Watching The Seventh Seal Grow Even Beyond Criterion

Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal is pretty much the art film that comes to mind when people think of art films.  The cloaked figure of death playing a game of chess with a knight on the rocky beach, or leading a parade of departing souls across a bleak landscape... it's been parodied, imitated and referenced that it's one of the most iconic images of cinema - especially foreign cinema - that people who've never even seen the film will recognize it.  So it's fitting that this is sort of a flagship title that Criterion has released again and again.  Six times now, if you count the laserdiscs, since we've just had another brand new remaster this year (or technically last year - happy New Year's, gang!) with their massive boxed set of Ingmar Bergman's Cinema.

Update 1/3/19 - 11/12/22: Boy oh boy, I do not feel ready to start replacing the discs in my massive Criterion box yet.  But BFI has released The Seventh Seal on UHD, so here we are.

Also, for the final day of Update Week 2022, I went back and added not just the Llamentol BD of Middlemarch, but the whole George Eliot Collection and corresponding US DVDs.
But it's not the kind of impenetrable art film people are leery of when films like this are brought up.  It's not the kind of film where you lean over to your spouse to ask, "why did the cowboy tie those balloons to the bicycle?"  And you somehow need to intuit that the bicycle represents Mother and releasing your fear of aging or blahbitty blah blah.  Those films exist, too, from the early collaborations between Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali or the works of Maya Deren (the original chess on the beach!), to stuff like Richard Foreman's Strong Medicine and even quite recently with Darren Aronofsky's Mother.  Say what you will about that film, but it's got to be the most popular everything's-a-symbol-for-something-else movie in a long time.  ...The Seventh Seal is not that.  It's a very simple story slowly and directly told that any dummy can follow and relate to as easily as any cop show or sitcom.  The only symbolism you need to figure out is that the dark hooded figure who keeps ending everybody's life and who everyone calls Death... represents death.
Not that this is as shallow and unfulfilling as your average cop show or sitcom.  It's a very relatable existential journey.  Admittedly, this isn't my favorite type of Bergman film... if you can even call it a type, when it stands out so uniquely from Bergman's body of work or even cinema in general, like a lighthouse surrounded by the sea.  But it does fall into that drier, more intellectual side of the bin.  You know, I'm much more a fan of the emotionally, relationship driven films of his later career.  Give me Fanny & Alexander or Autumn Sonata any day!  And Bergman scholar Peter Cowie once wittily and aptly said, "fans groan when Bergman approaches a church."  This is smack dab in the middle of his Christian crisis of faith phase.  But it's just so well made, with brilliant set pieces and authentically period production values.  Now I've seen it a whole bunch of times, but years ago, I'd approach it with trepidation... will it still hold up?  Or will it feel like sitting through a classroom lecture?  Was I just easily impressed with it because I was younger and its reputation is monolithic?  But no, it's one of those movies, if you turn it on the TV, I'll sit down and get pulled right into it.
For those who don't know, The Seventh Seal is the story of a squire and his knight, recently returned to their plague-ridden homeland from the Crusades.  When Death comes along to take them into the next world, the knight delays him by challenging him to a game of chess.  So long as the game stretches on, they will remain, because the knight is determined to discover the ultimate answers to life's mystery before he lets go.  But death can't be outrun and he can't be cheated, so they only have a short time to quest for meaning, during which they journey with a wandering troupe of players, a blacksmith and his wife, and a devious seminarist who all get unwittingly drawn into Death's past.  A strong literary quality, Gunnar Fischer's stark compositions and powerful performances by some of Bergman's greatest actors including Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, Bibi Andersson and comedian Nils Poppe all come together to make this one of the most unforgettable films of all time.
Criterion first released The Seventh Seal on DVD back in 1999, spine #11.  In fact, their first laserdisc edition was spine #10, dating all the way back to 1987, and yes, that was a special edition with a commentary, too.  Then, in 2009, they remastered it for HD, releasing it on DVD and blu with even more special features.  But 2009's pretty old for as far as blu-rays go, so I don't suppose it's too surprising that when they included it in their massive 2018 boxed set of Ingmar Bergman's Cinema, they gave it a fresh scan and all around new edition.  It's fascinating to watch how far this film has come in Criterion's hands.  But now we get to see it go even further beyond their reach as the BFI have taken it into the latest format as a 2-disc BD/ 4k Ultra HD combo over in the UK.
1) 1999 DVD; 2) 2009 DVD; 3) 2009 BD; 4) 2018 BD;
5) 2021 BD; 6) 2021 UHD.

