The movie starts on a serious note, with a desolate setting along a rocky shore (no soft sand here to cushion the proceedings) covered by dark clouds. There is no soothing sound track. All we hear is the disharmonious sound of waves crashing, perhaps echoing the discordant world we are about to enter. We see a knight wearing the uniform of one who fought in the Crusades, who we later learn is named Antonius Block (Max Von Sydow). He has a chess board and pieces sitting on a boulder in front of him. Is he playing against himself, the warring factions of religious belief and disbelief battling inside of him for his soul? His squire, Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand), is stretched out on the stone bed of the beach, which tells us that even sleep can be a torment in this life. Death (Bengt Ekerot) pays a visit to Block, saying that he has been near the knight for quite a while now, which makes sense since Block spent ten years fighting holy wars. Block makes a deal with Death to postpone his demise. They will play a game of chess, and he will have a reprieve from the Grim Reaper as long as they play, and will be allowed to live if he wins the game. Death, proud of his gaming skills, agrees.
Jöns wakes up and talks about how there are ominous stories that portend dire events. He says there have been rumors of one horse devouring another, and graves opening to release the dead. He sings a song about God being at an unattainable distance in the sky, but that Satan is close, here on earth. Basically, he is saying evil is readily observable, but benevolence, not so much. This theme continues as they travel, as the squire goes to ask a hooded person for directions. It turns out that under the cloak are the mummified remains of a person. Jöns is the one who provides most of the black humor in the film. When the unknowing Block asks what the “person” said, the squire answers that the dead man was “eloquent” in what he had to say. No words were necessary to convey what a deadly path they are on: the scary image says it all.