‘Faith is a sore affliction’, comments the wonderfully named, taciturn and dignified knight, Antonius Block, played by Max von Sydow, in Ingmar Bergman’s dark but hardly humorless film set in medieval Northern Europe. Death with scythe in hand is seen leading his captives through the steps of the dance of final things. This image, one of the last, but not the last, scene of the movie depicts a vision of one of the most important characters, that of the player, juggler, and near holy fool, Jof. The closing moments show Jof together with his wife and baby son set off for new adventures in their humble caravan. In an early part of the film Jof has a vision of the Virgin Mary teaching the infant Jesus how to walk. The parallel between the earthly family and the Holy Family is a symbol that is obvious but at the same time inscrutable. There is no doubt that it is a comforting foil to the darker aspects of the film whether one takes it on purely human terms, or as an example of a different but perhaps perceptible reality. Personally I want my cake and to eat it but I couldn’t begin to dissect what this additional impression is because it seems beyond the slice of any scalpel. As a nice feeling about nice people who have escaped the swing of The Grim Reaper it functions perfectly adequately for, as Antonius Block discovers, Death always wins the game in the end, unless of course we are to believe in the visions of Jof the juggler.
A knight and his squire return home from the crusades to a land afflicted by the plague. At the shore the knight encounters Death and to forestall him the knight suggests a game of chess which Death, being the sporting gent he seems to be, agrees to, although he is not so sporting when later he tricks the knight in the confessional of a monastery into giving away his strategy. The knight is a man of shaken faith who wants answers that are never forthcoming. He is stalked by these questions as much as by Death who as ever plays his moves close to his chest. We believe completely in the knight’s religious angst due to the quite towering performance by Max von Sydow even though it is his squire who is by far the more loquacious. The squire is a very modern character, witty, unbelieving, cynical, but moral in a familiar sense. He has one of the film’s best lines: ‘The crusade was so silly, only an idealist could have thought of it!’. At times we feel he is as anguished as the knight but angrier in that he is impatient with the knight’s insistence in holding on to ‘fairy stories’. The squire is no contemporary talking head. He is more than aware of where his gut feeling leads him: to the ’emptiness under the moon’ that he articulates when he and the knight witness a witch burning. The knight is intrigued by the witch as it is claimed that she has had relations with the Devil. He wishes it to be real so that God may be real. He gives the accused girl, in one of several compassionate moments of the film, a sedative against the pain she will endure.
Antonius Block takes a number of people under his protection, including a deaf and dumb girl that his squire rescues from a rape, and the travelling players including Jof and his family. They are under his aegis both by strength of arms and by the macabre chess game in which Antonius moves for white. The Apocalypse of the Black Death has gripped the land in a religious fervour. A troop of zealous priests and self-flagellators carrying a huge cross complete with a suitably dolorous Christ, arrive in the knight’s local village to accuse all and sundry. These scenes, for me, are among the finest in the film. The chief priest is filled with a fiendish delight which is both amusing and tragic to watch. He points accusingly at various hapless individuals: ‘Look at you goggling like a goat, look at you gaping like a cow …’ The expressions on the villagers’ faces are priceless. The end of the world is nigh and it is all our fault.
The companions have to travel through a menacing forest to reach the crusader’s castle. It is night-time and there is a storm which sounds like an angel’s trumpet. It seems that the last day is upon them. Nobody knows if the morning will arrive. The dark forest is a kind of crossing. Jof has a vision of Death playing chess with the knight and the family steal away. The black angel passes over their tiny caravan and they escape. The others are not so lucky. At the knight’s castle, Death is a late visitor.
Images from this film stay with you for a long time. One of my favourites is that of the knight and his companions enjoying a rest from their troubles on a grassy cliff overlooking the sea. Even Antonius Block can enjoy a few wild strawberries, which seems to be a poignant personal symbol for Bergman, and his affliction for a short time is in remission. He tries to confound Death by knocking over the pieces of their game but Death, as we strongly suspect he will do, remembers the position of the pieces exactly.