Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Playing chess with Death

I haven't seen The Seventh Seal, or at least not the whole way through: I fell asleep the one time I starting watching it on TV, something attributable to the lateness of the hour rather than any inadequacy of the film. But I've seen the sequence where the knight meets Death and challenges him to a game of chess, though I don't know how the game goes or what happens in the end, either in the game or in the film. I'd imagine that it was by some distance the most famous depiction of chess in the history of cinema: and when Ingmar Bergman died I located the sequence and watched it again.

One cannot be a chessplayer and watch the sequence as if one were not. To most viewers the role of chess would be incidental - or rather, functional, the game serving a role in the plot (to prolong the life of the knight and to offer the possiblity that he may escape his fate) and symbolic (the game itself representing the human struggle against difficulty and death). One sees all this, of course, but as a chessplayer one also watches for what light the film may cast on chess. It's impossible to avoid and no doubt it skews your perspective - I even found myself assuming, as the knight searched in his bag, that he was trying to locate a piece missing from his set - but it's not wholly a bad thing. One's understanding can surely be greater if one possesses greater knowledge: it must surely be useful to the critical appreciation of the film if some viewers, at least, come at it from a perspective that is different but is relevant.

Watch the sequence, as a chessplayer or otherwise: it begins with a quote from the Book of Revelation.
And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.

The clouds, the bird, the shore: all these not only make a lasting impression, but put one in mind of that other great film of death and chess, A Matter Of Life And Death, in which David Niven, after baling out of his burning aircraft (his radio conversation with Kim Hunter, before he jumps, is almost impossibly sentimental and moving) is "missed in the fog" by Marius Göring, the envoy charged with taking him to the next world. He finds himself, like the knight, awake on a beach: and the plot of the film subsequently revolves around the question of whether Niven should live, whether he should accompany the envoy or escape back to the world we know.

I've no reason to think that Bergman was influenced by the movie when he made The Seventh Seal: but I can't see Bergman's sequence without thinking of Powell and Pressburger. (Or, indeed, of Roger Corman, whose Masque of the Red Death, in which Death appears at the end, was influenced by Bergman.) Nor can I see the sequence without thinking about chess, perhaps rather more than the filmmaker intended. It is the dialogue between the knight and Death which interests me most:
Who are you?

I am Death.

You have come for me?

I have been at your side for a long time.

I know.

Are you prepared?

My flesh is afraid but I am not......wait a moment.

You all say that. But I give no respite.

You play chess, do you not?

How do you know that?

I have seen it in paintings.

Yes, I am quite a skillful player.

But no more so than I.

Why do you wish to play chess with me?

That's my concern.

You're quite right.

As long as I resist you, I live....if I win, you set me free. Black for you!

It becomes me well.
I like the way in which Death, asked about his chess by a stranger, gives much the same answer we might - albeit a little more confident, a little more boastful than "not bad". More like "yes, I'm quite good actually", for Death, after all, has no need to appear modest in anyone. But, having made a claim, he finds himself obliged to back it up - go on then, prove it! Or perhaps he is just unable to turn down a game when he is offered one, and he would not be alone in that. Moreover, he does think himself too good to have any fears about the result and perhaps he is not wrong, because he is Death. Fear is for those who come across him.

I wondered, when watching, what paintings the knight might refer to, since I could think of none and because the Crusades, from one of which the knight is returning, almost entirely predate the development in Europe of the art of painting. It is, certainly, an anachronism, though not an important one (the film not being an exact replication of any given era and the symbolism being rather more important than the reality). Wikipedia tells me that Bergman did, in fact, have a particular painting in mind. Death and chess together. Chess the choice of Death.

Should we object to the connection between chess and death? Perhaps not. There can't be many of us who have not wondered, perhaps often, whether chess is a questionable, perhaps even a harmful thing in which to be involved. Something strange, something unhealthy in nature and form. We wonder whether we should not be doing something more constructive, whether chessplayers are not introverts by nature, people who prefer to stay inside and look inside their own heads rather than go outside and make themselves part of the lives of others. As children, we should have been playing in the fresh air: as adults, we are formed, hampered, maybe even crippled by the choices we made as children. On this view, chess is unhealthy: it is about our fear of life, our fear of other people.

But perhaps, in the knight's struggle with Death, there is another view: that chess is, in one way or another, a source and symbol of life. It is about the activity of the mind, about the desire to struggle - rather than say that this is all too difficult and we would rather give up. However tough and relentless our opponent, when the game begins we have the same chances that they have. It doesn't just represent symbolically the struggle against difficulty: in some ways it can constitute it, too.

So we try and elude them, we try to keep thinking, we try to keep going, we try to stay alive. As hard as we can and for as long as we can. Even though, in the end, we are far more likely than they to be lost in the fog.


Anonymous said...

Justin: "I've seen the sequence where the knight meets Death and challenges him to a game of chess, though I don't know how the game goes or what happens in the end ..."

I've not seen the film either but my experience suggests that death always wins in the end.

ejh said...

There are some stills from A Matter of Life And Death here under its US title. Other chess reference include several mentions of Phiildor by Marius Göring and at some point I'm sure either Niven or Roger Livesey is seen reading a Best Games collection - but I can't remember whose!

Anonymous said...