Existentialism exists as a result of two cultural forces :
The first, which inspired early 19th Century existential authors and thinkers such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky, was the hollowing out of traditional culture by the advances made in science and bureaucracy. A process referred to by the sociologist Max Weber as the disenchantment of the world. This rising tide of scientific thought washed away many old certainties about the meaning of life and the nature of the Universe and left behind it a beach of mere facts. This left an unexpected hollow at the centre of European cultural life and the work of the first generation of existential thinkers can be seen as an attempt to address the question of how to live with this void of meaning.
The second, which inspired 20th Century thinkers including Sartre, Camus and the Frankfurt School, was the cultural fallout from the Holocaust. If the first wave of existentialist thought was trying to grapple with the god-shaped hole at the heart of the human condition, then this second wave was an attempt to deal with humanity’s unexpected willingness to fill that hole with monsters. Indeed, far from heralding a new golden age and a dismantling of the old taboos and prejudices, the disenchanted 20th Century saw humanity choosing to surrender its new-found existential and moral freedoms to a series of psychotic deities who were more than happy to obliterate anything and anyone who stood in the way of their attempt at imposing a moral order upon an otherwise chaotic universe.
Erich Fromm attempted to understand why it was that humanity had decided to surrender its freedoms in such a shocking manner. His first book The Fear of Freedom (1941) argues that Humans find freedom to be an unpleasant experience. When the rules that bind a society start to decompose, there is initial elation but before long, people find that being merely free from impediment is not enough. They need values and boundaries that will give their lives meaning and allow them to orient themselves. This pushes societies confronted with radical freedom to seek out new ideologies that will lessen the feelings of anxiety, emptiness and isolation engendered by negative liberty.
Christopher Smith’s fourth feature film Black Death is an exploration of these kinds of themes. Set in medieval England at a time when plague and violence stalk the land, it seeks to answer the question of what it is that is so attractive about a well-ordered moral universe and why it is that humans are prepared to commit all kinds of atrocities in order to defend their beliefs even when they themselves are assailed by doubts.
Black Death is a film about worlds and it opens with a very small world indeed. Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) is a novice monk serving in a monastery near a plague-ridden town in the North of England. At the beginning of the film, he is locked in a small room. The room contains only him. He has been locked in the room because his brothers feared he may have become contaminated by the sickness. A sickness believed to be a judgement from God intended to punish humanity for its myriad sins. Osmund is swiftly let out of the room and into the slightly wider world of the convent. His existence there is devoted to alleviating the suffering of the dying and burning the frozen desiccated corpses that litter the ground like gnarled roots. Having introduced us to this world, Smith opens up a further larger world to us. One in which Osmund has a secret girlfriend named Averill (Kimberley Nixon). Averill wants Osmund to leave the monastery and follow her into the wider world, a world where they might hide from the plague and be together. But Osmund is scared to leave the monastery. It is the only world he has ever known. Eventually, Averill forces his hand by fleeing the village. Either Osmund meets her at a nearby landmark or he loses her forever. Osmund prays for guidance and a sign is sent. Osric (Sean Bean) is an envoy from the bishop who needs a guide to escort him to an isolated village. A village mysteriously free of the plague.
In a brilliant piece of visual story-telling, Smith plays the arrival or Osric as a genuinely terrifying transgression. Osmund is a young novice who has devoted his life to serving God by tending to the sick. He has never seen an armed man. For him, a man who lives by the sword is a genuinely terrifying idea. It is as though he has encountered some horrible alien, and yet Osric’s position as an envoy from the bishop prevents their worlds from being entirely incommensurate. Osric offers Osmund the chance to leave his monastery whilst remaining within his moral universe. Of course, things could never be that simple… From this point on, every fresh scene pushes at the boundaries of Osmund’s moral and conceptual universe.
We are introduced to the rest of Osric’s company. A gang of murderous cut-throats, torturers, thieves, tongueless vagabonds, rapists and hangmen who are nonetheless all good Christian souls devoted to the aim of protecting Holy Mother Church. Indeed, it turns out that Osric is not merely investigating a village free from plague, he is investigating a village that is said to be free from plague because it has cast out God and replaced him with a demonic necromancer.
At this point, the film shifts into what readers of this blog will consider familiar territory. Smith presents the voyage through Northern England as a Heart of Darkness-style voyage out of civilisation and into the great beyond. As with Apocalypse Now (1979) and Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972), Smith turns an amble through the countryside into a deconstruction of the human soul: Best friends turn on each other, holy men murder innocents and true love is reduced to a pile of bloodied rags on frosted ground. This slowly encroaching tide of violence rises and rises again until it engulfs the entire group in a set-piece action sequence of such unparalleled cinematic savagery that it makes the Normandy landings in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) look like Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan gently flirting over a cup of coffee.
