Seventh Seal, The (UK - BD)
Scott McKenzie knows it's a classic, but it's Swedish, B&W and does his head in
In most of my reviews I start off with a paragraph about the plot, and then go into detail about the acting, screenplay, cinematography and anything else that grabs me about the movie. I’ve decided to take a different approach with my review of The Seventh Seal for the simple reason that for a movie like this, I could quite easily slip into pure anorak mode and blab on about humanity, metaphors and the like, so I’ve decided to tone down the arty appreciation that could edge me into pretentious territory and instead focus on what it’s actually like to watch this movie. I’m betting that just about everyone who visits this site knows this movie is regarded as a classic (it’s currently #81 in the IMDb top 250), but there’s a large section of regular visitors who haven’t seen it.
Even if you haven’t watched The Seventh Seal, you’re no doubt aware of its influence on modern cinema, if only for the incredible shot of Max Von Sydow’s Knight Antonius Block sitting down with Death across a chess board. The most obvious homage to this scene is the appearance of Death in Bill And Ted’s Bogus Journey, with William Sadler as the Grim Reaper who has to play Twister against the two dead dudes. However, as the opening credits appear on the screen, it’s clear that Monty Python and The Holy Grail also draws influence from this movie. Yes, it’s black and white and it’s in Swedish, but it might not quite be what you were expecting if you’re new to Ingmar Bergman.
This is the only Bergman movie I’ve seen, not because I have anything against the bloke or have an aversion to foreign movies (check my previous reviews for evidence of that), it’s just that I haven’t got round to exploring the Swedish master’s back catalogue. When I watched The Seventh Seal for the first time (this review copy allowed me my second viewing), I was expecting a dark, ponderous and incomprehensible drama, with everyone wallowing in self-analysis and questioning the meaning of life. I was very surprised early on to find that there is an incredibly dry sense of humour in the screenplay and several moments of genuine suspense.
Death makes only fleeting appearances on screen but his presence comes at critical times. In fact, I found the use of this character, both in his actions and personality, to be similar to modern horror movie bad guys like Freddy Krueger. It’s not the death of his prey that he enjoys, but the torment and ‘thrill of the chase’ (in this case a game of chess) that gives him the most pleasure. Obviously the murders he commits are tame in comparison and there are no cheap gags, but I definitely think this interpretation of Death fifty years ago can be seen as a precursor to the modern supernatural killer.
As Antonius and his squire Jons travel the countryside after returning from the Crusades to find their country ravaged by the plague, they meet up with a colourful band of travellers who they offer to help along the way. It’s in the relationships between Antonius and the people he meets that are where the true deeper meanings of this movie can be found. Subjects of death, religion and love are not just touched on lightly, but focused on quite heavily at times by the central characters and this is also where the movie could become hard going for some. I’m not suggesting that anyone who finds this hard-going isn’t intelligent or cultured—far from it—I nearly nodded off half-way through while watching this movie late at night and I’ve got culture coming out of my ass.
There’s no doubt that The Seventh Seal is an incredible movie, both intelligent and beautiful to behold; the only problem is that movies are different now than they were fifty years ago. It certainly deserves its place in any list of the greatest movies ever made, but I’d bet that this release isn’t going to sell a huge number of copies. I recommend watching it at least once in your life, but is it worth buying to watch it over and over again? If you’re a student of film I’d say yes. There are prime examples of important techniques from many perspectives, including lighting and foreshadowing future events that are invaluable to your education. If not, all I can do is give you this advice—if, for whatever reason, someone you don’t like comes round to your house with beer and a pizza and says they want to watch a good movie, put this on. You're doing what they asked but they won’t stick around for long.
As I’ve said above, The Seventh Seal is a beautiful movie. Key shots are framed with precision and the landscapes, in particular the early beach scenes, are a feast for the eyes. However, while the movie looks great, the transfer doesn’t quite do it justice even though this Blu-ray release is undoubtedly the best representation created for home viewing. Problems like scratches and dirt are understandable given the age of the print, so it’s safe to assume that unless another cleaner print is discovered this is the best it’s ever going to look. The detail is the one area where the picture excels, most of all in wide external shots but areas of grain are common and dark scenes are more dark grey than black. Surely another problem with the source print, the screen appears to flicker occasionally, most of all when the picture dissolves from one scene to another.
Two audio tracks are available—Swedish 2.0 Mono for people who like movies and English 2.0 Mono dubbed for those who don’t. The Seventh Seal isn’t a movie designed to blow the audience away with a complicated layered soundtrack, so while it doesn’t really impress the audio quality is an improvement over the video, even if it is a Mono track. Dialogue is clear and most importantly I didn’t notice any interference in the background because silence plays a big part in raising the tension at key moments. Near the end of the movie when our heroes enter a house with a storm raging outside, I was pleasantly surprised by the thunder effects, which were strong but didn’t drown out the rest of the track.
If you want to see just how much the video and audio has been cleaned up for this release then you should watch the original theatrical trailer included on this disc. While the movie might not look quite as good as you expect from Blu-ray releases, it’s a lot better than the trailer. Fifteen minutes of on-set footage is also available, which comes with commentary from film historian Ian Christie. It’s an interesting featurette, but it’s a shame that Christie didn’t provide a talk track for the whole movie. The only other extra feature is a short film called Karin’s Face, made by Bergman in 1984, which is based around pictures from his photo album and focuses on pictures of his mother Karin.
The Seventh Seal is a classic and you’ll find it hard to find someone who disagrees with that statement. Everyone with an interest in film theory should watch it at least once, but this Blu-ray release offers nothing more than the standard definition version. If you’re planning on picking up this ‘50th Anniversary Edition’, I recommend saving £10 or so of you hard-earned money and getting the regular DVD release instead. The picture and sound look good for such an old movie but it’s just not up to high definition standards.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.
Review by Scott McKenzie
General viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children
Release Date: 3rd December 2007
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono Swedish, Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono English
Extras: Trailer, On-Set Footage, Short Film - Karin's Face (1984)
Easter Egg: No
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Cast: Max Von Sydow, Bengt Ekerot, Gunnar Björnstrand, Nils Poppe
Length: 92 minutes
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