The Seventh Seal Review
As one of DVDTimes’ resident Asian film reviewers I pride myself on the diversity of my Asian film collection, all the masters are covered across a plethora of different genres, but get me onto the subject of European cinema and I’m about as knowledgeable as Paris Hilton on the subject of Nuclear Physics. One director in particular I have ignored to my eternal shame is Ingmar Bergman, a filmmaker whose work and influence on cinema is almost unmatched. So when Criterion announced their Blu-ray release of Bergman’s most celebrated film: The Seventh Seal, I decided this was the perfect opportunity to break my Bergman cherry.
Antonius Block, a knight travelling home from the crusades, awakes on a beach in 14th Century Europe and is confronted by Death. Seeking a reprieve so he can attend to important issues, Block challenges death to a game of chess on the condition that whilst the game is active he remains alive, and if he wins he gets to live. Death agrees and Block and his squire: Jöns commence their journey home, travelling through a land that has been ravaged by the Black Plague and meeting a group of colourful characters as Block seeks an answer to his questions on faith, God, and death.
I feel at a disadvantage having to speak about The Seventh Seal as a complete Bergman newbie. I cannot place the film within the context of his oeuvre, as I’ve yet to watch any other film he’s made, nor can I really give tremendous insight into the man himself given I’ve only been researching that particular subject for a few days now. What I can say is that Bergman is a notoriously personal filmmaker who often draws on his own inner demons and childhood to drive his films. We know that his father was a Lutheran minister who enforced his beliefs on his son and would mete out humiliating punishment for even mild infractions. There was also an incident in his childhood where he was locked inside a morgue with the dead body of a woman glaring up at him, that haunted him all his life.
All these issues and fears seem to have been poured into The Seventh Seal. The most basic and overriding theme of the piece is the fear of death and man’s inability to conceptualise what happens after we die. Organised religion is shown as being ineffective in the face of such a palpable sense of doom, and Antonius Block’s internal struggles are amplified by the widespread mortality around him. He seeks the existence of God and the reason why he appears to have forsaken the human race, and is so desperate for answers that he’s even willing to find counsel with Satan, who proves similarly elusive. Death is his only supernatural companion, but Block does not appear to take any comfort in the fact that the presence of Death alone is proof of something existing beyond the world of mortal man, perhaps because Death is a consequence of man’s own mortality. There are no answers in The Seventh Seal, and this serves to compound the poignancy of Block’s anguish.
There are a number of astonishing sequences in The Seventh Seal that examine the various aspects of human nature. One sequence has married actors Jof and Mia performing a ballad to a hostile crowd that seems to make light of the ominous sense of death that is sweeping the land, this is intercut with the third actor in the troupe: Skat, being seduced by the village blacksmith’s wife behind the stage. Two couples who seek to exact some form of merriment to distract from the gloom of reality. Jof and Mia’s performance is then interrupted by the arrival of a procession of penitent Christians, carrying a large effigy of Jesus on the cross and self flagellating themselves. The idea of human sin seemingly possessing these people when the face of death stares down and the voice of God remains silent. The villagers react far more acceptingly towards this morose parade than the actor’s songs, which highlights where the hearts of the people lie, but after the procession passes Jöns – the most pragmatic character in The Seventh Seal - muses “All this damned ranting about doom. Is that sustenance for modern people? Do they really expect us to take it seriously?”
If most of the characters in The Seventh Seal represent the base and conflicted side of human nature, then Jof and Mia represent the light and virtuous, and their baby Mikael represents hope for man’s future. They appear to exist within the God’s grace and it’s telling that the only sign of holiness in The Seventh Seal is Jof’s vision of The Virgin Mary at the start of the film. Jof and Mia serve a very important function within the story of The Seventh Seal, without them the film may have been too unflinchingly morbid. Another supporting role that is vital to the film’s success is Jöns the squire, who is generally the voice of reason in the film. The pragmatic companion to the idealistic knight, he simply accepts the devastation around him and remains derisive of organised religion, and all too aware of the corruptions of the clergy. Throughout The Seventh Seal there is a simmering conflict between the dispositions of Block and Jöns that builds into a number of brilliantly articulated converses between the two. Given Bergman’s upbringing and disillusionment with religion, these characters appear to be very frank representations of differing aspects of his personality.
