Ingmar Berman adapted his own play and directed this allegorical tale of a crusading knight who plays chess with Death during the Black Plague.
About 1350 the knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) and his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) have returned to Sweden from the Crusades. On a rocky shore Block is quoting the book of Revelations about the angel opening the seventh seal as he lies down next to a chessboard. Jöns is sleeping nearby. Block walks to the ocean and rinses off his face. He kneels and prays for a moment.
At dawn Death (Bengt Ekerot) appears and tells Block that he has been at his side for a long time. Block admits his body is afraid, but he is not. Death approaches him, and Block asks him to wait and says he knows he plays chess from having seen paintings. They both claim to be skillful players and sit down to play the game. Block says as long as he resists in the game, Death will hold off, and if he wins, he says he will be set free. Death nods and is assigned the black pieces.
Block walks by Jöns who sees him and gets up. They get on their horses and walk them. Jon follows behind and sings. He says there have been omens, and two horses have devoured each other. Graves are open, and bones are laying around. Four suns were in the sky. They stop, and Jöns finds a caped figure is only a skeleton. Block asks what he said, and Jöns says he was eloquent but very gloomy.
They see a covered wagon, and inside three people are sleeping. Jof (Nils Poppe)
wakes up and climbs out. He exercises and gargles some water hanging from a tree in a skin. He looks behind him and sees a crowned woman walking with a small child. Jof goes back in the wagon and wakes up his wife Mia (Bibi Andersson). He says he saw a real vision of the Virgin Mary in a blue robe. She was teaching her child to walk. Jof says he had tears in his eyes during a great silence. Mia says he makes things up. She says this is like the devil painting their wheels red and warns him not to be taken for a fool. He says it is not his fault if he sees visions. Jonas Skat (Erik Strandmark) wakes up and complains he is not allowed to sleep in the morning. He asks them to shut up. They hear a baby cry, and Mia takes the child in her arms. She puts the child down on the ground, and Jof talks about a juggling trick and embraces Mia. He says he wrote a song and asks if she wants to hear it. She does, and he sings. She wants to sleep some more. Skat comes out wearing a mask of a skull, and Jof says it is how an actor portrays Death. Jof juggles balls and asks when they are going to play. Skat says they will play in Elsinore on the church steps at the Saint’s Festival. Jof suggests they play something bawdy that is more popular. Skat says the plague is stalking the land. He says he is the director and puts on the Death mask, saying their day is short. He wonders if the women will like him looking like that and goes back in the wagon, and Jof and Mia laugh.
Block and Jöns arrive at a small church and dismount. Jöns goes inside and sees a man painting a mural and asks what it is. The painter Albertus Pictor (Gunnar Olsson) says it is to remind people of Death. Jöns says that won’t make them happier. Pictor says he will scare them and that a skull is more interesting than a naked woman. Jöns says they will fall into the arms of priests. Pictor says he paints life as he sees it. Jöns says it will make people angry. Pictor says he will paint something funny. Pictor mentions the plague and shows how it affects people and describes their agony. People believe that God is punishing them with the plague. Pictor says it is horrible, and Jöns asks for some gin.
Block is praying before a crucifix and sees someone behind a barred window. Block says his indifference to men has shut him out. Death says he wants to die, but Block says he wants knowledge. He says it is hard to understand God with one’s senses and asks why He hides in vague promises. He wonders what will become of those who want to believe but cannot. He asks why he cannot kill the God within him. He wants to tear him out of his heart, but He remains as a mocking reality he can’t get rid of. Death hears him, and Block says he wants knowledge, not belief. He wants to see God and have Him speak to him, but he does not. Death says maybe nothing is there. Block says no man can live with Death and know that everything is nothing. He stands on the edge of life and sees the darkness. They make an idol of fear and call it God. Block thinks he is confessing to a priest and says that Death visited him this morning. He has been given a respite so that he can pursue a vital errand. His entire life has been a meaningless search. He is not bitter because everyone has the same experience. He wants one significant action. They discuss the chess game, and Block says he has not lost a single piece yet. He is asked how he can outwit Death, and Block says he will use his knight and bishop in combination and break his flank. Death faces him, and Block realizes who he is. He complains that he tricked him, but he will find a way. Death says they will continue the game at the inn, and he leaves. Block looks at his hand and sees the sun is high.
Jöns and Pictor are sitting and talking as Jöns paints on a board. He shows the painting of the squire who laughs at Death and the Lord. He says life is meaningless and absurd. Block comes in, grabs the board, and goes out with it. Jöns follows him, and they see an accused witch (Maud Hansson) chained to a stake. A soldier says she had carnal knowledge with the Evil One and will be burned tomorrow to keep the Devil away. A priest prays, and Block looks at her and talks with the priest. The accused witch moans and screams as they leave.