Criterion's first DVD is so old, it probably would've been non-anamorphic.  But fortunately the film's fullscreen, so I think we dodged a bullet there.  Despite the film always being in the same AR, though, I left the negative space around the first set of images to show the interesting, differing ways Criterion handled the pillar- and/or window-boxing over the years.  Most curiously, the concurrent 2009 discs are actually quite different in that regard, with the DVD being distinctly windowboxed around all four sides, whereas its supposed blu-ray mirror is not.  And as you can see, it's not because they just left it like the old DVD, which only has slight horizontal slivers.  And even between the two blus, seeing them stacked one on top of the other clearly illustrates how the widths of the image don't line up with each other, as the actual aspect ratio shifts between releases, ever widening as it goes from 1.31:1 to 1.32:1 to 1.34:1 and finally landing at 1.38:1.  In the case of the new blu, it's because the new scan is unveiling a little bit more on the sides, but in the case of the 2009 blu, I think it's just been slightly horizontally stretched.  And yes, the old DVD does actually have a few pixels of extra vertical picture even the latest blu lacks.

But these shifts in aspect ratio are really slight, and none of the discs, even the 1999 DVD, suffer from issues like interlacing, DNR, burnt in subtitles or any other issues that tend to plague lesser releases.  They're all pretty high quality discs from Criterion.  So yes, the newer versions are better and the DVDs aren't in HD, but by and large, even the oldest DVD still holds up pretty well.  You could slap that on your TV today and it'd still look pretty good.
2009 BD left; 2018 BD right.
Still, the blus look even better.  2009 suggests an old master, before 2 and 4k scans came into prominence; but it holds up quite well.  Detail is strong, black and contrast levels are bold, the film elements themselves are clean and well preserved.  This would've been an A+ blu in 2009 and still rate a solid A today.  But not only is the latest blu a fresh 4k scan, but this time they were able to take it from the 35mm original camera negative.  So it's a slightly darker, less contrast-y image, as it's able to rely on it's broader range of light and shadow.  And more noticeably, the grain is a lot finer; it's actually quite light here.  Has it been slightly DNR'd?  If so, it's not to the point of destroying anything in the image; but this new scan doesn't pull out much by way of additional detail either.  Instead, it mostly seems to give us a more direct view of what has been captured, without the additional interference we've always lived with from the grain generated by later generation film sources.  To be a little clearer, I'd say it's about a dead tie between the two blus in terms of detail, grain and resolution, with one benefit trading off for another; but the new version wins in terms of the brightness and contrast.

BFI is still using the same Swedish Film Institute 4k restoration (their included 1080p is barely distinguishable from the Criterion apart from a very slight framing tweak), but now it's presented on a genuine 4k disc and with Dolby Vision HDR.  Honestly, the latest BDs already look pretty terrific, with expertly captured grain and fine detail.  But there is more life and with extra detail in the highlights and more authentic curves up close.  And that questionably too light grain that I thought might've been DNR'd?  Not a problem here at all.