The Seventh Seal is as much a triumph of form as it is content, Bergman’s use of the Academy ratio is truly remarkable, often filling the screen with an assortment of characters and employing stunning mid and close range shots. Gunnar Fischer’s cinematography is a beautifully sombre character in itself, and Erik Mordgren’s score accompanies the visuals perfectly. Bergman was inspired to make The Seventh Seal after seeing a mural by the medieval painter Albertus Pictor, which in one section depicts Death playing chess with a knight. There are other sections in Pictor’s mural that are recreated in Bergman’s film, giving The Seventh Seal an authentic medieval style.
Another brilliantly stylish touch is the way Bergman uses his character’s line of sight. He often has them looking off camera and away from each other, rarely maintaining eye contact. One of the most powerful scenes in the film has Antonius Block prostrate in a confessional booth pleading to a priest (who we know is Death) about his conflict of faith. Whilst he’s regurgitating a stream of rhetorical questions, Bergman cuts to a shot of Block behind the bars of the booth’s partition as if imprisoned by his idealism, while Death looks away to the side as if he’s refusing to meet Block’s gaze. This forces the viewer to ponder why – Is it because he is indifferent to the knight’s anguish and the questions he poses, or is it because he has no answers and is ashamed of this fact?
It’s become something of a cliché to say this about The Seventh Seal, but it really had a profound effect on me, although the fact that I don’t really put tremendous stock in organised religion and do regularly ponder the inevitability of my own death obviously makes me an easy victim here. Nevertheless, the fact that The Seventh Seal still maintains the ability to strongly connect with viewers 50 years later really is a testament to its timeless nature and sheer quality.
PresentationPresented in its original Academy ratio of 1.34:1 this is an absolutely gorgeous restoration from Criterion. The image is remarkably clean, with only the occasional tiny scratch and specks appearing in the frame, and the level of detail in the image is excellent. For a film that’s over half a century old now the image really is very sharp, close ups look stunning and mid shots maintain detail – even long shots look pleasingly detailed. There’s a heavy layer of grain present throughout the film, but it is sharply defined and flung up on a 106” screen this transfer really does look richly textured and film like, with no obvious signs of noise reduction in place. Brightness levels fluctuate slightly depending on how the scene was shot or what context, but image brightness remains impressive throughout, whilst black levels are excellent and only appear to dip slightly in one or two scenes. The AVC encode has a reasonably high bit rate that averages out at 34.49Mbps and the compression is excellent, I didn’t spot any compression artefacts during regular playback.
This transfer really does look pristine and completely dispels the myth that films from the “Golden Age” era cannot look that great in High-Definition. The only small mark against the image is that there appears to be some very mild Edge Enhancement in a tiny number of shots, most notably in the introduction of Death on the beach at the start.
Accompanying the excellent transfer is a Swedish LPCM 1.0 audio track that has been just as impressively restored. The audio is remarkably clean and barely has any audible hiss throughout. The only sign of the film’s age is a very slight harshness to the sound, a little tearing in the dialogue, and bass that is rather soft and fuzzy compared to your average contemporary track. Sound dynamics are excellent and dialogue is very clear and clean. In comparison the English Dolby Digital 1.0 track really does highlight how good the main track is, sounding extremely muffled and noisy.
Optional English subtitles are provided, and according to Criterion they offer a new, more literal translation, but obviously I’ve not seen any other release of the film so cannot compare them.
