Criterion // 1957 // 97 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // June 16th, 2009
The ultimate game of life vs. death.
Death: "Do you never stop asking questions?"
Antonius Block: "No, never."
Death: "And yet you get no answers."
A knight named Antonius Block (Max Von Sydow, Hannah and her Sisters) and his squire Jons (Gunner Björnstrand, Winter Light) are returning home after spending several years battling in the crusades. Exhausted and completely out of energy, the two crash on the beach and attempt to get some rest. While there, Antonius encounters Death himself (Bengt Ekerot, The Magician). Death informs Antonius that his time on this earth has come to a conclusion. Antonius immediately responds with a challenge. He wishes to play a game of chess with Death, knowing that Death cannot resist the opportunity. If Antonius wins, his life will be spared. If not, he will go without protest. Death agrees, and the game begins. It proceeds slowly but surely over the course of several days, a few moves at a time. Meanwhile, Antonius and Jons wander through a village where they witness a wide variety of strange and disturbing things. Questions of life, death, God, and the afterlife are pondered. Where will the journey end, and where will these weary wanderers go when it has concluded?
The reputation of The Seventh Seal has been attacked a great deal over the years. The vast majority of the moviegoing public knows the film only as the inspiration for a wide variety of pop-culture satire. The confrontations between the knight and death have been parodied in everything from Love and Death to Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey to The Colbert Report. To a somewhat smaller percentage (still primarily comprised of people who haven't seen the film), The Seventh Seal is regarded as a dull, slow-moving art film that serves as the face of pretentious foreign filmmaking. Even some well-regarded film critics have fallen out of love with Bergman's work in recent times. When Bergman passed away in 2007, the esteemed Jonathan Rosenbaum responded by writing a piece entitled "Scenes From an Overrated Career," in which he claimed that Bergman's films were, "too self-absorbed to say much about the larger world." All of this saddens me a great deal. Watching The Seventh Seal again (a film I have returned to with some regularity over the years), I was reminded yet again of just what a brave and bold slice of filmmaking it is.
The Seventh Seal was one of the first films to directly deal with such complicated subjects as death, faith, and religion. Not only did it examine these subjects, it offered a surprisingly cynical and unforgiving view of religion that refused to provide viewers with any comforts or reassurances. When the film enters addresses the realm of spirituality, the imagery it provides is dark and unforgiving. Skulls, blood, crosses, disease, and fear seem to dominate the spiritual realm of The Seventh Seal. The imagery provided by this film is iconic and even frightening at times. The film's finale (the danse macabre) contains one of the most chilling cinematic images I have ever seen. By contrast, there are scenes of gentle beauty here that provide moments of calm in the middle of the storm. Von Sydow delivers a wonderful monologue in which he expresses joy at the simple pleasures life has to offer: "I shall remember this moment: the silence, the twilight, the bowl of strawberries, the bowl of milk."
My two favorite Bergman actors play significant roles here, and they're both nothing short of superb. Max Von Sydow grimly seems to accept his fate as the knight. In his superb commentary, Peter Cowie notes that Von Sydow was in his early '30s when the film was made, but his performance here makes him seem much older. Here is a man who seems beaten-down by life; a man who has learned when to be silent and when to speak; when he should fight and when he should just let go. His performance is complimented nicely by the great work of Gunner Björnstrand as the bawdy squire. Björnstrand is crass and ill-mannered, casually mocking everything remotely serious that he encounters. During a few moments, his jovial façade fades a bit and the character's deep-rooted bitterness is revealed. Bibi Andersson and Nils Poppe both bring a warm humanity to the film as the loving young couple. Bengt Ekerot's iconic turn as death still packs quite a punch today. He is not merely a mysterious menacing figure in black, but a sly trickster with a somewhat creepy sense of humor (consider his exchange with the desperate man in the tree). Even so, his obviously threatening qualities aren't nearly as unsettling as his complete lack of knowledge about what lies beyond.
Criterion has done a genuinely amazing job with the new transfer here, making The Seventh Seal arguably the best-looking older black-and-white film I've seen in hi-def thus far. Those who despise DNR will be pleased to know that the natural film grain has been left entirely intact, and yet the level of detail is still quite remarkable. Blacks are deep and rich, the level of contrast during darker scenes is nothing of spectacular, and the brighter scenes don't feel washed-out at all (as has been the case on occasion with some Bergman films). The Criterion DVD looked pretty good, but this is just awesome. The audio is about as good a mono track as I have heard, sounding very crisp and clean throughout. Erik Nordgren's ominous score benefits from greater vibrancy than was heard on the DVD release, and the dialogue is nice and clean here. You'll hear very little in the way of hissing or crackling on this track. Overall, Criterion did a simply sublime job in the technical department that I can only applaud.
Criterion released The Seventh Seal on DVD years ago, but this Blu-ray (and an accompanying 2-disc deluxe edition DVD) adds a lot of new supplemental material. The original release included only the usual Criterion booklet, an introduction from Bergman and a commentary from Peter Cowie, all of which have been included here. Cowie has recorded an 11-minute video afterward to his original audio commentary, adding some new thoughts and speaking about what an impact the film has had on himself and others over the years. The biggest new extra is "Bergman's Island," a terrific 84-minute documentary (actually three shorter documentaries combined into one large piece) made in 2004. This is a must-see for Bergman fans, as the director reflects on his life and career with his trademark candor. "Woody Allen on Bergman" (7 minutes) is a nice little tribute from one of Bergman's biggest champions, particularly focusing on The Seventh Seal. "Bergman 101" is a 36-minute slideshow of stills, posters, and film clips providing viewers with an overview of Bergman's career. Peter Cowie provides narration for this engaging feature. You also get an interesting audio interview with Max Von Sydow and a theatrical trailer.
What do you get when you combine a tremendous hi-def transfer, a terrific batch of new special features and one of the great films of a great director's career? A must-own release that stands as one of the strongest discs I've had the pleasure of reviewing. Highly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
* Top 100 Films: #32
* Full Frame (1080p)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Swedish)
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 1957
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Woody Allen Tribute
* Bergman 101
* Audio Interview