Every version, from 1999-2018, features both the original Swedish mono track (in LPCM on the blus) and an English dub with optional English subtitles.  The 1999 DVD has some sibilance scratching that the later editions clean up.  It's no great loss, but it has to be pointed out that BFI drops the English dub.  Apart from some echo and background hiss, the English dub's not terrible, I suppose; but when you're familiar with Sydow's distinctive voice, hearing the milquetoast American Joe voice they give him sounds a little goofy.
In terms of special features, the 1999 DVD is interesting since it has a few minor things left off of future editions.  One thing that's never left us, though, is the audio commentary by Criterion's in-house Bergman scholar, Peter Cowie, which debuted on the 1987 laserdisc and has been an interesting and informed companion on every subsequent release.  There's also the trailer and a 4-page booklet with notes by Cowie.  But then we get to the 1999 exclusive stuff.  First off is a restoration demonstration.  You can understand why they'd leave that off, since it's touting a transfer that's since been replaced on later, newer discs.  It's also interlaced, which makes their restoration look a lot less impressive than it is.  So it's hardly anything to cry over.  But what's more interesting that later discs have discarded is two film clips, from Bergman's The Magician and Wild Strawberries, with audio commentary by Cowie.  Together, they total about 18 minutes, and are basically there, I suppose, to put Bergman's work into an educated context.  I suppose Criterion would just prefer you bought their Magician and Wild Strawberries discs, and anyway, they'll make up for what little they lose by how much they wind up adding.
The 1999 restoration demonstration
The 2009 releases include an all new introduction Bergman recorded for The Seventh Seal during the filming of the documentary of Bergman Island.  Speaking of which, Criterion has also included the documentary film, Bergman Island.  I've already covered that documentary thoroughly on its own page here, so I'll just let you know real quickly here that the version on the Criterion discs is an abridged version, cutting the original 173 minute doc down by more than half to just 83 minutes, so you'll still probably want to track down the uncut version.  Still, as a freebie, it's nice to get here.

The 2009 versions also throw in new video essays by Peter Cowie and Woody Allen, an almost 20 minute audio interview with Max von Sydow, and a nice career overview (again by Cowie) appropriately entitled Bergman 101.  It also includes a longer (24 for the DVD, 28 for the blu) booklet with notes by Gary Giddins.  The 2018 edition keeps everything from the 2009 discs, but adds nothing new, with the obvious exception, of course, for the fact that it comes packaged with all the other Bergman films, and the extras associated with those.  The set also includes a bonus disc with several docs and features about Bergman in general, but there's nothing else Seventh Seal-specific.  The Giddins essay from the previous booklets is back again, too, in the box's massive 248 page book.
And now BFI has its own, entirely unique set of special features.  Firstly, there' a brand new commentary by Kat Ellinger, which is... eh, fine.  She spends like half an hour going on and on about how this film can be considered folk horror, which is like the latest Film Twitter buzzword.  And while I don't disagree, it's a pretty simple, easily made point that doesn't require endless convincing.  So the commentary starts to feel like a bit of a chore to sit through.  Still, it's the only commentary on the UK release, and she certainly provides all the fundamental background info and insight one would ask of an expert commentary.  And if you have heard all the US stuff, she gives something different.  So at the end of the day, I'd say it's not bad but a little under-cooked, and if you're not too fussed about expert commentaries in the first place, and/ or already know your Bergman fairly well, you wouldn't be doing yourself much of a disservice by skipping it.  But hey, good to get.

More compelling is the roughly 15 minutes behind-the-scenes footage narrated by Ian Christie (the case says "optional commentary," but the only way to turn it off is to lower the volume down to 0 on your television).  This isn't really a new feature; it's been on UK releases since Tartan's 50th Anniversary DVD in 2007, but for whatever reason, Criterion's never gotten there hands on it.  And as actual, surviving vintage footage giving us a real look behind the making of this classic, it's fairly essential.  Christie's commentary is nice, too, especially since the footage is silent anyway.  BFI also includes Bergman's short documentary about his mother, Karin's Face again, which you can see comparison shots of on my Best Intentions page (though I'll save you a click: it's the same transfer every time).  And this also comes with a glossy 12-page booklet with an essay by Jessica Kiang, the trailer, and a slipcover.
So, each subsequent release of Criterion's The Seventh Seal has been a nice little upgrade.  And now BFI's UHD is another.  And it nets us some different, and in one instance quite important, special features.  One might balk at re-buying a film so many times, but in the case of such an important and visually arresting classic such as this one, I think most serious film fans will be happy for each opportunity.

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