ExtrasCriterion have put together a pretty impressive line up of features that offer really comprehensive coverage of the film and Ingmar Bergman for newcomers to the director’s work. Bergman fans may already be very familiar with most of the information given in these features, but the feature length documentary Bergman’s Island will no doubt be of particular interest to them. Here’s the rundown:
Audio Commentary by Bergman Expert Peter Cowie: Recorded in 1987 for Criterion’s Laser Disc release of The Seventh Seal, this remarkably well preserved commentary provides a very thorough and engrossing examination of the film and Ingmar Bergman’s career. It isn’t as natural as contemporary commentaries, with Crowie sounding like he’s reading out an essay he has written, but it is a very good track. - There are no subtitles for this extra feature.
Ingmar Bergman Introduction: A brief introduction by Bergman that was recorded in 2003 by Marie Nyreröd when she was doing a trilogy of documentaries with the director. In it Bergman describes how he hates to view his own work but feels that The Seventh Seal is one of the films he can actually stand by.
- Presented in fullscreen 1080p AVC at 29fps, with optional English subtitles, but was obviously made and presented in standard definition, so it’s not exactly the highest of quality. However, apart from some heavy ringing the image looks pretty decent.
Bergman Island: The most substantial extra on this disc, Bergman Island is a feature length documentary made by editing together the trilogy of documentaries that Marie Nyreröd made for Swedish TV broadcast in 2004. Bergman Island was released in 2006 and according to Criterion this is the first time it has been brought to home video, which makes it something of a scoop for Bergman completists. The documentary is basically made up of one-on-one interviews with Nyreröd and Bergman recorded at various locations on Fárö Island where he lived off and on for almost 40 years, and where several of his films were shot. It’s a very frank documentary with Bergman talking at length about his films and what inspired their making and, more illuminatingly, about the triumphs and failures of his personal life. Nyreröd also has some brief sit down commentaries with Bergman as they watch his personal collection of behind the scenes footage of several of his films.
- Presented in fullscreen 1080p AVC at 29fps, recorded in SD and shown to the exact same standards as the Bergman introduction.
Afterword: Recorded as a follow-up to his 1987 commentary, this is a sit down discussion by Peter Cowie about The Seventh Seal and the effect it had on him as a young film critic. The commentary was clearly scripted and didn’t really express his own opinions on the film that much, so this is a more informal discussion from Cowie.
- Presented in high-quality fullscreen 1080p AVC at 23fps, with optional English subtitles for the Swedish film clips only.
Max von Sydow Audio Interview: Another extra provided by Peter Cowie, this time it’s audio footage of an interview conducted by him with Max von Sydow for a biography he was writing on the actor at the time. Sydow talks about his childhood and early career, in particular his work on The Seventh Seal, while a static picture of Bergman and Sydow plays onscreen. It might be worth noting that my copy of PowerDVD 8 had serious problems playing this feature, either freezing up and/or not displaying the picture, and then I couldn’t bring up the pop-up menu during playback so I had to stop and restart the disc. It plays fine on my regular BD player though.
- Presented in fullscreen 1080p AVC with an MPEG-2 encode. The interview is in English with no subtitles.
Woody Allen on Bergman: Recorded in 1988 for Turner Classic Movies, Allen talks us through a small selection of his favourite Bergman films, providing a relatively short but informative and engaging examination of the filmmaker’s career.
- Presented in 4:3 1080p AVC at 29fps, but obviously taken from an aged standard definition source. Audio in English with no subtitles.
Bergman 101: The final of Peter Crowie’s featurettes, this one talking us through Bergman’s career as studio stills and video clips play onscreen. If you’re a newcomer to Bergman (as I am) then this is a very enlightening feature that covers all his major works.
- Presented in high quality, multi-ratio 1080p AVC at 23fps. Audio is in English with no optional subtitles.
Trailer: The original theatrical trailer. - Presented in 4:3 1080p AVC at 23fps, with optional English subtitles.
Included alongside the Blu-ray disc is a 24-page booklet that features a chapter list for the Blu-ray disc, images and credits from The Seventh Seal, a rather good essay on The Seventh Seal by film critic Gary Giddins, and production credits for the Blu-ray restoration.