The Seventh Seal, Blu-ray (1957/2009)

by | Jul 4, 2009 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

The Seventh Seal, Blu-ray (1957/2009)

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, Bibi Andersson
Studio: Svensk Filmindustri/Janus Films/Criterion Collection 11 [Release date: June 16, 09]
Video: 4:3 B&W 1080p HD
Audio: PCM mono (choice of Swedish or English-dubbed)
Extras: New restored hi-def digital transfer, Intro by Ingmar Bergman (2003), Audio commentary by Bergman expert Peter Cowie, Afterword to the commentary from Cowie, “Bergman Island” – a 2006 83-min. documentary on Bergman with revealing interviews with the director, Audio interview with Max von Sydow, Woody Allen’s 1998 tribute to Bergman, Orig. theatrical trailer, “Bergman 101 – video filmography on his career – narrated by Cowie, New improved English subtitle translations, Printed illustrated booklet by critic Gary Giddins
Length: 97 minutes
Rating: *****

This 1957 classic is – probably along with his Virgin Spring – Bergman’s masterpiece, and the darling of the old art house circuit. The story is set in medieval times, with a knight (von Sydow) and his squire returning from a decade in the Holy Land on one of the Crusades. Their homeland is being ravaged by the plague and there are religious processions of penitents flogging themselves in the belief that the plague has been visited upon them due to their sins. There is also the burning of a girl accused of being a witch. At the beginning of the film the knight is approached by the figure of Death. He bargains with Death by playing a chess game with him.  The game is interrupted a few times and continues thru the film until near the end, when the knight loses, but by then he has accomplished one good deed of getting the “holy family” he meets (a jester/juggler, his wife and baby) to safety. There are other characters, including a smith whose wife has dallied with a member of the jester’s traveling band, and a silient young woman who the squire saves from being raped. Finally there is the knight’s wife who we meet when he brings his new-found friends to his castle –  he had married her as a young man a decade earlier.

The knight struggles with his place in the world, the horribly misguided ten years of the Crusade he was on, and wants some real evidence of the existence of God. He hopes to get it from Death, but receives nothing. Yes, this is heavy Bergman/Scandinavian philosophy, but the dialog is magnificent – especially in the improved English translations of the subtitles (can’t imagine anyone watching the English dubbed option).  However, When I originally saw The Seventh Seal I think I missed the peppering of Bergman’s own droll humor thruout. Some of it is really priceless, such as the argument between the smithy who wants to kill the actor who defiled his wife.

The extras are of a much more credible character than with most feature films. Woody Allen’s tribute will be fascinating for Allen fans, as well as the running commentary track by the Bergman expert.

My copy didn’t even have the blue sticker on the front which you see in the scan above; it was about halfway thru the film that I realized the image quality was just as terrific as it had been in Criterion’s B&W The Third Man and The Wages of Fear.  I then looked more closely at the box and saw the small “Blu-ray Edition” on the back.  (With my previous first gen player I would have known immediately because it took several minutes to load and play Blu-rays; no such problem with my present universal Oppo player.) The restoration was made from a freshly-prepared restored 35mm film master.  Some faults which were present on the earlier DVD reissue have been corrected such that there is no apparent damage to be seen anywhere in the film. The depth of detail and wide grey-tone spectrum reminded me of Ansel Adam’s photos. The black levels are also superb. If any classic film deserved the efforts in creating a pristine restoration, it would be this one.  There is some grain to be seen in the images, but it is not a bit annoying and stays at the same level thruout the film.  It actually seems to enhance the artistic look of the gorgeous cinematography.  The soundtrack is also a huge improvement over earlier reissues – Again, I have to thank Criterion for not fussing with Dolby Digital mono and using 24-bit PCM instead.  Not only is the clarity of the dialog exemplary, but I had never noticed before the interesting and very appropriate musical score heard in many sections of the film.

 — John Sunier