The true power of a film can be measured in the way its images remain with you many years later. This is very true in my case with "The Seventh Seal", its images having engraved themselves in my subconscious. The films seemingly bleak vision of mans destiny makes for uncomfortable viewing. It is a film that forces you to examine your own beliefs, something that few films have dared to do. As we are all so different our conclusions will vary. I for one see optimism in the films ending, which many might not.
In the film Max Von Sydow plays Antonius Block a medieval knight returning to Sweden from the Crusades. He returns to a land ravaged by the Black Death. It is a journey through a haunted wasteland inhabited by demented monks and a cult for self-flagellation. It is a glimpse into the very jaws of hell and one is reminded of Dante's inferno. As the knight progresses through this horrifying and devastated land he treats his journey as an opportunity to gain a knowledge of the nature of God and his relationship with man. What little that is left of his faith is sorely tested. In the film he meets death in a game of chess. It is a contest that can ultimately have only one winner. Block is of mere flesh and blood like us, and his fate is sealed at birth. But he stalls for time as he tries to understand God. The knight takes a varied group of characters under his protection as the game is played out. He is now playing for other lives in addition to his own.
The film is clearly influenced by early medieval paintings which were not shy in showing the consequences of unbelief. Sinners being disposed of in a myriad of grisly ways. Something that would have no doubt preyed on the simple minds of the peasant population of the time. It was a roughshod way of keeping the pleb's in line. Bergman uses these dire visions to good effect. Hovering over this sombre film is the threat of something worse to come. A final judgement for all. The title of the film is taken from the Book of Revelations which itself concerns the weighty issues of such a day. Bergman uses the film to question his own beliefs which must have made it a very personal film to him.
The knights journey takes him closer to an understanding of the nature of God, where self sacrifice is of paramount importance. Bergman himself is now dead and I hope that he has found the answers to his own questions. I am now into my twilight years and I feel the shadow of mortality hanging over me. Many are the times that I feel like the knight in his doomed chess game. Getting my house in order now is of paramount importance. One could never call this an enjoyable film but it possesses great power and is never less than gripping. Block like those other fictional greats Don Quixote and Jean Valjean attains greatness through nobility. The film cannot be denied its place as one of cinemas truly great films. Whatever your beliefs it is a film worth watching during a life worth living.
on 30 July 2007
I'm writing this review having just learned of the death of Ingmar Bergman at the age of 89. It's fitting then that I should now return to a particular work that the legendary filmmaker wrote and directed fifty years ago, which expresses in explicit and philosophical detail, his overriding fear of death, and how this particular fear is one that is has been used and exploited for centuries by the Church for it's personal and ideological gain. As a result, The Seventh Seal can be described as an abstract allegory pertaining to the notion of life and death, as an expressionist horror film rife with iconic imagery and a foreboding atmosphere of Medieval torment and savage, plague-ridden doom, or as an almost sardonic satire on the catholic church, on war, and on organised religion in general.
I suppose at this point in time the film is most famous for it's central motif, in which a noble knight returning home from the crusades plays a series of chess games with the black-clad figure of death in an attempt to win back his life and return to his family. The games appear at different intervals throughout the film, which is structured episodically, taking in a scene of tranquil reflection and eventual performance from a group of travelling actors, the appearance of a religious procession marking a disease ridden town as unclean, and a scene in which a young woman is burned at the stake as a heretic. Thusly, the film is structured to become darker and more foreboding as our central character and his assistant make their way closer to home; taking the travelling actors along with them and trying to cheat death at every single turn.
Even without that central motif and iconic series of shots in which the knight, Antonious Block sits cross-legged across from the grinning, white-faced visage of Death and tries desperately to best him with every trick in the book, the film would still be a completely fascinating experience from beginning to end.
Speaking personally, I first saw the film at the age of 18, having already seen Bergman's more difficult films, Persona and The Hour of the Wolf. Both of these films confused, confounded and greatly irritated me on first viewing, almost turning me off Bergman before I'd even been turned on. Later, I saw the underrated Virgin Spring and my faith was somewhat restored. Regardless, I came to The Seventh Seal expecting the worst; expecting some sort of seemingly ponderous bleak essay, filled with all manner of alienating cinematic tricks and a detached quality to the writing. Instead, I found a film that told a fascinating story, had marvellous characters, and was beautifully shot, edited and scored throughout. Above all else, though; the film was entertaining. It's still as bleak as Bergman is known to be, but the story never drags, and the moral of the piece never becomes too obviously. It is simply a great film; one that I could watch again and again and still find elements to enjoy on a number of different levels.
