“You know nothing, Ed Travis”
I jumped at the chance to review Criterion’s latest 4K UHD release of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.
Why did I jump? Well, I saw this as a perfect opportunity for Criterion to once again “take me to school” as I’m a lifelong film fan who has managed to never see an Ingmar Bergman film and whose biggest cultural connection to The Seventh Seal was knowing that Death from Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey was a reference to this film. I also knew this was a film set during the crusades, and during a plague, and I was just in the right temperament to plunge into something that dark and depressing. Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that this renowned classic (while indeed a death-obsessed tale) is rife with bawdy humor, beauty, and innocence to match the direness of is setting.
Max Von Sydow’s knight of the Crusades Antonius Block, upon returning to his homeland amidst a plague with his Squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) does indeed encounter Death (Bengt Ekerot in the visually iconic role) and challenge him to a game of chess. But what I’ve always envisioned as a dire, quiet, cerebral affair turns out to be a remarkably human tale brimming with emotion. The Seventh Seal plays out somewhat like The Canterbury Tales (something I also know little about and haven’t studied since high school), with knight and squire on the road and encountering various people in their travels who represent many different ideas and concepts that give depth to Block’s ongoing duel with Death.
Early on we’re able to observe the significant differences between Block and his Squire. Prone to the singing of bawdy and sacreligious tunes, Jöns is much more a man of the people, one who has seen death and destruction (and caused it) and feels no need to feign righteousness as a result. Block, however, is a believer in crisis. He’s a man of high esteem who has also spent his last several years at war and is desperate to understand and to make meaning before Death claims him. He’s a man of faith and authority, so it feels quite natural for him to not accept Death’s advance, but to challenge him to a game.
We soon encounter a family of traveling performers who turn out to represent something of the purity and innocence of life. Jof (Nils Poppe) is a “head in the clouds” type and reminiscent of a Jester. He sees religious visions and frequently gets into trouble in bars and towns when he tries to relay his second sight to others. Mia (Bibi Andersson) is a beautiful young mother to baby boy Mikael and wife to Jof. Many plot machinations occur in various vignettes throughout the film that flesh out the family, the Squire, and Block’s ongoing duel with Death.
Ultimately Death comes to collect and Block, enamored by the sweet young family representing hope and the future, finds some sort of personal form of redemption by sending Jof, Mia, and Mikael away from Death’s grasp, even as all the other characters, having taken refuge in Block’s castle, are not so fortunate. Jof, with his second sight, views all of our characters being led off by Death. Whether Block somehow managed a trick of fate to save this young family or whether the dumb luck of their social distancing from the rest of the troupe saved them from the Plague, we’ll never know.
The Seventh Seal is a film that openly asks many profound questions about religion, damnation, and salvation. Sure, it’s got historic iconography and an obsession with Death, but Bergman infuses the whole affair with bluntness and with real life emotion to create a parable that’s never staid or stuffy.
I think the image quality here looked fantastic, but I also continue to struggle to see whether a 4K restoration is really able to look markedly better than a 2K scan. I never claim to be an expert in these matters, as I am not, but let’s just say the image quality here is fantastic and not split hairs on whether it’s night and day better than simply a full HD version of the film.
Packed with bonus content largely narrated by Berman expert Peter Cowie, I gravitated immediately to the Bergman 101 feature as a cinephile with relatively little exposure to Bergman. I found it highly informative and interesting to learn that Bergman also directed stage plays throughout his career and spent much of his time working with casts and crews who moved between stage and screen with him throughout his various projects. Bergman at one point casually described The Seventh Seal (what would become his most renowned work) as simply something he made with his friends one summer.
This disc also offers full commentary by Cowie, a feature length doc called Bergman Island, a Woody Allen tribute to Bergman, trailers, an essay, and an intro. In other words, it’s pretty well packed to the gills and allows Criterion to do what it does best for me personally, which is to take me to school and offer me so much to learn about a cinematic master I’ve never known a whole lot about. I suspect it’ll offer as much to you as well, whether Bergman novice or superfan.
And I’m Out.
The Seventh Seal hits 4K UHD Blu-ray from Criterion 4/18/23