The Seventh Seal: Criterion Collection
June 22, 2009
It’s safe to say that The Seventh Seal (1957) is Ingmar Bergman’s most famous film judging by how firmly entrenched it has become in popular culture over the years. Key images and scenes from it, including Death (Ekerot), the chess game, and the Dance of Death, have been emulated and parodied countless times over the years. On a historical level, it has also been credited with helping launch art-house cinema in the 1950s, along with the films Akira Kurosawa and Federico Fellini. However, this has done little to diminish what a powerful meditation on man’s search for purpose in the universe it is.
Antonius Block (von Sydow), a 14th century knight, and his squire are resting on a beach, exhausted from the trials and tribulations of the Crusades and escaping the Black Death. Antonius awakens to find Death present and ready to take his life. In order to prolong the inevitable, the knight challenges the Grim Reaper to a game of chess and if he wins then he gets to live. A bemused Death agrees and so it goes. We also meet three performers, one of them is a juggler named Jof (Poppe), traveling the countryside. In an amusing turn he is courted by Death cutting down the tree that he’s sitting in. Jof and his companions eventually cross paths with Antonius.
Von Sydow plays the idealistic hero on a quest, complete with a sidekick. He’s a noble figure and brave enough to challenge Death to a game of chess. The Seventh Seal is not surprisingly rife with religious symbolism as the filmmaker wrestled with the weighty themes of life and death. Is God a man-made concept or did God create us? Bergman’s film is a fiercely intellectual film and yet not in a pretentious way. Since its debut in Stockholm in February 1957, The Seventh Seal has left behind an impressive legacy that has been expertly preserved in this excellent new special edition.
The first disc starts off with an audio commentary from the previous edition by film scholar Peter Cowie. He briefly talks about the impact that the first time he saw The Seventh Seal had on him. He points out where Bergman drew his inspiration for the look of Death. Cowie populates this track with production anecdotes along with an analysis of what we are watching as well as the film’s themes.
“Afterword” is a follow-up by Cowie to the 1987 commentary he did for the Criterion Collection. He points out the film’s rich humour, despite its reputation as a dark, brooding film about death. This extra gives him a chance to mention things that he failed to when he originally recorded the commentary.
“Max von Sydow Audio Interview” features excerpts of interviews Cowie conducted with the veteran actor in 1988 for a book about the man. He talks about his upbringing and his parents. He recounts his first experience with the theatre and how it led to him becoming an actor.
“Woody Allen on Bergman” features a wonderful short film from Turner Classic Movies with Allen talking about his love for Bergman’s films over a montage of clips from them. He says that The Seventh Seal is his favourite Bergman film. This is an eloquent tribute to the man and his films.
Also included is a trailer.
The second disc includes “Bergman Island,” an impressive feature-length documentary about Bergman that was released in 2006. Bergman reflects on his life and career, coming across as a modest and humble man who tells all kinds of engaging anecdotes from his life. There are many clips from his films and excellent behind-the-scenes footage.
Finally, there is “Bergman 101,” a crash course on the life and career of Bergman by Cowie. He narrates over stills and clips from the man’s films. This is an excellent primer that traces Bergman’s career arc and touches upon many of his films while also providing factoids and analysis.