On their horses Jöns sings, and Block gives him something to eat so he won’t. They arrive at a village. Jöns goes into a barn and sees a woman lying on the ground. He quietly hides, and a man comes down from the hay loft and removes her rings. A young woman (Gunnel Lindblom) sees him, and he admits he is stealing from the dead. He goes to her and tells her not to scream. Jöns shows himself and identifies the man as Doctor Mirabilis who ten years ago persuaded his master to go to the Holy Land. Now he realizes these ten wasted years. They were too well off, and the Lord wanted to chasten their pride. He sent the doctor to poison his master’s mind. He pushes him against a wall, and the doctor says he did it in good faith. Jöns says he knows better now and has become a thief. He pushes him down and threatens him with his knife. The young woman screams. Jöns says he came to fill his water bottle. He opens the door for her, and they go outside. He gets water from the well and tells her his name. He says he is full of noble thoughts and deeds and tries to kiss her, but she pulls away. He says goodbye and that he could have raped her, but he does not believe in that kind of love. He stops and says he needs a housekeeper and asks if she can cook. He hopes his wife is dead by now. She says nothing. He says he saved her life and walks away. She follows him.
Players Jof, Mia, and Skat perform outside on a stage for people who have gathered. They play music, sing, and dance. Skat goes behind the curtain and sees a pretty blonde who spreads a cloth on the grass and begins to eat chicken. He goes to her and kisses her arm. She gives him a drink and laughs. The blonde stands up and goes in the bushes, and Skat follows her. Jof and Mia sing of the Black One. Suddenly they hear many voices singing a dirge as they march wearing black robes. Some are whipping others, and some carry a cross. The people kneel and pray. The penitents kneel and pray also, mumbling. A monk (Anders Ek) says that God is punishing them with the Black Death. He says they are complacent in their last hour. He points out people and says they will die, and he laughs at them. He says they are doomed and warns them not to turn their faces away from Jesus Christ. The penitents stand up and continue their procession. Jöns asks his master if they can take that drivel seriously. He has raid fairy tales and ghost stories. The blacksmith Plog (Ake Fridell) comes over and asks Jöns if he has seen his wife. Jöns says no and that she may have run off. He tells him to inquire inside.
At an inn an animal is being roasted, and people are eating at tables. They discuss the plague. A religious man says this is the end. Jof is eating meat, and the blacksmith says his wife ran off with an actor. He plans to kill them. Jof says there are too many actors. Another man accuses Jof of lying because he is an actor too. Jof laughs and denies it. The other man threatens to brand him with a large knife. He sticks the knife in the table, and the inn becomes quiet. Jof is told to stand up, and the man with the knife tells him to stand on his head. The blacksmith grabs Jof and asks where his wife is. The man tells Jof to dance like a bear, and people laugh at him. Jof dances on the table as people beat their cups on the tables. Jof gets weak and collapses to the ground. Jof takes a bracelet and sneaks out. Jöns stops the man with the knife from following him.
Outside Block is sitting by the chessboard and tells Mia he saw their performance but that she is prettier without makeup. She says that Skat has abandoned them. She explains that Jof is her husband and a skillful juggler. They talk about what her son Michael might become. She says Block is not happy. He admits his company, himself, is boring. Jof calls to her, and she helps him recover from his ordeal. She says he boasted of his angels but played the fool again. He gives her the bracelet he took, and she puts it on happily. She hugs him, and he says they hit him. He was angry, but they only laughed. He puts his head on her lap and picks up their child. She introduces Block to him. She offers him strawberries and milk and tells them to sit down. Jof says they are going to Elsinore. Block says the plague is worse in the south and says they will be safer in his castle. She brings the food in two large bowls, and they eat. Jof says he is the director now, and they laugh. Jöns arrives with the young woman, and they join them. Mia says summer and spring are the best, and Jof suggests a song. Jöns says he writes songs, but he will not bore them with his art. Jof plays a lute. Mia asks Block if he has anyone. He says he was newly married and hunted and danced. He says life is suffering. She says he is not so solemn now, and he says he will remember this peace and their words. He drinks milk and says it will be a sign of great content.
Block gets up and looks around. Death says he has been waiting for him. Block says he was distracted and that his strategy was discovered. So he retreated. He says it is Death’s turn, and he takes his knight. Block says he fell into a trap and puts him in check. Death moves his king and says he is in a hurry. Block says he has much to do, but their game must go on. Death says he is escorting Jof and his family tonight.
