Disillusioned knight Antonius Block and his nihilistic squire Jöns return from the Crusades to find Denmark (Danish cities like Elsinore and Roskilde are cited) ravaged by the plague. The knight encounters Death, whom he challenges to a chess match, believing he can survive as long as the game continues. The game they start continues throughout the story.
The knight and his squire pass the caravan of actors Jof and his wife Mia with their infant son Mikael and actor-manager Jonas Skat. Waking early, Jof has a vision of Mary leading the infant Jesus, which he relates to a smilingly-disbelieving Mia.
Block and Jöns visit a church where a fresco of the Danse Macabre is being painted and the squire chides the artist for colluding in the ideological fervor that led to the crusade. In the confessional, Block admits that he wants to perform “one meaningful deed”. Upon revealing to the priest the chess strategy that will save his life, the knight discovers that it is actually Death with whom he has been speaking. Leaving the church, the knight speaks to a young woman condemned to be burned at the stake for consorting with the devil. He believes she will tell him about life beyond death, only to find that she is insane.
In a deserted village, Jöns saves a mute servant girl from being raped by Raval, a theologian who ten years earlier convinced the knight to join the Crusades. Jöns vows to destroy his face if they meet again. The servant girl accompanies Jöns into town, where the actors are performing. There, Skat is enticed away for a tryst by Lisa, wife of the blacksmith Plog. The stage show is interrupted by a procession of flagellants led by a preacher who harangues the townspeople.
At the town’s inn, Raval manipulates Plog and other customers into intimidating Jof. The bullying is broken up by Jöns who, true to his word, slashes Raval’s face. The knight and squire are joined by Jof’s family and a repentant Plog. Block enjoys a picnic of milk and strawberries that Mia has gathered and declares, “I’ll carry this memory between my hands as if it were a bowl filled to the brim with fresh milk… And it will be an adequate sign—it will be enough for me.”
Block now puts aside his pursuit of religious meaning and invites Plog and the actors to shelter from the plague in his castle. When they encounter Skat and Lisa in the forest, she returns to Plog, while Skat fakes a remorseful suicide. As the group moves on, Skat climbs a tree to spend the night, but Death appears beneath and cuts down the tree, claiming Skat.
Meeting the condemned woman being drawn to execution, Block asks her to summon Satan so he can question him about God. The girl claims she has done so, but the knight only sees her terror and gives her herbs to take away her pain as she is placed on the burning pyre.
They encounter Raval, stricken by the plague. Jöns stops the servant girl from uselessly bringing him water, and Raval dies alone. Jof tells his wife that he can see the knight playing chess with Death and decides to flee with his family, while Block knowingly keeps Death occupied.
As Death states “No one escapes me”, Block knocks the chess pieces over but Death restores them to their place. On the next move, Death wins the game and announces that when they meet again, it will be the last time for all who are with him. Death then asks Block if he achieved the “meaningful deed” he wished to accomplish and the knight replies that he has.
Block reunites with his wife and the party shares a final supper, interrupted by Death’s arrival. The rest of the party then introduce themselves, and the mute servant girl greets him with “It is finished.”
Jof and his family have sheltered in their caravan from a violent storm, which he interprets as the Angel of Death passing by. In the morning, Jof’s second sight allows him to see the knight and his companions being led away over the hillside in a wild Dance of Death.