The Seventh Seal
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Returning exhausted from the Crusades to find medieval Sweden gripped by the Plague, a knight (Max von Sydow) suddenly comes face-to-face with the hooded figure of Death, and challenges him to a game of chess. As the fateful game progresses, and the knight and his squire encounter a gallery of outcasts from a society in despair, Ingmar Bergman mounts a profound inquiry into the nature of faith and the torment of mortality. One of the most influential films of its time, The Seventh Seal is a stunning allegory of man’s search for meaning and a work of stark visual poetry.
The Criterion Collection revisits (yet again!) Ingmar Bergman’s seminal classic The Seventh Seal, upgrading it to 4K UHD and presenting it in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1 on a dual-layer BD-66 disc. The SDR 2160p/24hz ultra high-definition presentation is sourced from the same 4K restoration performed by Svensk and used in Criterion's Ingmar Bergman's Cinema box set, coming from a scan of the 35mm original negative. A standard dual-layer Blu-ray is also included, featuring a 1080p presentation of the film alongside all of the release’s video features. Surprisingly, the standard Blu-ray is a direct port of their 2009 edition (using the older master) and not the 2018 disc included in the box set (using the newer master).
Despite BFI releasing their own 4K edition in the UK with Dolby Vision/HDR10, Criterion has made the peculiar choice of bypassing HDR entirely, presenting the newer restoration in standard dynamic range. The good news is that despite the narrower contrast in comparison, Criterion’s presentation looks remarkable and delivers a noticeable improvement over both of their previous Blu-ray releases, including the one sourced from the same restoration in the Bergman box. Blacks are still intense and inky, while whites are bright without blooming. The grayscale in between is also very wide, and the gradients are cleaner than either Blu-ray could manage, leading to far more of a photographic look. This also helps expose more fine-object detail found in blades of grass in the field and even von Sydow’s chainmail. Close-ups also look staggering, with every hair and pore found on the actors’ faces laid bare. Long shots of the sky even expose wonderful little subtleties as well.
Restoration work has, again, been extensive. A few minor scratches and marks pop up here and there, and a couple of shots and transitions have a softer look (which is expected), but nothing is worth noting. The encode also looks sharp, handling the film's grain impressively. It's crisp and clean and never appears blocky or noisy.
It's all well and good and does look pretty great, but if I’m to be perfectly honest, the wider dynamic range found in the BFI edition does add a whole other layer to the presentation, even if it’s still subtle. The opening shots of the sky better simulate a “projected” look on the BFI edition, and there’s a little more detail in the shots of the rocky beach. Darker interiors look perfectly fine on Criterion's, but more depth is present in the shadows of the BFI’s. There are also lovely subtleties to how the light reflects off objects on the BFI edition (even that chainmail), and then there are a handful of striking moments, from the witch-burning scene to a gorgeous shot of Death in a doorway, with the light wrapping around him. Those same shots look perfectly fine here but end up looking flatter in comparison, and that projected “silver screen” look is missing. It was admittedly subtle, but it did give the presentation a lovely little boost.
As to why Criterion didn’t go that route here, I can’t say. Yet, even if I find it an unfortunate decision on their part, their 4K presentation still looks undeniably good, providing a notable boost over all of their previous DVD and Blu-ray releases.
As they have done since 1987 Criterion provides the film's original Swedish soundtrack and then an alternate English dub. The former is in lossless single-channel PCM, while the English track is in Dolby Digital 1.0 mono. The Swedish soundtrack is still rather impressive, featuring ample range and fidelity. At times it can almost sound newly recorded. Music can come off a wee-bit edgy in places but, on the whole, stays relatively stable.
The English track, which is almost assuredly the same one used on Criterion's LaserDisc edition, still needs to be revised. It's tinny and edgy with little to no depth or range. Yet again, it can sound like you're listening to it in a tunnel.
Since the included Blu-ray is a direct port of the 2009 edition, all special features have been carried over. Things start again with Peter Cowie's now 36-year-old audio commentary, recorded initially for Criterion's LaserDisc edition. I only sampled it this time, but it still holds a special place for me as it was one of the earliest audio commentaries I listened to (the first was the one found on the LaserDisc for Goldeneye). It still holds up quite well, Cowie digging deep into the film, which all helped in my understanding and appreciation of the film after being exposed to it initially at a younger age. He even talks about Bergman’s career as a whole (which resonates differently now that I'm far more familiar with Bergman's work) and about various cast members. He even touches on the history of the production. It’s an extensive track and can come dangerously close to being dry, yet Cowie manages to keep it interesting and entertaining. If you have yet to listen to it, it is worth the time, especially if you're still new to Bergman.
The commentary has been included with the 4K presentation and the 1080p presentation on the second disc. The second disc then hosts the remaining video features, starting with a 2003 introduction featuring Ingmar Bergman, which was film while Marie Nyreröd made her three-part television documentary about Bergman (which was then released theatrically as the shorter Bergman Island, also included on this disc). Introductions for some of his other films were also recorded and used for airings of his movies on Swedish television, which can be found on some of Criterion's releases of Bergman's work. It’s a brief 3-minute piece where Bergman talks about the film, where the idea came from, and how it ranks as one of his favorites. A nice short bit, and it’s a treat seeing the director talk about his work.
