Antonius Block, a knight newly returned from a crusade, turns around from his morning prayers to encounter Death. Block challenges Death to a game of chess, asking to live while the game is in progress and to be released if he wins. Death agrees, and they begin to play. The images of a knight playing chess with Death and of Death leading a communal dance (in the film’s last sequence) are two images that Ingmar Bergman saw as a boy in churches. They suggest the inevitability of death, no matter the strategies we employ: All must eventually dance with him.
Jöns, the knight’s skeptical, irreverent squire, wakens, and he and Block resume their journey to the knight’s castle, passing a wagon in which sleep a troupe of actors.
Jof, one of the actors, tells his wife, Mia, of a vision he has had of the Virgin Mary and her child. Sometimes he makes up stories, he admits, but he asserts this vision was real. The names Jof and Mia are meant to make us think of the Holy Family. Jof and Mia’s infant son, Mikael, can be considered a type of Christ, for the apocalyptic vision that ends the book of Daniel mentions the coming of Michael, a great prince, just as the Christian book of Revelation refers to the coming of Christ at the end of time.
The knight and Jöns enter a church, and Jöns converses with an artist painting a fresco of The Dance of Death. He describes to Jöns the horror of death by plague and mentions the mobs of people who believe it is God’s punishment and so travel the country flagellating themselves. Meanwhile, the knight approaches a confessional and talks to the figure there. Block confesses he is not content with faith and wants God to reveal himself. His life has been a futile pursuit, and he wants to perform one meaningful deed. He reveals his strategy only to learn he has been talking to Death.
Outside, Jof and Mia’s performance of a farce is brought to a halt by a dismaying procession of monks and flagellants. Patrons in an inn discuss the plague, omens, and the judgment day. A farmer suggests that if the rumors are true, one should try to enjoy life as long as one can, and a woman...
(The entire section is 882 words.)