I knew of this film before. I’d never seen it, but knew one of the basic plot points – a medieval knight engaged in an ongoing chess game with Death – because it’s been a frequent subject of parody. What I didn’t expect is for this film itself to have moments of comedy.
The knight in question, Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) is newly back in Sweden, home from one of the Crusades, and has come to find that the Great Plague is in full force. In fact, Death (Bengt Ekerot) has come to claim him and his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand, who we last saw star in Bergman’s Smiles Of A Summer Night) as soon as they’ve landed ashore, and Block’s chess challenge is his effort to save them both. For Block is having a military veteran’s crisis of conscience; the battle was pointless, he feels, and he’s now wondering if his whole life has been similarly pointless. He wants to buy the time to do one “meaningful deed” before he dies.
Block and Jöns encounter some more colorful characters as they travel – a pair of acrobats (Nils Poppe and Bibi Andersson) traveling with their infant son, a mute girl (Gunnel Lindblom) whom Jöns rescues from an assault, a mad woman (Maud Hansson) condemned to burn for witchcraft, a whole parade of flagellants. Jöns drafts the girl into his own service, and Block offers the acrobats shelter in his castle after they share a simple picnic breakfast with him. But with each new member of their party, Death returns to warn Block that he can just as easily take them too if Block loses their game. Finally, when Block is nearly beaten, he figures out a way to do the “one meaningful deed” he wanted to do – albeit in a much quieter way than he thought he would.
The worst thing I can think to say about the film is that the characters feel a little “modern” for a medieval period piece. There’s a scene with Block confessing to a figure he thinks is a priest (I’m being vague on purpose), but his confession sounds far more like he’s talking to a therapist about an existential crisis. The acrobats, Jof and Mia, look a little underdressed for medieval Sweden – and I don’t mean in the style sense, either; Mia spends most of the film in a sleeveless top and skirt, which in the Middle Ages would have been underwear. Jöns is the most modern – he’s an atheist cynic, who has a whole extended scene where he takes a muralist in a church to task for feeding into the kind of religious fervor that spurred on the Crusades in the first place. These are not medieval characters – these are modern characters in a sort of existential Renaissance Faire.
But honestly, I didn’t care, because the characters are also engaging. Mia and Jof come across as friendly hippies, almost – easily delighted by wild strawberries and happy to share their bounty with the weary Block. They aren’t intimidated by him in the slightest – on the contrary, they’re all too happy to welcome him to their picnic. And Jöns’ cynicism lead to one of the funnier sequences, when he is eavesdropping on a group of people having an argument and ends up coaching one of the quarrelers on how to deliver some particularly juicy insults. Block was possibly the least interesting character – he spent most of the film in a state of angst and seemed boring compared to the lively Mia or Jöns. Granted, he had reason to, but.
The film also just plain looks gorgeous, with several scenes taking place out in the open amid stunningly rocky beaches, sun-dappled meadows, and big open skies. Bergman also borrowed heavily from medieval art for his imagery – the notion of Death playing chess with a victim was based on an image he saw in a Stockholm church, and the film’s final sequence owes an homage to the Danse Macabre, a popular motif in medieval artwork in which Death leads a whole parade of newly-dead in a dance off to the netherworld.
Speaking of that final dance – there’s a funny story Bergman later shared in his autobiography. They’d just about wrapped filming for the day at a nature preserve, and the actors had all gone home, but a big heavy cloud formed behind a hill that Bergman thought would serve as a perfect backdrop for that scene. So he quickly rounded up a bunch of the tech crew – makeup artists, electricians, his assistant director – and even drafted a couple of bewildered hikers into the fray, shoving them all into costumes and sending them up the hill so he could film that sequence before the cloud broke up. I find myself wondering whether the hikers ever saw this film and learned what that was all about.