The story is set in the Dark Ages of Europe. A knight by the funny name of Antonius Block (played here by Max von Sydow) has just returned from his fruitless crusade with his squire. On his journey home, he meets many interesting characters, including Death himself.
In the establishing shot, we find ourselves on a pristine white beach, very contrasting to the dark robed figure waiting for Antonius. Antonius, not wanting to go to wherever the figure, or Death, would take him, decides to challenge Death to a game of chess. This would be the main theme of the movie: fighting Death, although Death is all around you.
This theme of death is repeated throughout the film. For example, an artist is shown painting the “Dance of Death” in a temple to remind the people of death, so they will embrace the church and its message. Bergman was a genius in the way that he depicted every single character as having a connection to death. Antonius, normally strong and brave, confesses to what he thought was a monk that he is afraid of what will happen in the next life, only to realize he had been talking to Death. Antonius embodies our fears about what will happen after death takes hold. Is there a god? Will I reach salvation? Are we doomed? Is there only emptiness afterward? All these questions are expressed throughout the film.
Now, this film isn’t entirely dark. There are some light spots. For example, there is a performing troop, including Jof and his wife, which the film also focuses. Jof is an acrobat, who tells lots of tales and sometimes sees things others don’t. In the first scene with Jof, he sees a woman hurrying by their wagon and quickly wakes up his fellow troop mates. He claims the woman was the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus, a claim which is quite ridiculous to us audience members for we actually see the woman in question and she didn’t have any baby.
Now, this troop isn’t entirely separated from the theme of Death. During a performance, they are interrupted the haunting chants of a group of Flagellants (a group of people who believed whipping themselves was the only way to get rid of sin. Think Silas from Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code). Of the leaders of this group warns the people, “We shall all Perish by the Black Death [Bubonic Plague]…this might be your hour. Death is behind your back. His scythe flashes above your heads. Which of you will he strike first? Doomed! Doomed!” Needless to say that is one of the most striking scenes in this film, minus the end of course.
This film is great for those who enjoy films focused on the philosophy of the Next world and Death. Although it was made a little more than 50 years ago, it really has held up well. Now, if you are looking for an action packed film this is not the film for you. However, if you like a thought provoking journey focused on one of the human experiences which has been wondered about for almost all time, then this for you. This isn’t one of my favorite movies, but after watching it I am glad I did. It should be watched at least once if only to say you watched it.
Note: Although this a copy-righted review, I do not own this film. It was distributed by the Swedish film AB Svensk Filmindustri. It has been released in the U.S. by Janus Films.
The blood is pulsing in my veins. The sun is still at its zenith. And I, Antonius Block, am playing chess with Death!