Even after my first viewing I could understand how it's legacy had endured over forty-so years; with the ideas behind the plot, the power of the imagery and the integrity of the performances creating something that is entirely universal. This isn't one of those films that you can consign to the rubbish bin marked "art house extravagance", or even as being part of the ponderous pretentious image that many people have of Bergman as the stereotypical, black beret, polo-neck wearing intellectual who crafted bleak, expressionist art dramas in retina-scorching black and white, and ladled with bursts of torturous religious guilt and searing personal angst.
For me, it's one of the greatest entries into the pantheon of twentieth century cinema you could ever hope to find (and that definitely isn't hyperbole). A continually beguiling, rewarding, interesting and sympathetic drama that weaves numerous strands and sub-textual layers of personal reflection, satire, philosophy, performance and the art of cinema itself without ever becoming preachy, affected, or disappearing up its own back passage. As I said before, it is simply a GREAT film; one that should be experienced by all admires of cinema in it's purest form, and not simply as a two-hour diversion while you forget the complexities of life. The Seventh Seal, like all great works of cinema, asks its audience to approach with an open mind and to actively question the philosophical and satirical points that it raises throughout, whilst rewarding you with a great drama, with great performances, great direction and a number of seriously unforgettable images.
INGMAR BERGMAN (1918-2007)
on 26 February 2003
From the very famous chess game between Antonius Block and Deathh on the beach to their skipping silhouettes on the hill the beauty and artistry of this masterpiece is maintained. Incoperating philosophy and the post-crucade life of Antonius Block as he battles (non-physically) with and runs from death the film embodies the greatness and individuality of Ingmar Bergman. The film, starring Max von Sydow (notorious Bergman collaborator; in films such as The Exorcist and Minority Report) recieves ten out of five stars from me.
However, due to the DVD I have to remove a star - not only are there hardly any features (apart from a photo gallery, text and some advertising) the presentation of the movie is highly injust - notably the poor state of the subtitles in comparison to Criterion Collection edition.
However, as this is the only version available in the UK at this current time I either recommend you buy this as an easy solution or track down a different edition (namely Criterion).
on 17 April 2006
One of the classic films of all time, The Seventh Seal is set in plague-ravaged Sweden in the Middle Ages and follows the knight Antonius Block who has returned from 10 years fighting in the Crusades. In the famous opening scene, Block encounters Death on the beach and challenges him to a game of chess in which he is playing for his life. Block's heartfelt search for meaning in the face of death and his struggle with the question of God's existence helped to show that cinema was a genuine art form that could be used to tackle deep existential and philosophical questions. This is a profound, challenging and beautifully executed film.
I feel like a fool for not loving this classic examination of the
existence (or lack thereof) of both God and the meaning of life more.
I appreciate it, with it's stark, lovely photography, attention to
detail, marvelous performances, and sly dark sense of humor that
balances the portentousness of the subject matter, and makes the film
much easier to watch than my teen film-class memories of it.
On the other hand, while I appreciate the film's importance in cinema
history, and the bravery with which it tackles the biggest of issues in
a head-on, intellectual way, I find it just that - a very intellectual
experience, devoid of much in the way of emotion. I also find some of
the writing painfully preachy and on the nose.
Yet, in the end, I admire what it accomplished in its time, and how
well it holds up 53 years later.
And seeing as I went from not liking it at all, to liking it quite a
bit on my 2nd viewing, I'm open to what a third seeing might bring.
The Tartan DVD transfer is quite good, but, as almost goes without saying,
the Criterion blu-ray transfer is stunning, and worth buying for the
strength of the images, even if you struggle with the film. I'm glad I got it.
on 2 January 2008
I have a Panasonic DMP-BD 10 A Blu Ray player bought in the United States, and I had no problems whatsoever watching this movie, so I can confirm that is region free and for all the world to enjoy (as long as you understand sweedish or english). There's a misleading commentary here, stating that the item is "region coded", but if you check the "comments" about that entry, you will find that this person corrected himself.
About the Blu Ray, I have this few notes:
-The format is 1:37:1, which means a full screen presentation. This is claimed to be the original format, so there was nothing to do about it, except maybe trim the image up and down to force a widescreen aspect ratio, which, fortunatelly, they didn't do.
So it's up to you what to do: You can zoom in the image, if your TV allows that, or stretch the image to fit your widescreen, and since its in HD, you will find that the loss of detail won't be great. The problem is (if you chose to zoom instead of stretch) that you will need the complete original screen to read the subtitles, or make adjustments in that regard so you don't lose them.
I personally enjoyed the movie in its original aspect ratio. It's the better way to appreciate it.
-Of course, you have the option to remove the english subtitles (the only ones included) and hear the english dubbed track. The problem is that it won't ever translate so well (just compare what you hear with the english subtitles) and also this particular track is muffled and lacking in fidelity, just as it was taken from an old source. On the contrary, the original sweedish track is clear and full of detail.
