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« It's A Wonderful Life back on the big screen for Christmas | Main | DVD Review: Frau Im Mond (aka Woman in the Moon) (1929) »

DVD Review: The Seventh Seal (1957), 50th Anniversary Special Edition

Seventh_seal Not before or since the 1957 release of Ingmar Bergman's haunting masterpiece The Seventh Seal has the momentous theme of humankind's search for existential meaning – within or outside a religious framework – been treated of with such furious grace, intelligence and insight. All cynicism concerning the re-release of a '50th Anniversary Digitally Remastered Edition,' in the year of the great filmmaker's death, must therefore be put on hold. Any reason to publicise or disseminate or roll back the technical decay of this supreme piece of cinematic art, whether or not the companies in question make some extra baksheesh by finagling historical contingency, is a good reason.

Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) is a crusading knight freshly returned to the shores of his native Sweden. He has lost all the moral certainty he left with, presumably having seen and participated in atrocities in the name of Christianity. The hypocrisy of this institution which teaches forbearance, peace and tolerance yet practices murder, torture and empire-like expansionism is too much for his reflective nature to bear without apostasy. He yearns for a meaning to life beyond the circumscribed and vague one offered by the Church.

While racked by these thoughts he is visited by Death made flesh (a brilliantly chilling Bengt Ekerot), who tells him that his time is nearly up. Desperate for a few more days in which to make sense of the world, he challenges Death to a chess match. As long as the game is played, Block lives. If Block wins, he goes free; if Death wins, he takes Block's soul. Death agrees to this stay-of-execution, knowing himself to be unbeatable at chess.

Block and his squire travel across plague-ridden Sweden to his castle, along the way picking up an unlikely entourage of actors, a beautiful maiden, a mercurial blacksmith and his coquettish wife. Unwittingly, the knight has endangered the group by travelling with them while his fatal chess game is ongoing; seemingly companions of the doomed are also fair quarry. Death, meanwhile, shadows the group in various guises, often tricking Block into revealing his strategies.

The knight arrives home just in time to be beaten on the chessboard by Death who then harvests the mortals' souls with wordless implacability, a finale made all the more harrowing by its utter inevitability and the fact that Block has now inadvertently caused the deaths of his wife (with whom he has just been reunited after a decade's absence) and pure-hearted fellow-travellers. Yet in the intriguing epilogue, the human spirit – embodied by the actor Jof, his wife and young son, spared by the Reaper – abides even as death, suffering and meaninglessness harangue it on all sides.

It is difficult to find fault with any aspect of The Seventh Seal. Bergman's script is note-perfect. Performances from the principals are excellent, as are Gunnar Fischer's cinematography and Erik Nordgren's suitably clangorous score. Despite the film's reputation as an unleavened downer, the abutting of great metaphysical anguish against spells of revelry, pleasure and good-natured bawdiness is crucial to its artistic success. Each scene bristles with allegory yet the movie barrels along at what seems, given the weight of the themes addressed, a brisk pace.

So is it ultimately an optimistic or pessimistic piece? Such are the complexity, passion and searing intuition of Bergman's masterwork that the answer to this question may prove as elusive as that sought by Antonius Block himself. What is beyond question is that cinema would be immeasurably the poorer for its absence. Endlessly interpreted, endlessly parodied (with at least one lampoon, the brilliant final sketch in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983), actually preserving some of the pathos and gravity of the original), The Seventh Seal is a work of timeless magnificence.

(Tartan Video's remastered edition, available on DVD and Blu-Ray, is of high quality. Video and audio are almost entirely artefact-free. Inexplicably it features an optional dubbed English-language voice track, to be avoided at all costs. Extras include behind-the-scenes footage and Bergman's 1984 short feature Karin's Face.)

Sam Healy


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