How old do you think Max Von Sydow was when he made "The Seventh Seal" (1957)? As the world-weary knight Antonius Block, just returned from a decade fighting in the Crusades, he is one of the memorable faces in the history of cinema with that amazing oblong skull and his weathered, somber face, playing chess against the Grim Reaper and battling existential terror. But how old was the actor?
Of all the remarkable aspects of this remarkable film, that's the one that continues to blow me away. Twenty-freaking-eight? You've got to be kidding me.
"The Seventh Seal" was Von Sydow's fifth film and his first starring role, and it was a breakthrough not only for him and for director Ingmar Bergman but for international art-house cinema itself. The cinema as art debate was already ancient (much older than Von Sydow even) by the time "The Seventh Seal" appeared in America in 1958, but it was one of a handful of films, if not the film, that launched cinema into the realm of academic and critical respectability in America. Cinema became relevant to "serious" artists, and there's no doubt that "The Seventh Seal" helped to create an environment that would be receptive to the game-changing works of The French New Wave that would follow in just a few years.
Because of its historical significance, and because of the place the film has secured in popular culture, people often think of "The Seventh Seal" as a brooding, gloomy (i.e. very Scandinavian) meditation on death which, in part, it is. But to watch the film again (or, for some of you, for the first time) is to be reminded of just how funny it is. Much of this is due to the character of Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand), Antonius' foul-mouthed, sarcastic squire who may have more wicked one-liners than can be found in the rest of Bergman's work combined.
A pragmatist, a skeptic, and a misogynist, Jöns has a decidedly jaundiced view of the world: "I'm a married man but with any luck my wife will be dead by now" or "It's hell with women and hell without them. Best to kill them while you're still having fun." Jöns is the glue that holds the story together. He's able to relate to people of all classes while Antonius would rather spend his time spouting tedious monologues in which he expresses the pain of (then) modern existence.
And there's plenty of pain to be found in a country ravaged by the black plague. Death lurks everywhere so it makes sense that the literal incarnation of Death (Bengt Ekerot) should happen to show up. In typically blunt fashion, Bergman doesn't diddle around. After an opening scene in which Antonius washes himself in the ocean, Death simply appears as matter-of-factly as a neighbor dropping by to ask to borrow the lawnmower.
Antonius challenges Death to a chess match for his soul, and though this has become the film's defining motif it only occupies a few minutes of screentime throughout the film. The knight doesn't expect to win. He simply wants a reprieve so he can perform one meaningful act, something he feels he wasn't able to do while he rushed off on perhaps the greatest fool's errand of the 20th Century, the Christian Crusades.
Antonius' opportunity for salvation appears in the form of two itinerant actors, Jof (Nols Poppe) and Mia (the absurdly beautiful Bibi Andersson), and their infant son. Poppe, for the record, was a full 20 years older than Von Sydow, and Andersson, so pure and so young, only six years his junior. In the second half of the film, Antonius declares himself their protector and lives up to the title in the most definitive way possible.
To my taste, "The Seventh Seal" is the only Bergman film that is actually fun to watch. Bergman's penchant for heavy-handed symbolism, often cloying, is well-served in such a direct and straightforward film. Indeed, the movie is so literal in its approach to its subject matter, there isn't much symbolism at all. When Jöns finds a dead monk lying on the shore, he's not a symbol of death, he is death, even more so than Death himself. But for all the death (and Death), there's a lot to enjoy: the genuine innocence of the young couple, the broad comic relief, and, of course, the stark, stunning images that have been so-often reproduced and parodied, none more memorable than the Dance of Death that ends the proceedings.
I don't find anything particularly perceptive or moving about the film's depiction of existential angst. Antonius' monologues are stilted and overwrought and Death, with his pasty clown makeup, is a bit of a dork. It's also hard to understand how the characters can still be questioning the existence of the supernatural when they're staring at the actual incarnation of Death. As much as I side with Jöns' atheism, I don't think I'd be so confident when I was staring right at the man who was about to send me off to the dreamless sleep.
Nonetheless, "The Seventh Seal" is tremendously entertaining and a joy to look at. More than 50 years later, even the pop culture grinder hasn't been able to mulch it into ironic irrelevance. It is with nothing but respect that I describe it a great cult movie, infinitely quotable and rewatchable.
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The image is picture-boxed like most recent Criterion full frame releases.
The Blu-Ray represents the usual upgrade over the SD version with substantially higher resolution which brings out the fine grain even better. Unless you have the opportunity to see a restored print in a theater, you're never going to see a better version of "The Seventh Seal." This is simply luminous, Criterion's best Blu-Ray effort yet.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Mono. Optional English subtitles support the Swedish audio. For those of you who really hate movies or have some morbid curiosity, you can also listen to it with an English-dubbed soundtrack.
The commentary is the same 1987 one recorded by Peter Cowie that is offered on the original DVD release. The original release included a still photo/text-based Bergman retrospective. The new release uses some of the same photos from this features but integrates them into a video filmography titled "Bergman 101" with commentary by Peter Cowie (35 min.)
The Blu-Ray features an introduction by Bergman (3 min.) recorded in 2003 as part of a series of intros conducted by Marie Nyreröd, who also directed "Bergman Island," another feature in this set.
Peter Cowie provides an Afterword, recorded in 2008 (10 min.), to supplement his 1987 commentary track. Cowie also conducted a series of audio interviews with Max von Sydow in 1988 while writing a book about the actor, and several excerpts are included here (20 min.) The world's most famous Bergman disciple Woody Allen holds court on his favorite director in a 1998 piece originally recorded for Turner Movie Classics (7 min.)
The major extra on the Blu-Ray is the feature-length documentary "Bergman Island" (2004, 83 min.) which consists of a series of interviews by Marie Nyreröd of the reclusive auteur. "Bergman Island" has also been released as a stand-alone disc and you can read more about it here.
The insert booklet, also a change from the original release, includes a wide-ranging essay by Gary Giddins.
"The Seventh Seal" is one of the defining films of European art-house cinema and even if, like me, you're not the most enthusiastic Bergman fan in the world, it is a must own for anyone even remotely serious about film. The Blu-Ray is virtually impeccable and is recommended on every possible level.
"The Seventh Seal" has also been released as an SD. "Bergman Island" has also been released as a stand-alone title.