-The transfer to HD is amazing. If you compare previous versions of the Seventh Seal, (like the one from Criterion Collection) you won't be that surprised in the closer shots, since they were very detailed and clear in those previous versions, revealing a well filmed and well preserved movie. But as is usual with high definition, is in the long or far shots in which the picture gains a lot in detail.
A revealing scene in that regard is when Jof (or Josef) has a vision of the Virgin Mary. He runs to his wife and tell her about it, adding that the Virgin "smiled at him". Well, I was never quite sure if he was making this up. The Virgin Mary can be seen from afar, and it's hard to catch the details in her face. But now, the scene is very clear, and there's no doubt that she stared at him and smiled.
I found this transfer to be pristine, surprinsigly so, considering it has 50 years of age. It will be unfair to compare it to another 50 year old movie transfered to Blu Ray, like THE SEARCHERS, since it was widescreen an in color. But given the circumstances, I was pleased with the quality of the image.
I was particularly impressed with the contrast in exteriors, and even in interiors. The scene in the barn (when Jons meet Raval), or the tavern, or the woods, or inside the castle, are clear in the foreground, and the blacks in the background or dark parts look constant and without any kind of stains or fadings.
Yes, the image has its flaws. Open shots look a bit granulated (check for instance the shots in which you can see the ocean in the background, or a take in which we have a close up of Mia's face). But that undoubtetly is the price of trying to get more detail out of the print. This is a minor flaw, and won't affect your appreciation of the movie.
Neither will the fact that some scenes have some twinkling or flashing, because they are brief and is obviously something that comes from the original print and couldn't be easily fixed in the tranfer.
-The extras are not that great, and you may miss that fact because of the excitment of having this movie in Blu Ray, which of course is reason enough to own it. A 15 minutes black and white short film by Ingmar Bergman is included, and it consists basically of a collage of very old photographs with some piano music. In light of the director's recent death, I find this to be more an homage than anything else.
More informative and interesting is a 15 minutes special "On-set footage", which by itself could be just a curiosity. It consists of raw material of the crew looking for sets or getting ready to film, but made very interesting by the fact that they added some commentaries (in english) on the movie or on the cast, which made me wish that this special was even longer.
Another advantage is that these extras come also in HD, so they can be played smoothly by the non PAL Blu Ray players (unlike DAYS OF GLORY, in which the main feature runs perfectly, but the extras don't, since they seem to be coded in Pal or in a lower resolution).
All in all, I must congratulate TARTAN VIDEO for giving us the chance of watching this classic in the next generation technology. I only wish the studios begin to release more classics in Blu Ray. Just keep them region free, please !.
Extra note for UK buyers: the package includes a standard DVD with the movie and the same extras. I think is a nice detail, but once you are able to play the Blu Ray, you won't find much use for the standard DVD. BUT if you don't own a Blu Ray player yet, maybe you can consider this an option for the future: enjoy the DVD while you decide to get into the Blu Ray Technology (I guess this is what they mean with "future proof" in the sticker that comes with the Blu Ray). And for non-U.K. buyers, please beware that although the extra DVD is region free, it's also PAL format.
BEWARE SPOILERS and needless interpretations.
It really is impossible to consider an Ingmar Bergman movie without immediately running to an interpretation. At least for me that is the case. In particular The Seventh Seal seems to demand that we ask what was Bergman's intention. Was it to show that Christianity and superstition are brothers in arms? Was it to suggest a kind of fatalism that allows some to live and others to die without rhyme or reason?
The story, set in the 14th century during the time of plague, concerns a knight, Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) and his squire Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand) lately returned to Sweden from the Crusades. Bergman combines realism with supernatural elements, such as the appearance of Death (Bengt Ekerot) with whom Antonius Block plays a game of chess, and the visions that the traveling troubadour, Jof (Nils Poppe) sees that nobody else can see including his wife Mia (Bibi Andersson). Block is haunted by death and has been assured that death is imminent, but hopes to put it off by beating Death at chess.
Meanwhile the inhabitants are also in fear of death and seek to blame someone. They seize a young girl (Maud Hansson) and brand her a witch for consorting with the Evil One. They hold her in a pillory prior to burning her at the stake. Notice that instead of denying that she has been with the devil, she tells us that she reaches out and touches him everywhere. The only bright spot in the movie is the family of Jof, Mia and their infant son.
Antonius Block goes to confession only to discover that the priest behind the window is none other than his adversary Death, to whom he inadvertently reveals his strategy in their game of chess. Block is searching for the meaning of life. He is trying to find God, whom he complains is always hiding. Instead he finds Death. Can they be one and the same? Jons is able and cynical and sees through humanity's many delusions. Jof plays at life and sings. Mia is filled with love for life. Guess who lives and who dies.
