Bengt Ekerot did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Death in The Seventh Seal.
Bengt Ekerot is death who haunts to proceedings while the chess game with the knight. Ekerot's death is certainly the most iconic character from a film by Ingmar Bergman and the look of the character went on to influence such later classic films as Bill and Ted's Bogus journey. Bergman's direction deserves a great deal of the credit for the character as everything around him amplifies the creepiness of Ekerot. The look also of Ekerot here is enough with his long black cold and his excessively white face. Almost all the hard work seems to be done for Ekerot already but that's not to say that Ekerot simply acts a prop. Ekerot's work here is interesting in that he actually kinda plays death in a somewhat comedic way actually. Although his death does act as a villain in the way he appears suddenly reek terror on his eventual victims as well as does really scheme against the Knight during the reprieves of their chess game.
Ekerot is appropriately chilling in his ice cold delivery and his equally chilly expressions that seem lifeless even when he smiles. Ekerot has more fun in the role than you might expect going in to watch the film for the first time. Ekerot in a way treats death as though he is just playing a round of a game he's done so many times so why not have a little fun with it. Ekerot actually plays death as a bit of an easygoing sort who is in no rush about anything since he knows how everything will turn out. This is particularly well seen in a scene where death is sawing a tree away to kill a man whose time is up. Ekerot goes about the task like a lumberjack would and when the man protests Ekerot is quite memorable by playing the scene like he is a technician just informing the man that the job will soon be done. Ekerot in a way makes death inevitable simply because he treats the situation in such a straight forward fashion.
Ekerot's performance is of course a constant throughout the film as there would be no reason for death to change his method and manner at anytime. He's a constant that death should be in the film as he creates the sense that there truly is no escape for the Knight and the game is merely extending his time that is all. Although Ekerot definitely contributes with his performance I would say the most effective moments involving the character are due to Bergman's direction such as found in his sudden appearances and just the doom he represents when he is seen from a distance such as in that final dance at the end of the film. Ekerot does serve a much needed purpose though through his performance. The mystery and terror of sorts represented by death is not lost when we do see him talk and Ekerot most importantly keeps death just as he should be even when we technically get to know him.
Björnstrand is brilliant in making the squire a truly worldly man and is almost comforting because the way Björnstrand makes this understanding of the world so strong in Jöns. Björnstrand is striking in his scenes where the squire makes his own philosophy regarding such things as a possible afterlife known. Björnstrand is terrific in these moments by being so wonderfully blunt about it. Where von Sydow presents the Knight's mind as being constantly troubled by these thoughts, Björnstrand cuts through this effectively by showing that Jöns is a man much more comfortable with life as a whole because he is merely able to accept his own sort of faith his own way. There is nothing that weighs on his mind and Björnstrand exudes a certain type of confidence in the squire's demeanor. It is not the confidence of religious man who is constantly a praying as such, but rather the confidence of a man due to being more preoccupied with his current existence he is far more able to simply accept what comes afterwards.
While the Knight is stuck with his game of death being rather inactive in his current life Jöns takes several actions during the course of the story in order to help others. It is a strange thing perhaps to say about this film about existential angst set during the black plague, but I have to say that Björnstrand can be described as "cool" in the role. Björnstrand is great in the scenes where the squire goes about rescuing and helping a few people along the way. He technically might as well be the knight as Björnstrand is the one to portray the true idea of chivalry. What I love about Björnstrand again though is that he once again keep Björnstrand very much down to earth and to the point even when he commits the heroic deeds. He's especially good in the scene where he saves one of the actors from further harassment by thugs in a bar. Björnstrand exudes such a command in the scene as he deals with the men and really you could almost see the squire was the one who perhaps has kept the Knight alive as along as he has, which creates perhaps an irony since it appears by the end that the Knight may be the one causing Jöns's death.
Björnstrand is outstanding by bringing the understanding of the present world through his depiction of Jöns. There's a great moment where he prevents water from being given to a man dying from the plague. Björnstrand does not portray any cruelty in this but rather the needed wisdom of a man who knows how to best survive in the place that he lives in. It's interesting to look at Ekerot's and Björnstrand's performances together since death is obviously the man fit for the other side while Jön is the most adapted to the side he is on. Also Ekerot's performance perhaps benefits the most from the atmosphere created by Bergman whereas Björnstrand's work often stands out on his own. Their meeting together, where you see from Death's view, Björnstrand has one last great moment in the film. Björnstrand presents the fear certainly as the squire sees his end right in front of him, but a man who has adapted so well to the cruel world he lives, Björnstrand powerfully portrays as being able to still stare directly at death even daring to voice his protest. Björnstrand gives a great performance that stands well within the world created by Bergman. He as well though makes Jöns compelling on his own and Björnstrand makes him so much more than just one of the men in the following death at the end.