Collecting Criterion – The Seventh Seal (1957)

Living through the troubled reality of a global pandemic can lead one to feel depressed and hopeless.  That’s especially true when your entire world has been turned upside down within the span of only a couple weeks.  Worst fears were realized in the last couple days as pretty much all social life as we know it was shut down in order to reduce the infection rate of the Covid-19 coronavirus.  This included movie theaters, which closed it’s doors for an indefinite amount of time in an unprecedented move that really gives you the true perspective of the scope of this crisis.  The entire Spring movie slate, from March to May has been moved off the calendar and some are even bypassing the cinemas altogether now, jumping to any streaming platform willing to pay for the rights.  It’s a devastating blow that will no doubt leave a black eye to the theatrical market in film, but at the same time, what other choice did they have.  Our response to this crisis needed to be broad and drastic in order to avoid an even bigger catastrophe in the form of mass casualties.  So, for the time being, all of us are going to have to get used to living hold up in our homes with our only outlet to entertainment being whatever is available in our digital and physical media libraries.  Thanks to their decades long commitment to curating the finest pieces of cinematic art from the last century, The Criterion Collection thankfully has given us a fairly extensive assemblage of films to choose from.  Some, like me, have delved extensively into collecting their many special edition blu-rays and DVD’s, but for those who haven’t, Criterion also offers their own streaming channel, built off of the remains of the beloved Filmstruck service.  And though it is grim and perhaps too reflective of the time we are living in, there is a film that is worth spotlighting that does touch upon the anxieties of a world overrun with a plague; Ingmar Bergman’s immortal classic, The Seventh Seal (1957, Spine #11)

The Seventh Seal holds a special place within the Criterion Collection.  You could almost say that there wouldn’t be a Criterion Collection without The Seventh Seal.  This is because of the special partner in the film business that has been responsible for providing Criterion with most of the films within it’s library; distributor Janus Films.  The New York based company is a private distributor of international films into the American market, and were the ones responsible for bringing attention to the likes of Akira Kurosawa, Frederico Fellini, Francois Truffaut, Sergei Eisenstein, Michelangelo Antonioni, and yes, Ingmar Bergman to American audiences.  Their wide distributions of films from outside the Hollywood machine had a profound impact on the business and went on to influence a whole new generation of homegrown filmmakers.  And to make a name for themselves, Janus couldn’t have picked a better film to make their debut than The Seventh SealSeal developed a cult following almost immediately.  In stark contrast to all the polish and glamour of Hollywood, Seventh Seal was bleak, chilling, and a thorough indictment of a world in denial of it’s own evil.  Bergman’s style was also unlike anything that American audiences had ever seen before.  Instead of soft, natural lighting, here they saw harsh contrasts between light and dark.  Instead of larger than life performances we got cold, emotionless characters.  It was strange, but in an entrancing way.  Though Bergman had already been well established in his native Sweden, this would be the movie that would propel him to international acclaim.  And many years later, when Criterion was blessed with the chance of taking full advantage of the extensive Janus Film library, they naturally made The Seventh Seal one of it’s earliest titles.   And in turn, thanks to Janus’ influence, Criterion would become a brand synonymous with the best of cinema.  By helping Janus films become a success, and in turn leading to their eventual partnership with Criterion, you can say that Seventh Seal is the one movie we have to thank for the Collection in the first place.

The Seventh Seal takes it’s name from a passage in the Book of Revelations, itself a parable of society living through end times.  In the passage itself, it reads, “And when the Lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.”  It refers to an end of calamity that has brought about the Apocalypse, and the final revelation of Jesus’ Second Coming.  But more importantly with regards to the theme of Bergman’s film, is that it marks a point when God’s voice is silent in the world.  That heavenly silence is what marks the despair found in the story of The Seventh Seal.  The movie tells the story of a medieval knight named Antonious Block (Max Von Sydow) who has returned home to Sweden from fighting in the Crusades.  Upon landing on the beaches of his homeland does he learn the shocking truth; that the black death plague has spread across the land, killing most of the population.  Accompanied by his squire Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand), Block intends to brave his way across the Plague ravaged countryside in order to return to his home and wife (Inga Landgre).  Along the way, they run into an entertainer named Jof (Nils Poppe) and his wife Mia (Bibi Andersson).  They are hoping to bring spirits up in their travels by playing songs in every town, but their good intentions are often drowned out by the pious flagellants who intend to keep the people god-fearing.  As the knight and squire travel onward, accompanied by the band of performers, Block continually is met by the personification of Death himself (Bengt Ekerot).  Block hopes to preoccupy Death by challenging him to a game of chess, thereby delaying his inevitable fate in this death ravaged land.  It is a game that he knows literally holds his life on the line, as well as those who accompanies him, and it’s one that he willfully accepts in the hopes of it granting him a chance to hear the voice of God before the end.

