Release Date(s)1957 (April 18, 2023)
Studio(s)AB Svensk Filmindustri (The Criterion Collection)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: A
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. Criterion’s new Ultra HD release (like the BFI’s 2021 UHD, reviewed here) was produced from a 2018 4K scan and restoration of the original 35 mm negative completed by the Swedish Film Institute. Given the film’s age, the quality of the resulting presentation is impressive. 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. But unfortunately, while the BFI disc was graded for high dynamic range (HDR10), Criterion has chosen not to include HDR—it’s 10-bit SDR only. That’s a shame, because the BFI grade 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. As it is here, Criterion’s 4K presentation is certainly an improvement over their original 2009 BD release (reviewed here), but only a modest one over the Blu-ray included in their 2018 Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema box set (which was mastered from the new scan and restoration).
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. Criterion’s disc adds an English-dubbed audio option as well in 1.0 Mono Dolby Digital (192 kbps). Optional English subtitles are also available.
Criterion’s release is a two-disc set that includes the film in 4K on Ultra HD as well as remastered 1080p HD on Blu-ray. The 4K disc includes a single special feature:
- Audio Commentary by Peter Cowie
This was recorded in 1987 for Criterion’s original LaserDisc release of the film. Cowie is an accomplished British film scholar and historian who began publishing the International Film Guide in 1963. His commentary is rich with historical detail, analysis, and contextual information, all delivered in dramatic tones and a distinguished accent. The remastered Blu-ray in the package also includes this commentary and adds the following additional special features:
- Ingmar Bergman Introduction (SD – 2:58)
- Bergman Island (SD – 83:26)
- Afterword (HD – 10:33)
- Max von Sydow Audio Interview (HD – 19:53)
- Woody Allen on Bergman (SD – 7:13)
- Bergman 101 (HD – 35:22)
- Theatrical Trailer (SD – 2:38)
All of these features, which are excellent, were included on the 2009 Criterion Blu-ray. They begin with an introduction recorded in 2003 by journalist Marie Nyreröd speaking to Bergman in his screening room—something that was intended to be shown prior to the film on Swedish TV broadcasts. Bergman Island is a candid and intimate 2006 feature-length documentary produced by Nyreröd, compiled from her own 2004 trilogy of shorter features on the filmmaker and his work. The Afterword features additional video comments by Cowie intended to supplement his earlier audio commentary. Also included are audio excerpts from interviews Cowie conducted with Mad von Sydow for his 1988 book on the actor, as well as a short piece with filmmaker Woody Allen produced for Turner Classic Movies in 1998, and Cowie’s Bergman 101 video essay on the filmmaker’s career. A theatrical trailer rounds out the video-based extras, though a liner notes book in the package also includes restoration notes and an essay by film critic Gary Giddins entitled There Go the Clowns.
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. Criterion’s new 4K release is excellent, and its extras can’t be beat. But some of you may already have those on Blu-ray, and serious Ultra HD enthusiasts may wish to seek out the aforementioned BFI release for its lovely HDR grade instead.
- Bill Hunt