knight playing chess with Death.
movie, from 1957, is Ingar Bergman's greatest film, and considered
by many to be one of the greatest films of all time.
The story is about a knight returning
home from the crusades. He finds the land ravaged by plague and
religious fanatics. On his journey, he is visited by Death, who
agrees to let the knight live if he can beat him at a game of chess.
The following is taken from the script
where the knight mistakenly thinks he is confessing to a priest,
but it is Death who is listening. It expresses the existential struggle
of this knight searching for truth.
I want to confess, as best I can, but my heart is void. The void
is a mirror. I see my face, and feel loathing and horror. My indifference
to men has shut me out. I live now in a world of ghosts, a prisoner
in my dreams.
Yet you do not want to die.
Yes I do.
What are you waiting for?
You want a guarantee?
Call it what you will. Is it so hard to conceive of God with one's
senses? Why must He hide in a mist of vague promises and invisible
miracles? How are we to believe the believers when we don't believe
ourselves? What will become of us who want to believe, but cannot?
And what of those who neither will nor can believe? Why can I not
kill God within me? Why does He go on living in a painful, humiliating
way? I want to tear Him out of my heart. But He remains a mocking
reality which I cannot get rid of. I want knowledge. Not belief.
Not surmise. But knowledge. I want God to put out His hand, show
His face, speak to me. But He is silent. I cry to Him in the dark,
but there seems to be no one there.
Perhaps there is no one there.
Then life is a senseless terror. No man can live with Death and
know that everything is [for] nothing.
Most people think neither of Death nor nothingness.
Until they stand on the edge of life, and see the Darkness.
Ah, that day.
I see. We must make an idol of our fear, and call it God.
You are uneasy.
Death visited me this morning. We are playing chess. This respite
enables me to perform a vital errand.
My whole life has been a meaningless search. I say it without bitterness
or self-reproach. I know it is the same for all. But I want to use
my respite for one significant action.
So you play chess with Death?
He is a skillful tactician, but I have not yet lost one piece.
How can you outwit Death?
By a combination of bishop and knight, I will break his flank.
I shall remember that
tries to pray along the seaside, but is unable to. He is troubled
by the requirements of faith. Although he has gone to the Holy Land
to fight in the Crusade for God, all he saw there was death and
injustice, and men of twisted faith. He asks himself, "where
is God? What is the meaning of existence without Him? Where can
I find any sense to life?" He is an idealist who is troubled.
He is no longer set in the ideals given to him, but questions everything
to find a greater truth. What troubled him most is that there seems
to be no idealized truth to grasp onto, and this leaves him searching
The squire is more down to earth,
the disenchanted intellectual who demands that everyone else see
the world from his disenchantment. He has not only lost his ideals
(if he ever had them), but lost the desire to find something greater
than what he sees. He is the existentialist. Basically he resents
his station, that of serving the more idealistic knight.
Death accepts the challenge of playing
the game of chess, giving the knight a chance to continue search
for God, and dedicate his life to doing one good act. One wonders
if we are not all playing chess with Death, postponing the inevitable,
which might be waiting for us around the next corner.
The married couple, the actors, represent
a healthy relationship, despite their obvious hardships. They love
each other, and their son. The father tells his wife that their
son will be a great acrobat, that he will accomplish the incredible
(keeping the ball suspended in mid-air). He then explains that the
trick would be impossible for him or his wife, but not necessarily
for Mikael. In this statement, he expresses hope for the future,
and disavows limitations on the next generation. There is a simple
idealism expressed in this. We live and then we die, allowing evolution
to produce something better. We should facilitate this process.
That the actor sees visions suggests that he is in tune with his
own mystical experiences, which transcends the rituals of religion.
The squire has great disrespect for
priests, whom he sees as taking advantage of common people, using
fear as a tool. He degrades those religious idealists who created
the idea of a Holy Crusade. The thought of religious fanatics beating
themselves out of repentance frightens him.
The man who steals from the dead was
previously a student of theology who proselytized going to the Crusade.
He is now a thief, and attempts to rape the woman who discovers
his treachery. The squire believes that this is the natural progression
of religious leaders. The man belittles and threatens the actor,
hating him for his simple authenticity. He later dies of the plague.
The burning of the witch demonstrates
how our belief in God and angels and the devil are ultimately based
on nothing we can see or touch. There is life, and there is death.
The witch who believes in the devil is obviously insane. Are the
priests who condemn her, and the soldiers who kill her much different?
The knight experiences anguish at her death, as the squire points
out that only emptiness awaits her.
The actor who has the affair with
the blacksmith's wife feigns his own death. Before stabbing himself
with the fake knife, he states that he will leave the unreality
of his life, and take on the reality of a corpse. This is a powerful
statement of existential thought. The living person is not static;
he is always creating himself, with every choice and direction that
he takes. This is likened to "unreality." The dead corpse
is, in comparison, a fixed object, without conscious potential.
It's reality does not change. It is dead, not alive.
The knight distracts Death long enough
for the married couple to escape. This is his good deed, and the
answer to what he was looking for. Our purpose is to preserve life
for the future. Other than that, we cannot be sure of anything.
Even Death seems pleased by the knight's pleasure. The knight asks
Death for what he knows about the mysteries of life. Death can tell
him nothing. It appears that Death is more of a reality than God.
The ending is very interesting. Everyone
dies, except for the couple and their baby, who have escaped. The
knight begs his unseen God for mercy, while the squire complains
that he is wasting his breath. They both die, but who is the one
who contributed the most to life? It is the discouraged idealist
who seeks for truth. His life had more meaning in that he saved
the lives of others.