Great to watch this again in high-def. I remembered it being interesting, but not looking this spectacular. Morose knight (Max Von Sydow) and his charismatic squire Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand of Winter Light, hard to adjust to him not being the morose one) are heading home through the plague-ridden country, accumulating other characters along the way. It’s both very serious about life and death and also full of jokes and lighter moments, so maybe the first Swedish horror comedy? Along the way, Jons has folksy/philosophical conversations with townsfolk, and the knight has religious/philosophical conversations with Death.
First, Jons rescues an intense, silent girl (Gunnel Lindblom: Sydow’s servant in Virgin Spring, his wife in Winter Light) from a dangerous thief. “I’m a married man, but with any luck my wife is dead by now, so I’ll be needing a housekeeper.” Then they come across actor/jester Jof (Nils Poppe of The Devil’s Eye) with his wife Bibi Andersson, sexy maid in The Magician), who’ve just been ditched by their more serious companion Jonas and need protection. Jonas has stolen the blacksmith’s wife (Inga Gill of Miss Julie), but the smith (Ake Fridell, Monika‘s dad) gets her back and Jonas wanders off to meet Death.
It’s been established that jester Jof can see spirits, so he’s the only one who realizes that the knight’s solo chess games are actually with Death, and that the knight is losing, so he escapes with his wife. The rest of the gang continues to the knight’s castle where his wife Karin (Inga Landgre, recently in Girl With The Dragon Tattoo Remake) is waiting. The six of them are just having dinner when Death catches up, and out in a field with their young son, Jof sees Death leading them all away.
Peter Cowie calls the actors “medieval ancestors of those troubadours, those traveling musicians who are still so popular in Scandinavia today.” I’ve meant to ask Trevor how often he runs across troubadours. Cowie also calls this “the high point of Bergman’s symbolic period.” I’m pretty sure the sudden parade of self-flagellating religious nuts was a Monty Python influence.
His big contribution was that he developed a vocabulary to work on the interiors of people. He would choose these great and gifted actors and he would guide them so they could project these inner states of extreme emotional intensity. He would use close-ups and keep those close-ups going longer and longer, and he never let up. Gradually the psychological feelings of the character the actor was portraying just sort of show up on the screen. He was so unsparing with the camera. Finally you start to see the wars that are raging inside the characters, these psychological wars and emotional wars, and it’s no less visual in the end than the movements of armies.