Release Date(s)1957 (October 18, 2021)
Studio(s)AB Svensk Filmindustri (British Film Institute)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B-
[This is a British import release. The 4K Ultra HD disc in this set will work on all players, but the Blu-ray in the package is Region B only.]
A weary Crusading knight, Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), returns home with his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) to find his country ravaged by the plague and despair. But years of pointless war have stripped Block of his faith. So when Death (Bengt Ekerot) appears to him one day, Block delays his inevitable end by challenging the imposing figure to a chess match. While Block knows that his questions about God and the afterlife will almost certainly go unanswered, he hopes for a chance to commit at least one meaningful act before he dies. And Block finds this chance when he and Jöns encounter a caravan of actors on the road home, among them the good-natured Joff (Nils Poppe), his kindly wife Mia (Bibi Andersson), and their infant son, who remind him that—even in the darkest of times—life goes on.
A loose film adaptation of his own play (called Trämålning, or Wood Painting), Bergman’s The Seventh Seal is not just a cinematic masterpiece filled with iconic imagery, it’s one of the director’s most personal and accessible works. A dream-like historical fantasy, The Seventh Seal is more accurately viewed as a horror film, though one with comic moments. Not only was Death a shocking figure for film audiences at the time (and one that Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey would have much fun with decades later), there are several moments of horror and dread throughout the film, interspersed with brief scenes of vitality, lust, and peaceful tranquility that create strong contrasts—a visual embodiment of the human search for meaning amid the harsh realities of life. Like many members of his generation, Bergman was struggling with his own loss of faith and with a larger existential angst in the aftermath of the events of World War II. The Seventh Seal can certainly be seen as Bergman’s effort to work though these feelings via the medium of film, in much the same manner as his contemporary, the legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa.
The Seventh Seal was shot on 35 mm B&W photochemical film by cinematographer Gunnar Fischer (Smiles of a Summer Night, Wild Strawberries) using spherical lenses, and it was finished photochemically at the 1.37:1 aspect ratio for theaters. The BFI’s new Ultra HD release was produced from a 4K scan of an original 35 mm negative, with restoration completed by the Swedish Film Institute. Given the film’s age, the quality of the resulting presentation is absolutely remarkable. Save for optical transitions, and the odd shot that has soft focus, this image is veritably bursting with detail. Skin tones, the weave of costume fabric, rocks, ocean waves, cloudy skies, fields full of flowers and grass, tree leaves—all of it exhibits refined and nuanced texturing. Grain is light-moderate but well controlled. The image is graded for high dynamic range (only HDR10 is available on this disc), which deepens the shadows and makes the brightest areas of the frame bolder, thus squeezing a bit more detail out of the image on both ends. It’s truly something to see a 60-year-old film looking so good.
Audio is available on the 4K disc in the original Swedish 2.0 Mono in LPCM format (48 kHz/24-bit). The track is unremarkable, but perfectly appropriate for this presentation. It’s largely clean and free of age-related distortion and defects. Dialogue is clear. Optional English subtitles are also available.
The BFI’s 4K disc includes the following special features:
- Audio Commentary by Kat Ellinger
- Behind-the-Scenes Footage with Commentary by Ian Christie (HD – 14:50)
- Theatrical Trailer (HD – 2:44)
The commentary is a little different and quite interesting. Ellinger is a film critic and the editor-in-chief of Diabolique magazine, and she clearly has deep knowledge of cinema history and an understanding of Bergman and his work in particular. The track is well worth your time. Meanwhile, the behind-the-scenes footage was shot during the making of the film, and Christie’s voice over includes additional context and other details on the production and its participants. Both that and the trailer are available in good (but by no means perfect) quality.
The BFI’s package also includes the film in 1080p HD on Blu-ray. That disc includes the same extras as the UHD and also adds:
- Karin’s Face (1984) (HD – 14:32)
This is a short film Bergman made about his mother’s life using personal family photos and music. The package also offers a 13-page booklet with an essay by Jessica Kiang, production credits, and liner notes. The case itself features the usual thicker British-style Amaray with a cardboard slipcover.
The Seventh Seal is both an extraordinary film and one that elevated Ingmar Bergman’s reputation as a legend to international critics and audiences, particularly coming as it did after the comedy of Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) and right before his introspective drama Wild Strawberries (1957). This is a deeply human and personal story that’s not only visually striking but lingers in the mind long after its final moments. It’s a viewing experience that every self-respecting cinephile should have, and a disc that deserves a place on your video shelf. Highly recommended.
- Bill Hunt