Criterion Discovery: The Seventh Seal
The Seventh Seal (Spine #11) was directed by Ingmar Bergman and was released in 1957. Bergman is a favorite of Criterion, with over twenty films in the collection including Persona (Spine #701) and Autumn Sonata (Spine #60).
Bergman paints a nightmarish portrait of a disillusioned Crusades soldier, Antonius Block (played by Max Von Sydow), who plays chess with the physical manifestation of Death in order to stay alive while the Black Plague ravages the society around him.
In The Seventh Seal, Ingmar Bergman captures fear in a way few directors have before. During the Middle Ages in which the film takes place, death seemed around every literal corner. Sickness hung thick in the air and war was fought for what seemed to be eternity and for reasons that were shaky at best. Happiness was nothing more than a faint voice barely audible in the wind. For most people of the time, life was not much more than a constant waiting game with Death itself. If Von Sydow’s soldier is not killed in battle, surely he will be by the disease sweeping across the continent. It was a time defined by fear and anxiety, and Bergman gets that.
Von Sydow’s stoic expression he wears throughout the film, like that of a wooden mask, is a near perfect exemplification of the mindset of people in the Middle Ages. He wanders through the desolate plains and plague-stricken towns merely wondering: Where is God? Death speaks to him almost constantly, but any hopeful voice of divinity seems altogether lost. The opening shot of the film shows Von Sydow in a long shot silhouetted against the immense vastness of the ocean. He’s alone and weak. The forces of nature will overwhelm him in the end, there’s no question of it. Yet, he still continues to play chess against Death, biding his time and trying to find some sort of answer to it all.
Bergman isn’t interested in giving his audience happy endings. Instead, he plays with the cinematic forces and techniques of light and dark to create a palpable atmosphere that sits in the pit of one’s stomach long after the popcorn is gone and the credits have rolled. Toward the end of the film, an insane woman (possibly possessed by the devil, though that’s left in ambiguity) is burned at the stake. Von Sydow gives her some sort of drug to dull the pain. It is a small and almost inconsequential act of mercy, but it’s all he has. In those times of painful tumult, inconsequential acts of mercy are the only things one can give. All seems futile, but that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t try. The film ends with the main characters tied together with Death, perpetually dancing into the horizon. This is how Bergman leaves us, tied in a dance with death for all of eternity. A depressing view, but it’s wholly Bergman’s and that’s what makes it great.
The beautiful black-and-white transfer is the real reason to buy the Criterion, but the supplements aren’t without note. Included is an interview with Von Sydow and a feature-length documentary on Bergman. Both are incredibly informative and entertaining additions to the film. Most exciting here is the introduction by Bergman himself. Seeing the master himself speak about his own art adds an extra layer of gravitas and interest to watching the film and gives one a feeling of connection to the genius behind the images on the screen.
The Seventh Seal is a classic Bergman film and a terrific probing of the consciousness of a specific time.
Criterion Grade: A
Film Grade: A