What more can be said about Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 masterpiece The Seventh Seal? What more needs to be? It hasn’t stopped being a remarkable film in the 50-plus years since its release, and it’s not likely to lose its reputation over the next 50. One of the leading catalysts for Americans’ growing thirst for art house and foreign film in the ’50s, The Seventh Seal maintains all the cerebral complexities one would expect from “art house” film while remaining intensely watchable.
This is hardly some obscure exercise in technique. Bergman’s allegory about death and the way it affects different people differently on their paths to find meaning leads with compelling characters and a near-poetic script. Sure, the cinematography is starkly beautiful and the potential interpretations are wide, but this is one accessible film.
The film tells the tale of a knight, Antonius Block (the haunting Max von Sydow), and his squire (Gunnar Björnstrand) who survive the Crusades only to come home to the Black Plague ravaging their homeland. Death (Bengt Ekerot) confronts Block on the beach, and Block proposes a game of chess in an attempt to delay the inevitable, and to give him time to look for answers about God, life, and death. As Block and his squire journey across the countryside, they meet a pair of circus performers, Jof and Mia (Nils Poppe, Bibi Andersson) who will be essential to Block’s quest. And all the while, death is on all of their tracks.
The Seventh Seal is not subtle allegory, but its direct imagery is part of what has made it so enduring — the images have certainly seen their share of re-purposing over the years in a steady stream of parody, but in the context of the entire film, they remain undiluted. Bergman’s work is forceful, compelling, and fascinating even still.
Criterion released The Seventh Seal on DVD back in 1999 as one of its earliest releases, and is updating the classic 10 years later with a new DVD and Blu-ray release. This will no doubt become the definitive version of the film, what with the added extras and a spectacular visual upgrade.
The Blu-ray Disc
The Seventh Seal is presented in 1080p high definition with an aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The clarity and cleanness of the picture is immediately striking, as Bergman’s black-and-white color palette suffers from none of the softness that can often plague films of this age. Dirt, debris, and scratches are practically nonexistent, save for a few instances where there appears to be slight permanent damage done to the print. The blacks are rich and deep, and the high contrast levels Bergman intended look spectacular here.
The audio is presented in an uncompressed monaural format, meaning this is strictly a front channel affair, but one that sounds superbly clear. Pops and hisses are nowhere to be found, and dialogue comes through true and crisp.
Another typically outstanding release from Criterion, this one comes packed with interesting extras that delve beyond typical studio featurettes. The highlight of this new release is certainly Bergman Island, an hour-and-a-half long documentary made in 2006 about the legendary director. Criterion has also released the documentary separately.
Film historian Peter Cowie provides the audio commentary, and has recorded a new video afterword to accompany this new release. He also guides viewers through Bergman 101, which traces many of the director’s films.
A short introduction to The Seventh Seal by Bergman was recorded in 2003 and is intended to be shown before the film airs on Swedish television. In it, he reveals it’s one of the few films he still feels proud of.
Also included are an audio interview with von Sydow, a Turner Classic Movies featurette from 1989 that explores Bergman’s career, and is narrated by Woody Allen, who was certainly influenced by The Seventh Seal, and the theatrical trailer. A thoughtful essay from critic Gary Giddins is also included per Criterion’s standard.
The Bottom Line
There’s no better way to experience The Seventh Seal than Criterion’s Blu-ray release.