Escaping death – be it in a literal or figurative way – has been a cornerstone of stories for centuries. Arguably, the most iconic cinematic iteration of this idea is present in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, in which a knight (Max von Sydow) challenges Death (Bengt Ekerot) to a game of chess, thus delaying his demise in an effort to find some meaning in life. The film is so highly regarded that it’s not surprising that The Seventh Seal is the first 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray release from the BFI (British Film Institute).
Having never seen The Seventh Seal before, I was – perhaps wrongly – surprised by just how good it was. Beautifully photographed, with some nuanced performances and a terrifically paced story, it’s easy to see why Bergman’s motion picture has become so highly regarded. Bengt Ekerot is a perfect Death: enigmatic, but also cunning, and with a unique level of pathos to his performance. Sydow broods his way through the story brilliantly, while the ensemble cast all add distinct and memorable performances throughout. The location work is excellent, allowing the camera to move around the space and capture some truly wonderful shots, whether it be the beach at the start or the villages the characters encounter; the whole world created in The Seventh Seal feels lived in. Suffice it to say, the film is an undisputed masterpiece of cinema, and I highly recommend it to anyone curious.
The Seventh Seal was restored by the Swedish Film Institute, with the original 35mm negative scanned at 4K resolution, and is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. The 4K picture looks excellent, retaining the filmic look whilst bringing out some excellent details. Close-up shots benefit particularly well, while the moody, shadowy lighting is given an extra boost with the new HDR grade (the presentation is in Dolby Vision and is HDR10 compatible). Only the original mono sound mix is present on the disc, but it does sound very good; I think a surround-sound mix may have lost some of the “feel” to the film. One small nit-pick I did have was that the subtitles often came up with exchanges between two characters, rather than one line for one character and then the next character’s line, which did sometimes lose the pace of the dialogue as spoken. It’s a very minor issue though. The 4K remaster is also present on the accompanying 1080p Blu-ray disc.
This new BFI release also includes a new audio commentary by film critic Kat Ellinger, an original trailer for the film and silent behind the scenes footage from the film, with commentary by film scholar Ian Christie. Supposedly the latter feature is only featured on the Blu-ray disc but was present on my 4K disc. Exclusive to the Blu-ray disc though is Karin’s Face, a short film by Ingmar Bergman with pictures taken from his personal photo album, featuring his mother, Karin. Inside the box is also a small booklet, including an essay on The Seventh Seal. Comparing this release to the one produced by the Criterion Collection, it’s surprising that virtually none of the extras are shared by both releases, meaning that completists may be compelled to purchase both.
Overall, this 4K release of The Seventh Seal is an excellent set from the BFI. It’s a shame that this can’t be called a “definitive” release, but the new remaster is excellent, and the extras – whilst few in number – do add extra value to the set. The film itself though is a classic, and well worth watching for cinephiles everywhere.