Another great addition, even if it's not complete, is the 83-minute documentary Bergman Island, which Criterion released on DVD back in 2009. As mentioned above, this film first appeared as a three-part series on Swedish television running about 3 hours, each part concentrating on specific aspects of the filmmaker's career and life, the first part focusing on his films, the second part on his theatre work, and the third on his life on Fårö Island. There was interest in releasing it as a film theatrically; unfortunately, distributors were only interested in the segments looking at his film work and his life on the island. This led to Nyreröd editing the film into this 83-minute version. While both she and Bergman approved of it, there does feel to be a lot missing, and in reality, 83 minutes isn’t enough to cover the man’s life and work. It’s especially disappointing since Bergman preferred his theatre work, considering that period the most important of his career, and this version of the film only briefly touches on that period of his life.
Getting past that, I still rather enjoyed this documentary. While filming, director Marie Nyreröd stayed with Bergman at his home on Fårö island over a few weeks and gathered a collection of candid, personal interviews with the reclusive director. They talk quite a bit about his home, which he is proud of, and they, of course, get into detail about his film career with a brief detour over to his theatre work. He’s very open, covering his childhood and talking about his parents (who were both rather strict) before explaining how he got into filmmaking. He talks about his deep regrets, including one that significantly influenced Scenes from a Marriage, and then discusses the many loves and relationships he had in his life. He clears up some things he had said previously about some of his films, including a comment where he suggested Cries & Whispers was about his mother, now saying that was a lie and something he said simply to say something. He gets into his fears, which influenced his work, shares the story around his “tax problems,” and even talks about his hope of once again seeing his last wife, Ingrid, in what may be one of the more touching moments in the film. There are plenty of charming moments in it (like a story about how he got his first Cinematograph), and at 83 minutes, it goes by very fast.
Following that (rather naturally) is an afterword created by Cowie, which acts as a video follow-up to his original commentary. It’s ten and a half minutes, and Cowie adds some things he learned after recording that original track, like the fact that 95% of the film was shot on set, only a tiny portion of it being shot on location. He also touches a little more on Bergman’s reputation in Sweden, suggesting that most of the audience there couldn’t relate to his work, and it was only after his death that people realized what a treasure they had. The commentary track is excellent, so there was no need to record a new one, but this little addition fills in some small holes.
The included Max von Sydow audio interview is a 20-minute audio presentation featuring excerpts from an interview Cowie did with von Sydow back in 1988. It’s a solid interview featuring the actor talking about his childhood and the journey that eventually led him to theatre, film, and Bergman. He attributes his success to The Seventh Seal and admits he’s not fond of his acting in those “older” films, pointing out what he considers wrong with his early performances. I haven't seen many interviews with the actor, making this open discussion extra special.
A relatively excellent little addition, if still short, is Woody Allen on Bergman, taken from a Turner Classic Movie segment. It runs a little over 7 minutes and features Allen talking about his admiration for the director, how Bergman’s films influenced his own, and how every release of one of his films was a massive event to him. He also states that The Seventh Seal is his favorite of all of Bergman’s films. It’s no surprise to most that Bergman was a huge influence on Allen, and I have to acknowledge that it was Allen’s work that led me to Bergman’s films, thanks to the many references he would put into films like Love and Death, leading to my desire to understand those references better. I don’t recall ever hearing Allen talk all that much about the movies that have impacted him, so this is another excellent find on Criterion's part.
Finally, Bergman 101 is an updated version of the Bergman Filmography visual essay that appeared on Criterion’s original 1998 DVD for The Seventh Seal. The feature was a quick crash course on Bergman’s career, going through a good chunk of his work and looking into his style and techniques. This was a text feature made by Bergman scholar Peter Cowie, with photos and a couple of film clips mixed in. On the original DVD, one navigated through using their remote. Cowie updated it in 2009 to a visual essay, providing narration. In essence, it’s the same as on the 1998 DVD, with Cowie reiterating his notes from that original presentation. But he does expand on details, talking further about Bergman’s childhood, his work, and his film techniques (like Bergman’s use of mirrors). There are also more photos and clips from his films. The original “multimedia essay” found on the 1998 DVD presented clips from Wild Strawberries and The Magician, with a commentary by Cowie. Those clips appear again, though in a slightly different manner (and in much better shape, looking as though they come from newer restorations, as of 2009, anyways). But this update also includes clips from Summer Interlude, The Silence, Scenes From a Marriage, and Fanny and Alexander. The essay also features films released after 1987, all the way up to Saraband, before making mention of his death. Running 35 minutes, it’s an excellent expansion on the previous feature, which I considered a great introduction to the director at the time. Most certainly worth viewing.
The disc then concludes with the film’s theatrical trailer.
Criterion then replicates the Blu-ray edition's booklet, which featured a lengthy essay by Gary Gidden, who analyzes the film and its impact.
It's still an impressive set of features that should prove fascinating and informative to both newcomers of Bergman's work and those that have seen all of his films.
Though it falls a bit short of BFI's presentation due to the decision not to include HDR, Criterion's 4K presentation bests all of their previous presentations by a significant margin. Their special edition is still the most comprehensive one yet put together for the film.