Jöns finds the blacksmith alone crying in the inn. Jöns says it is hell with or without women. They mention the troubles women bring them. Jöns says he is better off without his wife. The blacksmith plans what he will do and sobs. Jöns says that love is the blackest of plagues, but only fools die of love. Jöns says he is a man of learning, and the blacksmith asks if he can go with him. They go out, and Jof is afraid of the blacksmith who is friendly now. Jof and Mia get in the wagon and leave the village. In the woods Block rides ahead, and Jöns, the young woman, and the blacksmith follow behind. The blacksmith sees his blonde wife and Skat and chases him. Skat tries to explain, and the blacksmith says his wife’s name is Lisa (Inga Gill). Skat and the blacksmith insult each other. Jöns tells the blacksmith what to say. Lisa comes back to Plog and says Skat cheated her. She promises to cook for Plog and embraces him. He says he must kill Skat first, and she urges him to do so. Plog says he has to fight him if he is to kill him. Skat holds up a knife and says he meant no harm. He tells them to pray for him, and he pretends to stab himself. Plog feels sad, and Jof says he is dead as any actor. Left alone, Skat gets up and climbs a tree to be safe. Death watches him. Skat plans to join Jof and Mia tomorrow. Death saws the tree and says his time is up. His performance is cancelled because of death. Skat says he is ashamed and asks if actors are exempted. Death says not in his case and saws down the tree.
They continue through the woods and stop at night and discuss the situation. They see soldiers transporting a prisoner in a wagon which gets stuck in a creek. Jöns helps them push the wagon and talks with a soldier. They continue and are followed by the soldiers. They come to a place of punishment and stop. Block asks the accused witch about the devil and says he wants to meet him and ask him about God. She says he can see him any time and tells him to look into her eyes. He says he sees terror and nothing else. She asks if he is behind him, and he looks behind him but sees no one. She says he is with her all the time. She says she knows and that he must see him. A soldier unchains her. Block asks Death what he has done to the child. Soldiers tie her to a ladder. A soldier warns Jöns and Block not to go near her, but Block gives her something for the pain. She is afraid and breathes heavily. Soldiers have made a bonfire. They pick up the ladder and lean it against a dead tree. Jöns says she feels no pain, but she is discovering the emptiness. Block says that cannot be. They watch for a while and then quickly leave before she is burned.
They camp for the night in another place, and Mia sings to her baby. The young woman lies in the lap of Jöns. Block examines the chessboard. A desperate man arrives and shouts he is afraid to die. Block orders him to stay away from them, and Jöns prevents the young woman from going to him. The sick man asks what will happen to him. He asks them to help him, but Jöns tells her it is useless. The man screams and falls on the ground dead.
Death asks if they can finish their game now and takes his queen. Block says he did not see that. Jof sees them playing and tells Mia it is dreadful. She says he is alone, but Jof sees his playing chess with death. He says they must flee without their noticing them. They steal away. Death asks block if he lost interest and if he is worried. Block says nothing escapes him. Block turns, and his coat overturns pieces. The Death puts them back. The wagon departs. Death says the next move will be checkmate. He asks what he gained by the delay. Block says he is glad he had it. He asks Death what he knows, but he does not answer.
Jof drives the wagon on a windy night. Lightning strikes, and they stop. Block climbs a hill to his castle with Jöns, the young woman, Plog, and Lisa. They enter the castle, and Block leads them with a torch. Block sees his wife Karin (Inga Langré) by a fire, and she says she waited for him. She asks if he knows her, but she sees it is her husband who left home as a boy. He says it is over now and that he is tired. She touches his face, and he says friends are with him. She says she will prepare a meal.
They sit around a table, and Karin reads from Revelations about destruction on Earth. Jöns comes back from the door and says no one was there. Karin continues the reading and stops. They look at Death, and the young woman stands up. They all stand and say who they are. Block asks for mercy. Jöns says no one hears his lament. Block prays to God, but Jöns urges him to appreciate being alive. The young woman kneels and says it is finished.
In the morning Mia wakes up Jof in their wagon. They get out with the baby, and he says he sees them in the distance with Death who bids them dance. They hold hands and move in a line. The master is first, and the fool is last with his lute. They move away from the dawn toward dark land in bitter tears. Mia says he has his visions. They walk the horse with the wagon.
This drama portrays the darkest time in the medieval era when the bubonic plague killed so many people in Europe. A knight, who has gone on a worthless crusade for a religious cause, is searching for the meaning of life, but death itself has no answer for him. His squire sees nothing beyond this life and so does not question as much. The story reflects the time soon after so many millions were killed in the disastrous world wars, causing many people to question their faith in God while seeking knowledge.