But of course the plague was the great leveler. Persons of stations high and low were brought within its compass, but Bergman gets to pick and choose who shall live and who shall die.
As usual with Bergman we have the most incredible study of human faces. I particularly liked the close ups of the women. The face of Gunnel Lindblom, who plays the young woman ("Girl" in the credits) that Jons saves from being raped, is particularly striking and intense. I recall her from The Virgin Spring (1960) in which she played Ingeri, the Odin-worshipping servant. The face of Bibi Andersson is a delight with her quick, pretty eyes and her engaging smile.
But Bergman also concentrates on the faces of the bit players, in the mead hall and at the burning and as they watch the traveling players at their song and dance. With Bergman people are intensely real, up close and always personal. And he knows what they think and how they act. He shows us here, as he does in all his films, human hypocrisy and stupidity, human love and frailty. The landscape is bleak, the shadows are dark and life is harsh. Humans take their quick pleasures and then they die. That is the message I think that Bergman is sending to us.
No student of film should miss this, one of the most talked about films ever made, and perhaps Bergman's first great work of art. He died only recently in 2007, not long after being voted (In Time Magazine, I think) as the greatest living director.
on 26 October 2008
After 10 years fighting in the crusades Antonius Block and his squire return to a Europe ravaged by plague. When Death comes for him Antonius challenges him to a game of chess, the stakes being life or death.
Bergman's hero is deeply scarred and troubled by his experiences. He doubts his own faith and looks to Death for the answers he seeks about God, and the apparent senselessness and barbarity of life. But Death has no answers.
The symbolism here is dense and profound, with the mood occasionally lightened by a stab or two at medieval humour. But the film holds the viewer's attention by its mesmeric imagery and the obvious compassion felt by Antonious for his fellow man. It's a moving encounter with a small band of people whom Antonious tries to protect from Death. Their fear is all too palpable as they travel to the knight's home in search of rest and refuge from the plague. Although the outcome is never in doubt the ending is strangely hopeful, imbuing a sense that humanity will always prevail.
Cinema is rarely this brave or effective.
on 27 November 2007
This unsettling, humbling, and thought-provoking film has made an enormous impression on me.
Bergman reminds us that even our greatest achievements in life will not cheat Death, that superstition can create unspeakable evils, and that the enormous power wielded by the Church was sometimes tragically bad. The film raises important questions regarding God and his existence, as well as the meaning life and the emptiness that possibly awaits us after death.
The knight (Max von Sydow) and his squire (Gunnar Björnstrand) offer us two possible approaches to life: idealism versus hedonism. Which approach we should adopt in our own lives is left to us to decide.
A European post war film dealing with a stark medieval style, a sense of destiny and fate - asking the question; whether it can be escaped or if life is preordained. So we have our two protagonists, the Knight and his Squire journeying to their land after a stint at the Crusades to the place being ravaged by plague. Meanwhile the spectre of death hovers by their side.
Death is seen as a connector to god, within a world of rampant superstition. Meanwhile the other set of players are the minstrels who journey from town to town. Here too superstition abounds.
Throughout the film the Squire murmurs his sense of continuous despair punctured by bursts of ribaldry. Meanwhile the Knight played by Von Sydow aspires to seeking faith and a deeper meaning to life.
Throughout his journey he sees the end results of superstition locked in the minds of the population who project their sense of utter hopelessness onto existence. All becomes darker as he sees a young woman being burnt and the land turning to dust under the onslaught of the plague.
The film deals with the existential theme of the certainty of death and the uncertainty of anything else which exists during a brief existence. Life procures life is the main continuing existence for hope. In between there are moments of ecstasy, absurdity, fecundity and continuation. The only connection to life is the young minstrels and their child who trundle throughout.
After being approached by death, Sydow realises his time is up. So he tries to prolong his existence by engaging in a chess game with death - the ultimate game - which of course he can never hope to win. It appears death is somewhat lonely - a problem built into his profession. Death requires company and perhaps is envious of the Knight and the Squire who at least have each other. Meanwhile the Knight is trying to find his beloved
As a film it delves into the wider paganistic realms of North European magic, sorcery, sex and brutishness littered throughout, but without any sense of fantasy. Because this is a bleak film, shot in howling windswept locations, the only respite is the beauty of the females who appear to offset the starkness of life - they appear as the wife of the Knight and the young wife of the minstrel.. Perhaps this is what is the ultimate statement - only aesthetics and relationships can withstand the nihilism built into existence. Everything else perishes.
The camera shots, the imagery and the emotional angst which runs like a dark seam throughout is perhaps what captures the viewer. Aesthetics is high on the list. However be prepared for a philosophical journey rather than to be entertained ,as it provides a reflection upon many fractured facets for the viewer and it engages you - when you tune in to its wavelength.
It is not designed for escapism.