After the unexpected success of his comedy, Smiles Of A Summer Night, at Cannes in the mid-Fifties, Ingmar Bergman approached his producers with the idea for a film about a knight who plays chess with Death. He has just returned from a decade bashing Muslims in the Crusades to find his homeland gripped by plague.

Hardly the sexiest scenario to put before a producer and yet of all his movies this is the one that is remembered the most. It was shot in five weeks on a strangulated budget in a wood at the back of the studio.

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Coming to it again after all these years, what is most striking is how wordy it is. The scenes in the tavern are Shakespearean in their gabble and if you don't understand the lingo, this means desperately trying to keep up with subtitles. Many of the secondary characters are comic, although the film has always been a favourite amongst intellectuals who like to search for allegorical meaning in every muddy footprint.

The character of the knight is played by Max von Sydow, the exorcist from The Exorcist, when he was unknown off the Swedish stage. He looks young and handsome with a short blond crop and lightweight chain-mail vest. Not a man to express emotion, the knight's conversations with Death over the chess board remain polite. It is a surprise at the end to discover that he has a spouse waiting for him, since he doesn't talk about such things.

The juggler and his wife (the delectable Bibi Andersson) are travellers, free from bourgeois responsibility, who like nothing better than to play mummy and daddy with their baby boy on a grassy meadow in the sun. Definitely in the hippy tradition, they are sentimentalised by Bergman as being the perfect family. If he is the knight, Bibi is the future.

The images remain powerful. Death, in his black cloak and pasty face, casts a shadow over the revellers. Bergman's use of landscape and weather increases a sense of foreboding.

When you think about it, playing a game for your life is a beautiful metaphor. Of course, it wouldn't have been the same in a squash court.

Reviewed on: 08 Nov 2001
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Bergman classic about a knight who plays chess with death. Out on re-release.
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Director: Ingmar Bergman

Writer: Ingmar Bergman

Starring: Max von Sydow, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Bengt Ekorot, Nils Poppe, Bibi Andersson

Year: 1957

Runtime: 92 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: Sweden

Festivals:

CFF 2007

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Bergman's legacy