.
In any case, the reverence for this thought-provoking classic is well-deserved. I find myself wanting to watch it repeatedly, to think about particular scenes and lines in greater detail. I believe you will be blessed by a viewing of this film, especially if you have not seen it in a long time, or have never seen it.
Jason Kettinger is Associate Editor of Open for Business. He writes on politics, sports, faith and more.