Pretty much the name Ingmar Bergman is synonymous with this movie more than any other he directed.  The image of Block and Death sitting over a chessboard on a beach has become one of the most iconic moments ever put on screen.  Even if you haven’t seen the movie in total, you know that image, because it is one of the most parodied in all of cinema.  It has been referenced in everything from Woody Allen movies to Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991), where instead of Chess that film’s version of Death plays other board games like Battleship and Twister in a comedic spin.  The Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Last Action Hero (1993) even features the character of Death directly from this movie as a part of it’s own narrative, played by (of all people) the legendary Sir Ian McKellan.  But, apart from it’s iconography, the movie is still a fascinating work of cinematic art.  For one thing, it is one of the most profound depictions of an Apocalyptic landscape ever put on screen.  Though Bergman uses the Black Death as the scourge destroying the human race in his movie, it was meant to be metaphoric of a different kind of doomsday scenario that was weighing on the heads of people in the mid 1950’s; the fear of a nuclear holocaust.  The Seventh Seal came out during the most heated years of the Cold War, with the United States and the Soviet Union proliferating their nuclear stock-holds at an alarming rate.  With tensions high, countries caught in the middle, like Sweden (a partial ally of the Western Block that would eventually form NATO) worried very much that nuclear annihilation would become a definite possibility.  That was the feeling of dread that informed Bergman’s creation of The Seventh Seal, and it’s understandable why he chose to re-contextualize that fear into the plague that we see in the movie.  As we learn from the film, Death knows no allegiances, no borders, no personal necessity.  Whether it is through nuclear war or a deadly pandemic, or something more benign, death will always win it’s game no matter what we do, and the scariest thought of all is that that Seventh Seal (God’s Silence) is all we’ll ever hear.

As bleak as it is, Ingmar Bergman still manages to make The Seventh Seal a thing of beauty.  Gunnar Fischer’s stark black and white cinematography would quickly define the signature of Bergman’s style, something that would even continue under the director’s conversion into color with the legendary Sven Nykvist in his later years.  The period detail is also quite good for it’s time, avoiding the polished cleanliness of old Hollywood medieval epics and showing us a time in the past that was dirty, decaying, and almost tomb like.  But apart from the beauty of the movie’s visual splendor, what really helps to make this film the masterpiece that it is can be found in the iconic performances.  It’s ironic that in this same time period where we are experiencing a global pandemic we have also experienced the passing of the late, great Max Von Sydow; bless-fully due to old age and not from any disease.  Sydow was an icon in the truest sense, crossing over into mainstream Hollywood with great ease and becoming one of the most reliable character actors in movie history, with movies as varied as The Exorcist (1973) and Flash Gordan (1980)in his body of work.  He acted all the way up to the end, even appearing recently in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), capping an over 60 year career in the movies Even at the ripe young age of 28 at the time, Sydow had a weathered look that was perfect for the character of a disillusioned soldier.  He’s also perfectly matched with Gunnar Bjornstrand as Jons, whose depiction of an outspoken, nihilistic squire is quite different from what you’d expect of other characters of his type.  Bengt Ekerot’s portrayal of Death however is the movie’s primary highlight.  His imposing figure all draped in stark black is chilling at first, but it’s balanced with an almost aloof personality.  It’s rather shocking that some of the movie’s only moments of levity come from the grim reaper himself, including a strange, nearly cartoonish moment where he cuts a tree down to claim another victim.  It’s easy to see why this movie entranced so many film-goers upon it’s initial release and it also launched two icons in Ingmar Bergman and Max Von Sydow to worldwide fame, which in itself is a reason to celebrate the film all these years later.

