The 1950s saw a new craze in filmgoing -- the Art Film Theater. In many cities and college towns, little movie houses converted to showcases catering to a growing base of foreign film enthusiasts. They were parodied in articles and cartoons as beatnik hangouts serving espresso instead of popcorn. The foreign-film experience involved reading subtitles while pretending that one was sufficiently cultured not to need them. The clientele frequenting Art House Theaters discovered that films from abroad often took a more adult approach to sex and politics. Theaters filled with cigarette smoke when pictures like Federico Fellini's La strada and Alain Resnais' Hiroshima mon amour came to town.
Perhaps the biggest "star" foreign film director of the time was Sweden's Ingmar Bergman. His earlier social dramas and comedies gave way to intensely personal, introspective ruminations about the meaning of life and death. A Bergman picture could be counted on for stunningly beautiful imagery: haunting close-ups, strange dream sequences. Nostalgic memories might be expressed by showing the past and present co-existing in the same film frame.
Ingmar Bergman's best-remembered film from the late '50s is The Seventh Seal, the story of a medieval knight returned from the Crusades who finds his homeland in the grip of the plague. Religious fanatics wander the roads and the peasants cower in fear. The setting may be the Middle Ages but audiences were quick to read the film as a metaphor for contemporary fears about the Bomb.
Millions of people who don't know the title The Seventh Seal are familiar with its darker imagery, thanks to a half century's worth of references and parodies -- Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey is just one elaborate spoof among many. Max von Sydow's weary knight Antonius Block plays chess with a black-robed Death (Bengt Ekerot) on a gloomy beach, an image now synonymous with the concept of "Foreign Art Film." That visual -- the thinking man locked in a philosophical debate with the unknowable -- is the basis for half the films of Woody Allen, including his comedies. The chess game is Block's attempt to delay Death's errand long enough for the knight to come to terms with his own mortality.
The metaphysical game with death is only one part of The Seventh Seal. By day the moody knight is but one of a score of characters fleeing the plague. Top-billed Gunnar Björnstrand is Block's squire Jöns, a talkative and lusty man of action. Jöns saves a maid (Gunnel Lindblom of The Virgin Spring) from rape and offers her his protection. The knight and his squire also offer to escort a little family through the dark forest. Traveling entertainer Jof (Nils Poppe) and his beautiful wife Mia (Bibi Andersson) have a beautiful baby and feel especially vulnerable to the plague. Occupied by his ongoing duel with Death, Antonius Block doesn't seem in a hurry to return to his castle. When he went to fight in the Holy Land, he left a young bride behind. Will she still be waiting for him?
The prospects for survival in The Seventh Seal are not good. The locals kneel and pray as a group of penitents passes by, dragging crosses and whipping themselves. But human nature persists in the face of adversity. The comedian and his family are fearful but never lose hope. An actor sneaks off with the unfaithful wife of a blacksmith. Squire Jöns is unmoved by the Christian pageantry. While Antonius mulls over the meaning of existence, Jöns questions an artist about his religious paintings. The painter acknowledges that his work is intended to scare people into attending church services.
Bergman imbues his drama with earthy humor and universal sentiments. The movie is often surprisingly funny. Jöns offers cynical remarks about the pointlessness of the crusade. The cuckolded blacksmith makes a complete fool of himself. Even Death has a sense of humor. The pompous actor climbs a tree to be safe from the forest's dangers. He looks down to see Death standing below -- carrying a handy saw.
The knight's crisis of faith distances him from the others. He's too obsessed with death to properly greet his faithful wife, who has waited for him Penelope-like for over ten years. We instead invest our hopes in the little family of performers. Mia and Jof play with their baby and give thanks for the warmth of springtime. Their blind optimism is a shield against the growing darkness. While the learned Antonius Block wallows in despair and doubt, the innocent Jof is granted visions of the Virgin Mary. The Seventh Seal is an endorsement of simple faith.
Criterion's Blu-ray of The Seventh Seal replaces spine number eleven in the ongoing series. The flat black-and-white transfer is as sharp as a tack and brilliantly detailed in daytime scenes. Some overcast and night shots are rougher in places that in older transfers simply went black. The picture quality overall is stunning.
Peter Cowie's audio commentary has been repeated from Criterion's older disc, with a newly recorded afterword. Director Bergman appears in a 2003 introduction, and Max von Sydow's viewpoint is represented by an older audio interview. This was the actor's first film for Bergman; they'd work together in more than a dozen productions. Along with a trailer and a fine booklet essay by Gary Giddins, the extras also include Woody Allen's TCM filler salute to Bergman, his favorite director.
A new DVD has been released as well. Exclusive to the Blu-ray is the 2006 feature-length interview documentary Bergman Island. From his final home on Faro island, the director discusses his film, theater, and television work as well as his personal life. Bergman is quite lucid about his failings as a husband and father; his artistic ambitions came first at all times.
Bergman 101 is a video essay by Peter Cowie that fills in career details not covered in the interview feature. Neither Bergman Island nor Bergman 101 are included on the new DVD of The Seventh Seal, and are instead being released as a stand-alone Criterion disc.
The Seventh Seal is available now from the Criterion Collection.
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