As the Black Death continues to wipe out the population of Europe, knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) returns from the Crusades, disillusioned and worn. When suddenly Death (Bengt Ekerot) appears before him, he asks for the chance to live, proposing a game of chess to decide his fate. The knight takes his squire, a troupe of traveling players and a deaf and dumb girl under his protection as the game is played out. One by one Death exacts his toll, and it is up to Block to stall his opponent for as long as possible if he is to help save the lives of those he is trying to protect. All the while, the villages and towns about them fall further into ruin and religion takes a stranglehold on those desperate for a means of survival.