Given it’s treasured place right there in the early days of the Criterion Collection, The Seventh Seal has received a great deal of care in it’s preservation.  Criterion has carried the film over multiple formats, from Laserdisc to DVD to the most recent blu-ray.  And each time, it made sure to deliver a product that lives up to it’s always high standard.  The film’s original negative thankfully still remains intact at the Swedish Film Archives, and was used for a brand new 2K scan to create a digital master image to source for the blu-ray.  Bergman passed away in 2007, so he couldn’t be consulted for his approval of the new restoration, but he did help consult on Criterion’s DVD edition back in the aughts, and Criterion used his notes on that previous restoration to help inform them on things like color timing and sound mixing to create this new polish of the film.  Suffice to say, the movie looks pretty amazing for a film it’s age.  The clarity taken off of the original negative is superb, removing years of wear and tear and showing the film in the way it originally looked over 60 years ago.  The black cloak of Death’s robes are especially pristine here, revealing details that otherwise would have been lost within a black void in a less clean version of the movie.  The movie’s soundtrack also is freshened up as well.  Like most Bergman films, it’s not the dynamic range of the soundtrack that defines them, but rather the chilling silences.  The Seventh Seal is largely devoid of a musical score, and often the only thing we hear is dialogue and the ambient sounds of nature.  And then there are the chilling moments when all noise leaves the movie, marking the arrival of Death into the scene.  Had the restoration of the movie not removed the hisses and pops that could have filled those moments of silence, it would have robbed the movie of some of it’s foreboding power.  Overall, it’s a reference quality example of Criterion’s great devotion to preserving these works of cinematic art.

Like always, Criterion also delivers a healthy amount of supplements to fill out their presentation.  One is a particularly welcome introduction to the film from Ingmar Bergman himself.  Shot in 2003 for Swedish television, Bergman discusses his inspirations for the movie and what special place it holds for him in his extensive body of work.  Filmed around the same time as the introduction, we also are presented with an extensive documentary called Bergman Island (2006).  Journalist Marie Nyrerod, who also appears in the introduction, was given in-depth access to Bergman’s base of operations on the island of Faro, where the director would spend his last days.  With a series of revealing and introspective interviews, it’s a fascinating look into the life and method of one of cinema’s great masters.  There is also a wonderful English language, audio-only interview with Max Von Sydow from 1988 where the actor talks about his career, and especially touching upon his experience making Seventh Seal and working with Bergman. The interview was conducted by Bergman historian Peter Cowie, who also provides an informative audio commentary for the film, as well as a video essay called Bergman 101, which covers the full filmography of the director’s career through still images.  Perhaps the most surprising feature on this set is a tribute video essay made by one of the unlikeliest disciples of Ingmar Bergman; funnyman filmmaker Woody Allen.  Allen discusses the things that inspired him the most about Bergman’s movies including his innovations, his poetry, and his themes regarding the human experience.  You can see definitely see the influence of Bergman’s films in Allen’s own work, especially films like Love and Death (1975) and Interiors (1978).  Allen even got to borrow Bergman’s longtime collaborator, cinematographer Sven Nykvist for a few of his own films, like Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989).  It’s a definite statement of one filmmaker declaring his fan-hood for another, and it shows just how much of an effect cinema has in passing down through generations.  Lastly, the original Swedish film trailer is included, itself a wonderful artifact from another time.  It all makes this a fantastic collection of extras that compliments the classic film that it’s packaged with.

In other times, The Seventh Seal would be an easy film to recommend, especially as an introduction to Ingmar Bergman’s filmography.  However, given how the movie’s themes and setting seem so eerily prescient right now, it might not be a hard one to watch for some people.  This is especially the case if you read this purely as the bleak picture of humanity that it often is.  People forced to isolate themselves out of fear of an unseen menace; pious grifters hoping to convert the fearful towards their more extreme views in addition to exploiting them for their own benefit; the sad reality that everything you thought was safe and secure is going to change forever.  But, there is something profound that Bergman finds in the movie’s final moments.  It comes in what is probably the movie’s most haunting image; the “Dance of Death.”  Awaking in the morning, alive and well, the performers Jors and Mia find that they have made it into another day free of the horrible fate that befell all the others.  And in that moment, Jors believes he can see his former companions dancing on a hillside locked hand in hand behind Death, who leads them across into dawn’s first light.  For Jors, it’s a sign of hope, perhaps a message delivered to him by God after the the silence that given to all others.  In that moment, Bergman finds the ray of hope in the face of death.  Though as bleak as the world is, there are the Jors and Mia’s of the world who will carry on after and make the world a better place in the end.  Bergman often said that this was a therapeutic movie for him, as it enabled himself to overcome a crippling fear of death.  In a trying time like this coronavirus outbreak, where ironically, the theatrical movie experience may become one of it’s most tragic casualties, we need that positive outlook in order for us to overcome our worries.  One day, this too shall pass, but not without changing our world forever.  Are we ready to meet that inevitable fate?  Can we ourselves beat our own games of chess?  It’s more important than ever to preserve movies like The Seventh Seal, and Criterion has done another amazing job with this one.  In order to appreciate the colossal influence of Ingmar Bergman, as well as the amazing start of the late, great Max Von Sydow, and even confront our current anxieties over a world thrown into turmoil, there’s no better film to look at than this immortal masterpiece.  Check Mate.

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