The scythe and the chessboard, the scorched earth and the pestilence of doubt: "Oh, you and your visions..." Ingmar Bergman at once engraves his modern inquiry in medieval stone, a post-Hiroshima brooder in a Grünewald canvas comprises the allegory, unbearably bleak and comical. The knight (Max von Sydow) and his squire (Gunnar Björnstrand) return from the Crusades into a "world of phantoms," Death itself (Bengt Ekerot) awaits by the shores. "Have you come for me?" "I’ve long been at your side." The warrior is weary but not yet finished, a life of nothingness is his horror, he stalls in hopes of making sense of the void. The land is a panorama of plague and fear, scapegoats are tormented while the theologians responsible for the Holy War steal from the dead. Traveling jesters (Nils Poppe, Bibi Andersson) labor for jolliness, though their spectacle can’t compete with the razzle-dazzle of the religious flagellants. (The showbiz of dread is not lost on the church muralist, who stands by his gruesome aesthetic: "A skull is more interesting than a naked woman.") In Bergman’s most iconic expression of existential yoke, life is an unwinnable game postponed long enough to discover we know nothing. The sledgehammer cuckold (Ake Fridell) and the tortured witch (Maud Hansson), the horny actor (Erik Strandmark) and the farm girl (Gunnel Lindblom), everybody rattles around until the fog creeps in. (Consolation is scarce but valuable, a slashed face dissolves to strawberries and milk on a sunny hill, a rare tranquil composition.) By contrast, the sorrowful Reaper from Lang (Der Müde Tod) has since come to terms with his job, stoking the protagonist’s anguish or sawing down the Tree of Life most drolly. Knowledge is the elusive goal in this comedy scored to "Dies Irae," it may lie with the becalmed maiden in the pyre or perhaps in the mute woman’s exalted acceptance of the encroaching darkness. The mortal dance at the close becomes Fellini’s circus swirl (8½), Allen in Love and Death has the metaphysical cry: "I got screwed!" Cinematography by Gunnar Fischer. With Inga Gill, Bertil Anderberg, Inga Landgré, Anders Ek, and Gunnar Olsson. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce