The Seventh Seal (50th Anniversary Special Edition) Review
Before he played his final game of chess earlier this year, Ingmar Bergman’s admission that the very notion of death has always terrified him was well documented, as were the childhood impressions that contributed to this almost pathological fear. The son of a clergyman, Bergman encountered the painting of a medieval knight playing chess with Death on the walls of a country church where his father was preaching, and the image and its associations lingered long in his mind. The spectre of Death consequently figures frequently in the films of Bergman, but nowhere is its presence quite so direct as in The Seventh Seal.
The idea of making a film where he could directly confront those fears and attempt to reconcile his considerations of rationalism, faith and uncertainties about an afterlife by actually making Death a physical presence on the screen to putting questions to him appealed greatly to the filmmaker, but commercial viability made the eventuality of such a film ever being financed at this stage in Bergman’s career almost an impossibility. The unexpected success of Smiles of a Summer Night at the Cannes Film Festival in 1956 changed all that, catapulting Bergman into the major league of arthouse cinema directors. Bergman’s script for The Seventh Seal, based on a one-act play Wood Painting which he had written while lecturing at drama school, was quickly green-lighted, but even so the film still had to be made cheaply and completed in thirty-six days. In spite of the restrictions, the resulting film – simple, playful, adventurous and profound all at the same time – has deservedly gained an important place in film history.
The questions asked in The Seventh Seal are certainly profound ones, but are basic questions that will have occurred to everyone. Is there a purpose to life? Why must we die? Is there a God and an afterlife? Is there any way of avoiding the inevitable? That is the vain hope of a medieval knight, Antonious Block (Max von Sydow), who is returning to his estate with his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand), after ten years fighting in the Crusades. He has no sooner returned to his land than he encounters a white-faced figure in a dark cloak and realises that Death has come to claim him. Disillusioned with his experiences in the battle that has been waged between the righteous and the heathens in the Crusades and having failed to witness any sign of the greatness of God in the struggle, the knight feels he is not yet ready to die. Hoping to gain some time to find the answers to the questions about the purpose of it all and in the process achieve one meaningful act in his life, Block convinces Death (Bengt Ekerot) to give him a brief respite – the length of a game of chess – in which the knight hopes he might even be able to outwit his formidable opponent.
The physical manifestation of Death on the screen was certainly nothing new, even when Bergman made The Seventh Seal back in 1956. The cloaked form of Death holding back on the immediate reaping of a soul to allow them to settle unfinished business in the material world was most notably evident in Victor Sjöstrom’s 1921 silent film The Phantom Carriage, a film that would have a profound influence on Bergman who would even make a film based on it - The Image Makers - much later in his career. In contrast to Sjöstrom’s depiction of Death - who is simultaneously an impressive figure of dark foreboding and humane at the same time, a tragic figure who is compelled to carry out an unenviable duty – Bergman’s Death is utterly impassive and immune to entreaty, yet – tragically – all too approachable. Masterfully, Bergman uses this figure to confront his own fears and play out a personal dialectic between rational thought and the all-too-human need to believe in a divine purpose. It is Death that remains that terrible barrier that must be crossed between humanity and otherness, an unknowable void that separates us from understanding the purpose of living, yet offers no hopes, no certainties and no answers. It’s an audacious and outrageous conceit, but one that is entirely valid for the results it achieves.
Important, imposing and impressive though they are, the actual appearances of Death on the screen are however relatively brief over the whole running time of The Seventh Seal. Bergman finds many other ways to illustrate the morbid introspection of the knight in the real world, the divisions between his idealism and the harshly realist, rational view of Jöns who accepts and dispenses immediate earthly justice and retribution. And it is a harsh world – the Plague is about the land and everywhere can be seen omens and portents of the Apocalypse, the approaching Judgement Day foretold in Revelations with the opening of the Seventh Seal. Witches, accused of communion with the Devil are burned at the stake by terrified soldiers, monks and flagellant penitents form grim processions, and everywhere there are signs of moral degradation – faithless wives running off and thieves taking belongings from the dead.
But there is also good in the world, in the loving simplicity of the warm human relationship of the husband and wife acting team of Jof and Mia (Nils Poppe and Bibi Andersson) and their troupe of travelling players, who are making their way to the All Saints Festival in Elsinore. Their life is not an easy one and they are not unaware of the terrors of life – Jof has an ability that allows him to see visions of the both the Holy Virgin and the figure of Death who walks by their side - but they treat people with kindness and respect, offering the knight their simple but good fare, enjoying each other’s company and the pleasure of bringing up and protecting their young child Mikael.
Inspired also in part by Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, it’s almost impossible that this starkly portrayed world of angels and demons doesn’t slip into portentousness, dark introspection and pessimism, but Bergman brilliantly manages to achieve a perfect balance between the light and the dark in The Seventh Seal, playing chess with Death and touching on the essential characteristics of good and evil that exist equally effectively through bawdy songs and tawdry marital disputes, showing the world for all its perfect imperfection.
The Seventh Seal (50th Anniversary Special Edition) is released on DVD in the UK by Tartan. The DVD is in PAL format and is free of region coding. A region-free Blu-Ray edition is also available.
On an initial viewing, the new transfer of The Seventh Seal doesn’t seem to be a marked improvement from the previous edition released by Tartan (reviewed here by Mike Sutton), which memory told me was quite impressive despite some minor imperfections. The image has however been cleaned up considerably and there are none of the little flecks and marks that, although minor and not troublesome, were certainly evident in the older transfer. More importantly, the image is now much more stable and largely free from the little shifts of macro-compression artefacts that could be seen throughout the previous release. Blacks and contrasts are very strong and seem perfectly accurate, showing rather more detail than has previously been visible (see screenshots below), even at the expense on occasion of showing up a little more grain in some scenes, particularly in skies. Other than a little bit of evident edge-enhancement, there is little else to fault with the transfer. The qualities of this transfer however can only really be appreciated with a direct side-by-side comparison to the older version, and unfortunately still screenshots don’t tell the whole story here. Going back to the old transfer after viewing the 50th Anniversary Special Edition, the old version now almost looks like a poor dupe copy. The quality on this Standard Edition transfer is only surpassed by the High-Definition transfer on the remarkable Blu-Ray edition.
The screenshots below can be enlarged to full screen by clicking on the image. The old edition is shown first, the new 50th Anniversary Special Edition second.
The original Swedish audio track is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. It’s doesn’t seem to have had the same kind of restoration as the image. Certain scenes are less well-toned than others, but this is almost certainly down to the original elements and how they were recorded. In the main, the dialogue is quite clear and there is very little analogue noise. Death’s appearances on the screen are almost all introduced with a highly effective eerie silence which feels natural and not achieved through over application of noise-reduction.
An English dub in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono is also provided, but I find myself incapable of assessing its effectiveness. In terms of quality, it’s an old recording, probably made at the time of the original release of the film, and the sound is accordingly pretty rough though listenable. It also seems to be performed reasonably well with some appreciation for characterisation and – apart from softening the bawdy elements of the script - it would appear to remains reasonably close to the sense of the original. However, the voices and American accents just don’t sit well for me with this film and I simply can’t imagine that anyone else will prefer this option over English subtitles. It’s just wrong.
The English subtitles are optional and fine, presented in a clear white font. The translation seems to be identical to the previous release, though the font is not as heavy as the one used on the previous release and other Tartan Bergman Collection releases.
Original Trailer (2:37)
The narrated trailer is essentially a summary of the film and its themes.
Karin’s Face (13:37)
Bergman’s short film from 1984 is little more than a flick through the family photo album, examining old images of his mother Karin, but it’s a mesmerising journey back in time. The photographs cover her childhood, adolescence and her marriage to a rather stern looking preacher, Bergman’s father Erik, and her role as a mother, up to the final photograph taken of Karin for a passport a few months before she died. The film provides a fascinating view of a certain social class at the turn of the 20th century as well as being a rare glimpse into the director’s family background. Silent, with occasional explanatory intertitles and a gentle piano score, it invites the viewer to examine eyes, expressions, dress and poses for deeper clues into the personality of the people in the photographs.
On-set Footage (14:12)
Some rare home-movie footage from Bergman’s own collection shows the young director behind the scenes on set and on location with his cast and crew for the making of The Seventh Seal. Ian Christie provides a commentary giving good background information on the film and an overview of its themes.
A 12-page booklet is also enclosed in the set, containing film notes on The Seventh Seal by David Parkinson and a substantial biographical section to put the film into context.
Despite its formidable reputation, its uncommon medieval setting, and its grim meditations on Death, God and the meaning of life, the concerns of The Seventh Seal remain relevant and accessible - the film losing none of its power over the years and over repeated viewings. A new DVD release for the film for its 50th Anniversary is certainly merited, and its reputation as one of the most strikingly photographed films ever - containing some of the most iconic moments in cinema history - is well-served here by the remarkable new transfer presented on this new Tartan edition. The supplemental features aren’t extensive, but are all worthwhile and do provide the film with some introductory context, but the transfer alone is enough to make this particular release – or the Blu-Ray edition – absolutely essential.