Plague and The Apocalypse. That’s what we all want to think about in our current situation, right? Sadly, truth be told, we can’t escape where our thoughts lead. The first movie I thought of, as this situation hovered in the back of my mind (well, after I thought about both The Andromeda Strain and I am Legend), was the award-winning and unforgettable film, The Seventh Seal by Swedish director Ingmar Bergman.
I first encountered the film years ago when I was preparing the curriculum for a church youth group retreat on the topic of death (heh, goth stuff was “in” in those days for teens!). As I looked for the figure of Death in literature and scripture, certain themes kept reappearing that had appeal. Death playing a game of chess with his intended victim, and The Danse Macabre. Both of these themes are prevalent in the film The Seventh Seal.
The film focuses on the crisis of faith that a returning Crusader experiences as he encounters plagues and religious extremism. I chose the film precisely because I had a number of intellectually curious older teens in my group and the faith questions which tormented the knight were issues still prevalent for intellectuals today.
One of the main characters in the 1957 film is Death. He approaches the knight to let him know his time has come. But the knight challenges him to a game of chess, knowing he can stave off death for a short time during which he hopes to find answers to his questions about the existence of God. The personification of Death playing chess is a common theme in art and literature. Even popular culture makes use of the image when Bill and Ted encounter Death in Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey. The title pair beat Death at a variety of board games like Battleship and Twister and he becomes their companion for the remainder of the film.
Another familiar archetype on the film is the Danse Macabre. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia "The Danse Macabre consists of the dead or a personification of death summoning representatives from all walks of life to dance along to the grave, typically with a pope, emperor, king, child, and laborer. It was produced as memento mori, to remind people of the fragility of their lives and how vain were the glories of earthly life."