Tartan’s 50th digitally re-mastered Anniversary release of Ingmar Bergman’s immortal classic “The Seventh Seal” on Blu-ray format is an interesting proposition, offering a chance to see how an older black and white film holds up on high definition. As well as presenting the film in potentially the best quality it has ever enjoyed, this release also features a host of extras, providing a comprehensive package for aficionados and a perfect introduction to the great Swedish director’s works for newcomers. For anyone unfamiliar with “The Seventh Seal”, the film was originally released back in 1957, winning the Special Jury Prize at Cannes and has over the years gone on to be acknowledged by many critics as being one of the best ever made. Certainly, it has proved extremely influential, having been cited as an inspiration by directors such as Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen and others, though the greatest proof of its iconic status probably comes from its having been parodied to great effect in the equally revered “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey”.
Best known for its enduring image of Max Von Sydow playing chess with the Grim Reaper, the film is an exploration of life, death and the existence of God. Set in Medieval times, it follows a depressed knight called Antonius Block (Von Sydow) and his squire who return from the Crusades to find the land ravaged by the Black Death. After Death shows up to claim Block, he challenges him to a game to play for his fate, and so that he might have time to try to come to terms with the world. The game takes place at various intervals during the knight’s journey home, during which he encounters various different characters, always with the threat of doom lurking in the shadows.
With the quality of the film itself beyond reproach, the question here is how it performs in Blu-ray, to which the answer is surprisingly well. The picture is incredibly crisp and clear, helping to shake off the long decades since its original release and giving it a wonderfully sharp look that brings out the very best in the black and white cinematography. Bergman has long been recognised as a director who was keen to bring out the basic humanity of his characters, and this new clarity gives the film an added level of depth, bringing their facial expressions and emotions into far greater focus. All of this serves to draw the viewer deeper into the story and intellectual ponderings, and although perhaps a little creaky and theatrical in places, it makes for an involving, challenging experience, more so than ever before.
The extras are an interesting bunch, chief of which is definitely the inclusion of some previously unseen behind the scenes footage which was shot on 8mm during the original production. Although silent and a little murky, there is the option of a commentary by film historian Ian Christie, making this a real delight, giving a rare chance to witness Bergman at work. Another fascinating addition is the 1984 short “Karin’s Face”, the director’s highly personal and emotive tribute to his mother, a simple yet endearingly intimate piece of film which gives a unique insight into his view of the world and some of the recurring themes which he tackled over the years. The disc also comes with the usual trailer and a rather redundant English language track which it is hard to imagine anyone wanting to use, especially given that the subtitles have been overhauled and tuned to perfection.
All of this adds up to a near essential release for Blu-ray owners looking to add a little class to their collection, as “The Seventh Seal” truly deserves the praise heaped upon it and remains a genuine classic for the ages.
Ingmar Bergman (director) / Ingmar Bergman (screenplay)
CAST: Gunnar Björnstrand … Jöns, squire
Bengt Ekerot … Death
Nils Poppe … Jof
Max von Sydow … Antonius Block
Bibi Andersson … Mia, Jof’s wife
Inga Gill … Lisa, blacksmith’s wife
Maud Hansson … Witch
Inga Landgré … Karin, Block’s Wife