THE SEVENTH SEAL
Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Max von Sydow, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Nils Poppe, Bibi
Andersson, Bengt Ekerot
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Audio: PCM Mono
Video: Standard 1.33:1
Features: See Review
Length: 96 Minutes
Release Date: June 16, 2009
"And when the Lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven..."
There are classic films, and then there are those
that loom like luminous milestones in the history of motion pictures. The
Seventh Seal is one of the largest such monuments. It's an allegorical,
deeply personal film that somehow transcends time to connect with each new
generation that views it, and maintains its sense of wonder despite being one of
the most spoofed films of all time.
Antonius Block (von Sydow) returns to Sweden after 10 years fighting in the crusades to find Death (Ekerot) waiting for him. He manages to buy a respite by challenging Death to a game of chess, and he hopes during this respite to find some satisfying answers to his deepest questions. We learn over the course of the film that Block is a man of misplaced idealism, a man who fought in a losing crusade on the side of Christianity only to question his own beliefs about God, religion, and what lies beyond the dark curtain of death.
The game is played in periodic spurts throughout the film. Death is very busy at that time in history, with the terrible plague sweeping all through Europe. Everyone is desperate to find an answer to the unstoppable terror, and we witness scenes of monks preaching about the wrath of God, poor souls marching through towns singing terrible chants and whipping themselves, and even a young girl about to be burned at the stake for being a witch. She believes she has seen beyond, but her execution brings something to the surface more terrifying than merely her death. This was one of the most chaotic times in human history.
Meanwhile, Block and his squire Jons (Bjornstrand) travel through, until they hook up Mia and Jof (Andersson and Poppe), a couple of simple but happy travelling actors with their infant son. Block sees in them everything he lacks: peace, love, hope, and serenity. But he soon learns Death's mission is to take them all.
In a clumsy but effective move, Block uses the chess game to distract Death just long enough for the family to get away, but there is no such fortune for himself. Upon losing the game, Block asks Death, "At least now tell me your secrets." Death replies, "I have no secrets." "You know nothing?" Block asks. "I am unknowing," answers Death.
Any attempt to analyze this film will be futile and sadly incomplete without going into pages. This is just a brief summary; many of the film's depths I'll leave to you to explore. I would like to touch on a couple more things. One is the character of Jons, who, in a deeply spiritual and serious film, provides the movie with many touches of welcome humor with his cynical asides. He always reminds me of one of Jane Austen's men, like Mr. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice.
Secondly, I mentioned how much this film has seemed to grow in meaning from generation to generation. When the movie came out, it was during the beginnings of the Cold War, and many people read in this picture about death and the meaning of life a lot of the fear and uncertainty of global nuclear war. At the time the disc's commentary track was recorded, it was the late eighties, and the historian mentions linking the film to the fear of AIDS. Criterion's initial DVD release came on the brink of the new millennium, and the picture seemed to reverberate with the same fear and paranoia associated with that. Now, with the world facing an increasing terrorist threat and worldwide economic fascism, it's not a stretch to think of modern despairs in terms of the film's characters and scenarios.
The point of all this being, that's what separates a classic movie from a landmark, in my opinion...the ability to seem fresh and topical from one generation to the next keeps a film in the forefront of people's minds, analyzing it and discussing it, with each person drawing his or her own conclusions about what the film is supposed to mean. That's difficult to do, but Bergman has done it masterfully here.
Count this among the happiest home video moments of my career...I've seen many, many incarnations of The Seventh Seal, but this Blu-ray is even better than I had hoped. I've never viewed such a strikingly clear print of the film. The contrast level, which was always important, is more pronounced and detailed than ever before...images play against each other with stunning clarity, and the deep blacks and rich whites convey Bergman's masterful image compositions with a beauty I dare say not seen since the original release. So fine is the high definition presentation that you can actually pick out the tiny, tiny spots of texture inherent in the film stock in some sequences...not a flaw, but part of the natural high-contrast medium. This is a true apex for classic movies married harmoniously with modern technology.
The mono soundtrack is uncompressed on this Blu-ray release, and despite being single channel, it offers some moments of surprising dynamic range thanks to the terrific music and a few major effects like a sudden storm. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout, and the overall presentation is remarkably fresh sounding in spite of its age. The disc also includes an English dubbed presentation, but trust me, forgo it for the impressive original Swedish audio.
Criterion has made a good release even better on Blu-ray. The terrific commentary track from Peter Cowie remains, but with a newly recorded afterward in high def.. There is a 2003 introduction to the film by Bergman himself, along with a 1989 tribute to the filmmaker from Woody Allen, about seven minutes and featuring his narration over various film clips. "Bergman 101" is a selected video filmography hosted by Cowie, and the complete documentary "Bergman Island", also available separately from Criterion, is featured on the disc. This is quite a lovely and moving portrait of the artist, who is generous with his memories and warm as he takes us through his life and career.
Rounding out is a classic audio interview with Max von Sydow and the original trailer, plus a terrific booklet featuring an essay by critic Gary Giddins.
I must say, I believe this is the single best presentation of a classic film I've yet seen on home video. Criterion has always been the cinema student's best friend, and now, with their continued release of landmark film classics in high definition, they have solidified their position. The Seventh Seal on Blu-ray is a treat that truly defies all adjectives...this one simply MUST be seen.