Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Running Time: 97 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 Swedish, English
MSRP: $ 29.95
Release Date: June 16, 2009
Review Date: June 4, 2009
Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal is one of international cinema’s most iconic films. Endlessly viewed, endlessly discussed, and endlessly parodied, this allegorical treatise on the meaning of life is a cinematic masterpiece, so brilliantly conceived and beautifully produced as to be a true world treasure. It’s a riveting viewing experience, as fascinating in its storytelling and its symbolic interpretations as it is a piece of pure cinema. This is unquestionably one of the greatest films ever made.
Medieval knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) and his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) are returning home from the Crusades after almost a decade away fighting for the glory of their cause but achieving only a mordant sense of the futility of their efforts. As they make their way across the coastline being consumed by the plague, Block confronts Death (Bengt Ekerot) who has come to claim him. He stalls Death’s claim on him by challenging him to a game of chess which will be continued over the course of his travels homeward. By postponing his passing, Block hopes he can learn something of the meaning of life, knowledge all his years of fighting didn’t convey to him. Along the way, Block and Jöns meet up with a trio of traveling players (Nils Poppe, Bibi Andersson, Erik Strandmark), a witch being burned at the stake, and an unhappy smithy (Ake Fridell) and his straying wife (Inga Gill), all of whom offer the insatiably curious Block divergent viewpoints on living in a less-than-perfect world and their differing views on all matters religious.
Bergman’s inspired idea for this introspectively symbolic examination of life’s bounties and disappointments creates characters who immediately capture the viewer’s attention. Yes, some of the film’s world view is undeniably dark, but it’s never hopeless and always thoughtful and varied. We see some characters not consumed by profoundly considering questions of mortality or the afterlife; they’re much too involved with enjoying what life has to offer and refuse to knuckle under to depressing thoughts of imminent death or eternal damnation. Bergman piles on the death symbols: whether it’s in the frescoes of the church, the skull-like remains of a discovered monk, Death himself skulking around the forest, the church, and the countryside claiming occasional victims, so the film’s preoccupation with life and death is never far from our thoughts, but it isn’t heavy-handed, and it's always thought provoking. And, of course, the fact that death is everyone’s ultimate end is prominent in the film’s themes. It’s what we do with our time before death comes calling that should occupy our thoughts as the knight sees plentiful examples of. In Bergman’s virtuosic scenario, he and we see what many different types of people do with the time they’re given.
The performances are amazing in their rich sparseness. Max von Sydow makes a haunting leading character in search of answers, and images of his chess matches and his final prayers before his end get burned into one’s consciousness. Gunnar Björnstrand has a marvelous time with his squire: feisty, brawling, commanding, qualities that his knight might well have emulated. Nils Poppe as the juggler and Bibi Andersson as his wife have a lovely, loving simplicity as the “Joseph and Mary” archetypes of the story. Ake Fridell as the simpletonish smith tugs at the heartstrings with his innocent decency.
The film is framed at 1.33:1 and is slightly windowboxed in Criterion’s usual style for Academy ratio pictures. This new DVD transfer is among the best standard definition encodings of a black and white film I’ve ever seen. Detail in clothes, the knight’s chain mail, tree bark, and gravel are supremely rendered, and blacks are among the deepest and richest it’s ever been my privilege to view. Shadow detail is exquisite. The white subtitles are very easy to read. The film has been divided into 15 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 audio track is clear and clean as a whistle with no hiss, pops, crackle, or flutter present, often the bane of foreign soundtracks of this vintage. There’s excellent fidelity in this mono mix, too, as voices, sound effects, and music all blend into a satisfying whole. There is an optional English language dubbed audio track, but I must confess I didn't listen to it.
Disc one in this two-disc set contains the following:
An introduction to the film by director Ingmar Bergman was filmed in 2003 and replicated here. It runs 3 minutes and is in nonanamorphic letterbox.
Peter Cowie’s 1987 audio commentary from the original laserdisc release of this masterpiece is ported over onto this DVD. It’s a wonderfully illuminating track with background on the director, the actors, and the film’s dense symbols all scrutinized with accuracy by this Bergman scholar.
Peter Cowie has filmed a new afterword featurette with additional comments some twenty years after recording his original commentary. It’s in anamorphic widescreen and runs 10 ½ minutes.
An audio interview with Max von Sydow runs 19 ¾ minutes. In it, he talks about his youth, his work with Bergman on numerous projects, and his work with George Stevens in America.
A tribute to Bergman by Woody Allen was filmed in 1989 for Turner Classic Movies and is replicated here. This 7 ¼-minute tribute piece mentions some of Woody’s favorite Bergman films including Cries & Whispers, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, and Persona with film clips accompanying his audio commentary.
The film’s theatrical trailer runs 2 ½ minutes and is a wonderful illustration of the condition the film was likely in before it was so beautifully remastered for this release.
Disc two begins with Bergman Island, an 83 ½-minute 2006 documentary on Bergman’s life and career originally filmed for Swedish television. It’s in anamorphic widescreen. (A more detailed essay on this excellent documentary appears in the review for Criterion’s separate release of the feature released concurrently with the new edition of The Seventh Seal. You can find it In Conclusion