Here is Bergman (1918-2007) at his gloomiest, hardly relieved by a few assays into the burlesque. One of the earlier films, it lacks the cinematic finesse, lightness of touch and structural simplicity of later movies like Persona. Wild Strawberries, made in the same year, seems a more mature piece of work.
Antonius, a knight, returns from the so-called crusades with his squire Jons, to a plague-ridden Europe. He encounters death personified (Death, shall we say) waiting for him on a seashore, but enters into a pact to have his departure postponed till the conclusion of a chess game between the two. The forty-year-old Bergman uses a gothic medieval background, to portray what could possibly be his own anguish, at that point in his own life when worldly success already lay at his feet. The knight passionately seeks for a meaning in existence. His squire cheerfully accepts the lack of any meaning, and represents the position of modern rationalists. For the actor and juggler Jof, and his beautiful wife Mia, who have their baby to think of, life is no exercise in speculation and uncertainty, but a sacred, real and poignant journey. The black and white world populated by deformed human beings portrays a frightening, pitiless and god-free vision. Even a young girl about to be burnt on the stake shows nothing more than fear at the final moments.
The plague with its apocalyptic overtones is the reality of death, looming urgently over the terrified populace. Different people react in different bizarre and generally distasteful fashions in tune with the grim atmosphere which is conjured .
Perhaps for the first time in his career Bergman, freed from concerns of career and success, grapples with the question that was to hound him in most of his subsequent work. He has attempted to swallow the whale in one go, and the result is clumsy, overdone and depressing. The issues are modern, relevant and unanswerable as they ever were, and to clothe them in a theatrical fourteenth century costume drama confuses rather than illuminating the issues. Perhaps he is trying to tell us that our stance towards the fundamental problems of life and death continues to be medieval. The black robed balding figure of death would be comical if it was not distasteful. This is not a movie that has aged well, nor is it his masterpiece. This is not where you will find the revered Gloomy Swede at his most uplifting.