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.