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The Criterion Collection presents
The Seventh Seal (1957)

Antonius: Who are you?
Death: I am death.

- Max Von Sydow, Bengt Ekerot

Review By: Dan Lopez  
Published: June 08, 2001

Stars: Max Von Sydow, Inga Gill, Gunnar Björnstrand
Other Stars: Bibi Anderson, Bengt Ekerot, Nils Poppe
Director: Ingmar Bergman

Manufacturer: Cinram
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (themes of death)
Run Time: 01h:35m:50s
Release Date: February 02, 1999
UPC: 037429124529
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A+ A+AB+ A-

DVD Review

Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal is one of those cinematic hallmarks that many people, including myself, consider almost required viewing. Not so much in that everyone must love it, but it is such a crucial building block to the very nature of filmmaking's evolution that it must be seen to be appreciated. Bergman is often the butt of many jokes; the satirical material based on Seventh Seal alone could make a significant feature. For all the flak his work has taken, though, it remains some of the most striking and amazingly pristine work seen on the screen. For all the escapism we crave in motion pictures, Bergman took the philosophical realities of life and didn't flinch, but rather produced amazing fables of mortality.

In the story, brave knight Antonius Block (Max Von Sydow) is returning to his home in Sweden after many years spent fighting in the Crusades. He journeys slowly back to his castle with his faithful squire, Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand). While traveling, Antonius encounters the specter of Death (Bengt Ekerot), who informs him that it is his time to die. To avoid death, and possibly cheat him as well, Antonius challenges him to a game of chess, wagering that if he wins, Death must let him live. As Antonius and his squire move through the countryside, they come upon the harsh realities of the day: the black plague has transformed many people in his homeland into scavengers and unkindly tyrants. Amongst them, he comes across are a family of performers, who are unable to find satisfactory work in this modern world of suffering.

As the progression of these characters moves on, Death is ever-watching and monitoring them. As he plays chess with Antonius, he also looks to bring doom upon those that travel with him. Although this is the image that Seventh Seal is most remembered for, the film is primarily a character study of how each of the individuals handles the fact that they live in such apocalyptic times. Some do not care, some take it too seriously, and others try to find the positive side to everything. It is this cycle that makes Seventh Seal an amazing and beautiful experience about the philosophies of life and death. Bergman's films are often portrayed as extremely slow, serious, depressing epics, but I personally find this work as something of a mixture of dark comedy and serious drama. There are moments of brilliant hilarity, but moments of deep, personal insight. We are moved back and forth between laughing at the predicaments of the characters, and the dark overshadowing of inevitable death that follows them.

The story is wisely told through many eyes, each with a different perception of things. While Antonius is highly religious and spiritual, his squire, Jöns is skeptical and cruel towards spiritual beliefs. The performers, Joseph and Mary (Nils Poppe, Bibi Andersson), both seem unconcerned with all of these heavy issues, simply living day to day and enjoying the simplicity of life. By placing so many vocal characters into the mix, Bergman has now given each member of the audience his own representation. Most viewers will find at least one person to identify with, and so he or she becomes a personal symbol.

The Seventh Seal also boasts impressive technical achievements in visual imagery and amazing cinematography for a shoestring-budgeted film (as accomplished by Gunnar Fischer). Each scene is carefully composed and usually performed in some wonderful scenery or set. Moments of introspection are not boring or painful because the mood and setting fits the philosophy being portrayed. We have a wholly believable medieval parable, wrapped in impressive authenticity, also thanks to the lively cast, headed up by Max Von Sydow, in one of his more memorable, crucial roles, despite his decades in front of the camera.

For a film about Death's pursuits, we have an wonderfully alive piece of work that simply exudes effort and craft. With The Seventh Seal, Ingmar Bergman not only proves his deft ability at tackling tough subjects, but also manages to inject humor and charm into what, at first, seems like an intolerably dreary story. We come out of the film not so much with thoughts of death, but with thoughts of life.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Criterion's DVD contains a further improved transfer based on the restored version featured on their laserdisc release. As the film began, I was in suitable awe over what had been done to the film, not having seen any of the previously restored versions. This new version is simply luminous beyond words, and will blow away even the most dedicated Seventh Seal fan. Amazing new levels of depth can now be seen in the black&white image, including crisp replications of the scenery, which were previously very dark and muddy. Whereas earlier versions were literally "black&white", this new transfer has all the greys and subtle shading intact, bringing new appreciation to the lighting. Also noticeable is the reduction in print damage, which is dramatic to say the least. Some extremely minor flaws still remain (grain, slight frame movement left over from repaired tears, slight fading), but they amount to virtually nothing anymore. This is a definitive transfer with no other discernable problems.

Image Transfer Grade: A


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoSwedish, Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: The Swedish monaural audio track is cleaned up nicely, much like the video. It's very clean and clear, with no distortions, hiss, or pops usually associated with work of this age. Even low-volume details are clearly audible and perfectly rendered. This is an excellent recording of a soundtrack that, previously, was a little on the harsh side. The disc also includes the English dub that accompanied the film upon original release in the North America. The dub is of surprisingly good quality, and doesn't stick out as bad as some. I personally didn't care for the dub (the flow of the language just doesn't fit and they elaborate the dialogue a bit more than normal), but it's of much higher quality than the average foreign film.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 15 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Film historian, Peter Cowie
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. Restoration demonstration.
  2. Complete Ingmar Bergman biography with commentary.
  3. NTSC Color Bars.
Extras Review: Anyone who's never seen Seventh Seal should definitely watch the restoration demonstration featured on the disc. A few scenes from the film are shown in their "pre-restoration" condition, and then are faded (or wiped) into the current existing edition—guaranteed to get quite a response from anyone watching it. Also featured are some side-by-side comparisons of the originally restored version and the DVD version with repaired flaws; wiping away scratches, dirt, and hairs. Criterion "toots their own horn" a bit in this short feature, but they've certainly earned the right to.
The film itself features an audio commentary by film historian Peter Cowie, who is also the author of the book Ingmar Bergman: A Critical Biography, considered the only concise examination of the director. Although obviously a fan of Bergman and a well educated film-buff, Cowie's commentary is bit too deconstructive for my tastes. He unravels much of the symbolism and subtle meaning behind what Bergman is doing in many scenes. This is educational and, at times, absorbing, but it also spoils some of the magic of the movie to over-examine each detail. To fully understand the nature of Seventh Seal, I really shouldn't have to know so much about Bergman himself or his life. Regardless, it's a very good, very well produced track that some people have cited as improving their impression of the film.

A biography/filmography is presented (as written by Peter Cowie) with many photo stills from Ingmar Bergman's other work and private life. It is a detailed, written account of his evolution through film, and also includes 2 complete video clips from Wild Strawberries and The Magician, with Cowie's commentary.

The film's original trailer is in excellent condition (probably restored like the main feature) and features optional English subtitles. Speaking of subtitles, the English subs for the feature are well done, with a good sized white and black border font. Criterion claims the translation for the DVD is improved upon previous versions, and I must admit, I did notice some better dialogue here and there.

The disc finishes with a color bar pattern. The keepcase insert contains the chapter listings (which are very adequate) and a short essay on the film by Peter Cowie. Also, though listed as an RSDL film, I was unable to locate the layer change as it was, presumably, unnoticable.

Extras Grade: A-


Final Comments

Even though it released almost 3 years ago, Criterion's DVD is a fantastic treatment of this classic masterpiece. The Seventh Seal is the quintessential "foreign art film" and seems to never age, always remaining a dramatic examination of life, worth revisiting. Highly recommended.


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