One of my fondest memories from my college days is of my Monday afternoon Film Theory class, which took up the bulk of my Junior year. Every Monday afternoon, I would wander into my University's spacious auditorium, where I was introduced to classic film after classic film. Now you must remember this was at least a decade before home entertainment meant anything other than a Zenith color television. It was the first time I saw the Janus masthead that now starts many a classic Criterion release, and, more specifically, it was the first time I got to see a slew of films I had only read about or seen stills from. My professor (who has since gone on to considerable renown at a big film school, but who shall here remain nameless for no less petty reason than when I emailed her a few years ago, she had absolutely no memory of me--can you imagine?) introduced us to an incredible array of genius, including Welles' Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil, Bunuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeousie and Viridiana, Fellini's 8 1/2 and La Dolce Vita, and, perhaps creating the greatest impression of all, Bergman's Virgin Spring, Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal.
For anyone younger than 40 or so, I can simply say you don't know how lucky you are that VHS and later DVD and BD have made these enduring classics so accessible. Despite the ease with which anyone can watch classics nowadays, I'm repeatedly surprised at how many people shy away from Bergman, thinking he's too intellectual or too stylized, or, frankly, too dour to ever enjoy. To anyone who's seen the sparkling comedy of Smiles of a Summer Night or even parts of, say, The Magician (and even The Seventh Seal itself), you know how off the mark that can be. Like any true master, Bergman is able to seamlessly blend absolutely riveting drama with moments of low comedy, mixed in with a rare literary quality that makes his movies something like the film equivalent to a grand and involving novel.
Nowhere are these facets more deliberately and evocatively on display than in the masterpiece that first brought Bergman to international attention in the late 1950s, The Seventh Seal. Is there anyone with even a minimal knowledge of film who hasn't at least seen a still of the chess match between Death and the Knight that is one of the visual highlights of Bergman's rumination on mortality? The Seventh Seal's premise couldn't be simpler--a Knight (Max von Sydow) and his squire (Gunnar Bjornstrand) return from the Crusades to find their land ravaged by the Plague. The Knight is soon visited by Death (Bengt Ekerot), whereupon he enters into a desperate gambit--he will play Death in a game of chess, and whoever wins gets to call the shots, as it were. If Death is the victor, the conclusion is obvious. Conversely, if the Knight wins, he gets off Scot-free (at least for a while, anyway).
Playing out against this literal life-or-death match is a charming subplot involving three touring performers, including Jof (Nils Poppe) and Mia (Bibi Andersson)--names that are diminutives of Joseph and Mary, in case you miss their significance. While Block, the Knight, and Jons, his squire, are the epitome of worn and world weary characters who have seen too much and have the grim wisdom that comes from a long struggle, Jof and Mia are virtual innocents, each a tabula rasa on which the growing horror of the Black Death has yet to write even one whit. Bergman brilliantly balances these two extremes against each other, slowly having both meet in the middle by the film's climax.
The Seventh Seal is obviously Bergman's manifesto on what it means to be mortal, to confront one's mortality and to defy if not deny that mortality to the end. Block, an obvious stand-in for Bergman himself, questions Death about the existence of God and the afterlife. Is Death ignorant, or simply taciturn? Or is this Bergman's very subtly disconcerting thesis that Death doesn't know and doesn't care about any of that--it's not his business, as it were. The Seventh Seal is full of these unresolved issues, but that is part of its enduring and alluring power--it is a film thoroughly grounded in the fundamentals of the questioning human soul. Only zealots seem to have real "answers" (as Bergman actually shows in the film). The rest of us may drown in our own uncertainty, but I think it's Bergman's tenet that this in and of itself is what makes many of us a certain kind of hero despite our flaws.
The Seventh Seal is a marvel of mid- to late-50s filmmaking. Has any other full frame black and white production provided so many iconic images and brilliant sound design choices? Notice for example how, after an opening filled with raucous ocean sounds, we are greeted with absolute silence when Death first appears, an obvious tip o' the cowl to scripture about the seventh seal in the Book of Revelation (incorrectly called Revelations by commentator Peter Cowie in his otherwise fascinating commentary). And Gunnar Fischer's cinematography is so lusciously perfect, if unremittingly grim, that it repeatedly takes the breath away. Depth of field and framing are simply unmatched. Von Sydow and the entire company are almost mythically powerful throughout this enterprise, and it's little wonder that their performances have entered the hallowed halls of all time greatest acting (in fact, some would argue all of these performers had their career high water marks with The Seventh Seal, something rather amazing at least in Von Sydow's case, with his remarkable variety of roles through the years). Erik Nordgren's spare yet evocative underscore, which Cowlie rightly notes draws on Orff's Carmina Burana for inspiration, also helps lend the film its dramatic impact.
If you've never taken the Bergman plunge, for whatever reason, I can pretty much guarantee you will be surprised by how viscerally involving The Seventh Seal is. For you Bergman fans, you already know how moving and forceful the film is. It has an immediacy and drama that more impressionistic films like Persona, Through a Glass Darkly and even Wild Strawberries lack. It's surprisingly swift (only about an hour and a half), with a bold premise that is performed brilliantly by the expert cast. Bergman may indeed have been a philosopher-king of sorts, but he was also a very astute filmmaker, and his films are always beautifully crafted, both technically and from a story aspect as well. There's certainly no finer example of that than The Seventh Seal, and this Blu-ray presentation does it proud.