Half mad with terror, the group eventually arrive at the village and find it to be an idyllic place. An idyllic but godless place. In an apparent response to Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973), the village’s wealth and protection from pestilence seems to flow from its willingness to place itself under the protection of the ethereal wise woman Langiva (Carice van Houten). In another brilliant move, Dario Pollini’s script present Langiva as a kind of sympathy trap.
The film’s first two acts demonstrate that it is possible to be both violently psychotic and a useful and devoted member of the Church and the third act begins by presenting us with an obvious victim for these vicious zealots. Langiva is everything you would expect from a victim of medieval theocratic patriarchy: She is a beautiful single woman, she has political power, she is an atheist and she is a wise woman. Everything about her suggests that she will be Osric’s victim and that, regardless of her apparently benign role in the village, Osric will either murder her or drag her back to the Bishop in chains. However, having made it abundantly clear that Osric is a savagely transgressive figure, the film suddenly shifts directions and renders him sympathetic. This is where the meat of the film lies.
Before long, Langiva is revealed to be no simple victim. Not only is her role in the village’s resistance to plague highly questionable but the village seems to pay an astonishingly high cost for her ‘protection’. As she sets about trying to extract renunciations from Osric’s men, it soon becomes clear that her aim is not to save the village but to exact vengeance upon the faithful for crimes committed against her in the past. As Osric’s men cower in a pit of ice cold water, the power and beauty of their faith suddenly emerges:
These are men who have seen and done terrible things, they have murdered and raped their way around Europe. But these are also men who are the products of their environment. They exist in a pitiless world where death is eternally imminent and man has little control over who he will become and what he will be forced to do. Faith serves to keep these men sane. By cloaking themselves in belief, the atrocities they have been forced into by fate and circumstance make sense. They are sinners, wretched sinners and they are nowhere close to being the men that they could have been, but through Faith there is a chance that their lives will make sense. By providing a meaning to their lives, Faith ensures that these men need not fear death as death would come as a release. Release from a life of misery and violence. Release from a life where nothing makes sense. By asking these men to renounce their Faith, Langiva is effectively trying to strip them of the only thing they possess: a place in the world. Osric’s men are vicious and fearless killers, but in that water-filled pit they experience true terror. Terror at the prospect of a meaningless end to a meaningless life.
This vision of Faith as a shield against the forces of existential entropy also underpins Chris Morris’ Four Lions (2010). In that work, a group of young British Muslims attempt to blow themselves up in a way that will give their lives meaning and so allow them to escape the spiritual emptiness of 21st Century life. The ending of Four Lions is intensely moving as the suicide bombers’ plot unravels and the final suicide bomber is forced to blow himself up in a chemist’s. Far from being a heroic attack upon a venal and morally bankrupt West, his self-immolation turns out to be nothing more than a misogynistic attack upon “slags” buying condoms and morning after pills.
For these violent men, Faith serves not as a source of moral vindication but of psychological context. Their rejection of existential freedom is not the cowardly retreat into authoritarianism characterised by the likes of Fromm and Sartre, instead it is a heroic attempt to force some kind of order onto the chaos of existence. To build a barrier against the tide of entropy using only the bricks and mortar of the human will and spirit. For these men, Faith is not an act of capitulation but an act of resistance. It is a way of shouting into the howling void at the centre of the universe that “MY LIFE MAKES SENSE!”.
A similar point was made by the critic Terry Eagleton in his LRB review of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (2006) :
“He is the source of our self-determination, not the erasure of it. To be dependent on him, as to be dependent on our friends, is a matter of freedom and fulfilment.”
Black Death ultimately attempts to frame Faith and the desire to exist within a morally ordered universe in very straight-forward human terms. Osric, like Langiva exist within the confines of a vindictive world-view fed by their sense of betrayal and anger over people they have lost. Osric speaks with some bitterness about a dead wife and child while Langiva speaks of losing her ‘man’. The end of the film returns our attention to the young monk Osmund. Having shredded his sense of self and his ideas about the universe, the film skips forward to show us Osmund as a grown man. A man filled with bitterness. A man filled with anger over the people he has lost. A man determined to find those who have wronged him in the face of every innocent he condemns. Of course Faith is a shield, and a beautiful one at that, but it can also provide you with a sword, for while it is heroic to impose a moral order upon your own universe, to seek to impose one upon those of others is detestable. We must all deal with the infinite in our own terms, this is the message of Black Death.