Ingmar Bergman's sublime The Seventh Seal suggests the intersection of Geoffrey Chaucer, Rod Serling and Samuel Beckett. Of course, it's pure Bergman, but the writer-director's brilliantly creative tale of humanity struggling to live in the face of death has a classical theatricality in its surrealistic embodiment of death (with black cloak, scythe and hourglass) and embrace of a travelling troupe of actors. The film's most indelible image remains a knight's chess match with Death (inspired by a painting by medieval church artist Albertus Pictor), but the film is astonishingly beautiful from its first stark silhouette (an eagle against the sky at daybreak) to its last (a hillside dance of Death), with painterly pastoral imagery in between. Every setting, every object, every line of dialogue is pregnant with meaning about the human lifestyles that, in various ways, stave off the great unknown.
The title derives from the apocalyptic Book of Revelations, and the story begins with the depressed, isolated and self-loathing knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) and his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) returning to Sweden after "ten wasted years" on a "noble" Crusade. On the shore, Death (Bengt Ekerot) introduces himself to Block, who negotiates a chess game to forestall his death or perhaps even win a reprieve. On his journey home to a high-perched castle, Block meets some kindred souls and helps them to steer clear of the deadly and pitiless plague. Jof (Nils Poppe) and Mia (Bibi Andersson) are actors and the hopeful parents of a toddler. Jof insists the boy will one day surpass them by making a ball levitate in mid-air.
Mia: That's impossible.
Jof: For you and me. But not for him.
The family's optimism and joie de vivre seem to keep them blithely apart from Death. Seldom bothered, even by the plague, Jof and Mia can appreciate the beauty around them: a verdant grove, the birds singing, the sun shining, and each other. Their acting partner, grumbling about their upcoming gig at the saint's feast in Elsinore, carries his death's head mask as he scoffs to Jof, "A fool like you can play the soul of man."
In The Seventh Seal, duality is Bergman's watchword. Life, in all its iterations, and death keep taut a narrative tension. So do good and evil: there may be a plague (sadism, as the story demonstrates, is also a communicable disease), but there are also graces like generosity, hospitality and small wonders like fragrant, wild strawberries found growing on a hillside; as an unheeded peasant puts it at one point, "We should enjoy life as long as we're still standing." Death is always at our side, but spring comes around once every year. Faith and reason, the religious and the secular also carry on a subtextual debate. The agnostic Block writhes in existential torture: "Must it be so cruelly inconceivable to know God through one's senses? Why must he hide in a fog of half-spoken promises and unseen miracles?...What will become of us who want to believe but cannot?" Meanwhile, Jof sees visions of madonna and child, but affirms his preference, and that of his audience, for bawdy entertainments over religious ones.
Love, sex, and marriage also get their due, particularly in a comic subplot involving one of the actors stealing a blacksmith's wife. "It's hell with women and hell without them," says Jöns, and a painter insists, "A skull is more interesting than a naked woman." Still, Bergman seems to say, if love is no guarantee of staving off death, it's still our best bet—or at least a suitable distraction. While considering all there is of life, Bergman naturally does not forget to ponder the social utility of the artist: to entertain (or, in other words, distract) or to tell it like it is? In this eternal masterpiece, Bergman chooses not to choose, with equal parts good humor and dramatic despair. Teeming as it does with ideas about life, death, art, faith, man's inhumanity to man, and love, perhaps no one film speaks more fully to the human condition than The Seventh Seal.
Film fans, rejoice. There's never been a better time to watch The Seventh Seal from your couch. One-upping their previous DVD edition, Criterion has released gorgeous, mirrored Blu-ray and DVD special editions that are well worth an upgrade and a no-brainer for first-time adopters. On Blu-ray, the picture is simply gorgeous, in highly detailed, clean and crisp black-and-white. Contrast is spot-on, and there's not a digital artifact to be seen. The LPCM mono soundtrack is true to the source and blessedly free of hiss and crackle. The optional subtitles provide an admirably up-to-date translation.
The special features kick off with an expert, scholarly audio commentary by film scholar Peter Cowie, who knows his stuff when it comes to Bergman. Elsewhere on the disc, Cowie delivers a video "Afterword" (10:33, HD) prepared in 2008 to cap his 1987 commentary track.
A 2003 "Ingmar Bergman Introduction" (2:58, HD) filmed by Marie Nyreröd, makes a nice preview for her fantastic feature-length documentary Bergman's Island (1:23:26, HD), assembled from a trilogy of documentary shorts Nyreröd made in 2004. The film is made up of extensive interviews with Bergman, archival footage, photographs, and film clips.
"Max von Sydow Audio Interview" (19:53, HD) is a series of excerpts from Cowie's terrific 1988 interviews with von Sydow.
The 1998 Turner Classic Movies piece "Woody Allen on Bergman" (7:13, HD) is a joy for fans of both filmmakers.
The similarly structured but more in-depth "Bergman 101" (35:21, HD) is Cowie's video essay on Bergman's career, illustrated by stills, behind-the-scenes photos, and film clips.
Lastly, we get the film's "Trailer" (2:38, HD).
As always, Criterion delivers a great package, and this important film rates a 28-page booklet that includes a chapter list, tech specs, credits, photos and an extensive essay by Gary Giddins about the film.
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer