Me and Max
As great as were the justly-hyped new films by Andersson, the Coens, Reygadas, Maddin, Mungiu, etc. — the event at Toronto I was most looking forward to, which I wouldn’t have missed for the world, was seeing Ingmar Bergman’s THE VIRGIN SPRING presented in the Dialogues program by Max von Sydow. SPRING is a very very good film obviously, but it’s not Bergman’s greatest by a long shot (not even in his Top 10, I’d say). Still … a month after the death of the cinema’s maybe-greatest director, to see one of his films presented by his maybe-greatest actor, with an onstage interview and an audience Q-and-A … no explanation is possible or necessary. It’d be like skipping your best friend’s funeral.
It was even better than I’d hoped.
I arrived as early as I could to make sure I’d get a good seat. I got one in the very front row (which fills up slowly even at the mostly-excellent TIFF theaters, though at this one, the Isabel Bader, the screen is on a slightly-elevated live-theater stage, and back a bit, so there’s no neck-craning at all). And I was just four seats or so in from the aisle — prime autograph-stalking territory. And just 20 feet away from where Von Sydow would be when introducing SPRING and then being interviewed afterward by festival director Piers Handling. While waiting in my seat, my parents called and I told them excitedly and breathlessly where I was and who I was about to see: “Max Von Sydow … THE VIRGIN SPRING … The Knight who played chess with the Grim Reaper? … in THE SEVENTH SEAL??” The person sitting next to me in the theater said: “try the priest in THE EXORCIST.” Well … THAT reference my father got.
When von Sydow strides out on stage, in very good physical shape for a man pushing 80 (born 1929), everyone gives a standing ovation, which von Sydow quickly joins, realizing it’s as much for Bergman as for him. When it finally dies down, I’m close enough to see the tears welling up in von Sydow’s eyes when he says of Bergman “I owe it all to him.” And then they welled up in mine, as if the event was no mere film screening, no … BECAUSE the event was no mere film screening, but a wake for Ingmar Bergman. With von Sydow as the chief eulogist.
After the film was over, von Sydow and Handling came down the aisle, but Handling went up on stage first as the stagehands were arranging chairs, a table, microphones, etc. That was the opportunity I was waiting for and had my festival guidebook deliberately marked at the page for THE VIRGIN SPRING. I quickly walk the 20 feet over to von Sydow, hold out a pen, and say “Mr. von Sydow, would you sign my festival book, on the VIRGIN SPRING page here? It would be a great honor and make my festival.” He does so quickly, and I leave him right as Handling calls him onstage to another standing ovation.
Incredibly, I also got to ask von Sydow a question during the audience Q-and-A. This one didn’t go quite so well. Close as I can recall, what I said was “do you know whether Bergman, when casting his male roles, tailored them to your specific personality offscreen, and do the same for the offscreen personalities of Gunnar Bjornstrand and Erland Josephson and others?” He didn’t give a very good answer, saying in general terms without examples, that he did and that “once a part was cast, he would even rewrite some things to fit me, of course.” Not very illuminating, but that was my fault. What I was hoping for was confirmation or denial for a theory I have about Bergman’s whole body of male roles — that, to coarsely generalize, von Sydow played the tortured souls, Bjornstrand played the self-conscious skeptics and Josephson the post-Christians. And I was wondering whether that was deliberate and/or the result of roles being tailored to the men’s offscreen personalities. In my dreams, von Sydow might have even discussed his own religiosity. But asking it that way would have required a whole critical setup of the premises on my part, and thus my committing the cardinal sin of audience Q-and-As, the questioner making a speech of his own. I also didn’t want to be perceived as asking him too personal a question. So I decided to be short and tactful … and it fell flat. Though, with reference to von Sydow’s own religiosity, he may have revealed something in his word choice during his intro, saying SPRING was about religious clash, and how “there was still a lot of heathen beliefs” in Sweden at the time. “Heathen”?!?! Isn’t that a hate crime? Where were the language police? How did von Sydow ever escape the Soviet Socialist Republic of Canuckistan after committing such an awful Thoughtcrime??¹
Anyway, unlike most TIFF Q-and-As², this one was genuinely enlightening, partly because a prepared professional questioner had most of the time, and partly because von Sydow was trying to be as forthcoming as he could, and was Old-World gracious about everything. When he answered my question for example, he strode toward the part of the stage near where I was sitting, and looked me in the eye as he gave his answer. Later, when someone asked, “what are your personal memories of Bergman,” he responded slowly and sadly, without coming across as scolding: “I can’t talk about that. I’m sorry. I just can’t. Not now.” And surprisingly, while he called the approximately 10 years when he did most of his work for Bergman “the happiest time of my life as an actor,” he said his single favorite role of his whole career, was in PELLE THE CONQUERER.
Von Sydow recounted his first encounter with Bergman — in the early 50s, as he was starting to make a reputation in Sweden. He and two actor friends wanted to be in one of this hot new director’s movies, and one of them got Bergman’s number somehow, plus wind that he needed to fill a few small roles in his next movie. “So we crammed into a phone booth and told him we were all interested. He turned us down, saying he had completed casting, and I had no contact with him again for several years” — until Bergman was casting THE SEVENTH SEAL.
Surprisingly to me, von Sydow said Bergman gave little explicit direction³, something to the effect of “he gave us general ideas and if we weren’t doing something right, he’d tell us.” But he was not a control-freak, which von Sydow said he liked. “Actors don’t like to be given orders. You want the sense of having some input and some control over what you’re doing. Otherwise, it’s boring,” he said. Surprisingly, this was more or less the direction style of another of my favorite directors, but a man who doesn’t have Bergman’s reputation as a great director of actors — Alfred (“actors are cattle“) Hitchcock.⁴
Despite Bergman’s reputation as an expressionist, von Sydow said he tried to make things as realistic as possible in THE VIRGIN SPRING. It wasn’t simply eschewing directorial-tricks like underscore music in the climactic revelation to the mother of who the killers are. But Von Sydow said Bergman also didn’t like “dramatic shadows that had no reason to be there.” When Bergman saw the dailies one day, he realized Sven Nykvist⁵ had the killers casting ominous-looking shadows as they returned unwittingly to the family home. He said Bergman threw a fit … “why? It’s the dead of night,” and before there could be modern illumination. But there wasn’t time to reshoot, and the shadows stayed in the film. Von Sydow also said he didn’t like his performance in the last scene, a very long take which focuses on his post-murder penitential speech. He was shot mostly from behind (though over the course of the shot, it turns into a profile), which he thought was “cheating,” but it was what Bergman wanted. “He said I should direct myself toward God, not the camera,” von Sydow recalled.
Most of all, von Sydow came across as likeable, and as an Old World gentleman, and even his few difficulties with hearing and accented (though otherwise perfect) English contributed to that feel. When asked “what was the most difficult thing you had to provide Bergman,” he paused and gave a one-word answer “Quality.” And paused again before repeating the word and then elaborating a bit. When he was asked the sort of vulgar contemporary question about whether his VIRGIN SPRING character went ballistic against the killers because of “repressed sexual feelings for the daughter,” von Sydow handled it with class and simple directness: “No. Not at all.” When asked what he thought of the theory, he said “sounds like something somebody just came up with,” which I think is a to-Swedish-and-back-to-English translation for “pulled out of his ass.”
But my favorite moment was (of course) a funny anecdote about shooting THE VIRGIN SPRING. In one scene, von Sydow’s character wrestles down a birch tree, to get branches for a cleaning sauna. As you can see from this still above, this tree was isolated and thus von Sydow’s actions more dramatic (he’s locked up the killers and is getting ready for his revenge) and thematically apropos (he’s alone). Von Sydow said “we sent location people all over, but we couldn’t find a usable tree.” The problem was not finding birch trees per se — there are millions of them in Sweden; it’s finding birch trees all by their lonesome, not part of a forest. “So,” von Sydow said, “we found a usable open field and decided to plant one we had just cut down.” When the crew and von Sydow went out there, a bunch of nearby farmers showed up and “couldn’t believe what these crazy people from Stockholm were doing, planting a lone birch tree in the middle of nowhere.” “There’s thousands of trees over there in that forest,” von Sydow recalled the disbelieving farmers as saying. So the team shoots the scene … an exhausting one for von Sydow. But the next day, they look at the previous day’s footage: catastrophe. Some light found its way into the camera and completely blew out the image. “The only things you could see were all-black and all-white,” von Sydow recalled, “since you couldn’t see me, you saw the tree shape fall over all of a sudden, for no reason.” So they had to reshoot. And go back to the same fields. To face the same farmers. Now doubly nonplussed at this bunch of picture folk who can’t even do their crazy games right.
¹ In a similar vein, when introducing THE WALKER, Paul Schrader used even worse Hateweapons. He was referring to Washington’s (supposedly) being the only place in the US where homosexuality can be grounds for blackmail. He said “in Washington, it’s the sin that dare not speak its name; in New York, it’s the sin that won’t shut up.” SIN?!?!?! That is Badthought! Get that man in a re-education camp!! NOW!!!
² I will never forget the very first question I ever heard at my very first TIFF. It was a Dialogues showing of Bunuel’s THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL, presented by Canadian director Bruce Sweeney. The first question he had to field still holds the record for “dumbest question ever” — “so why couldn’t they leave the room?”
³ I recalled once having read/seen an interview with Liv Ullmann in which she said the only “character trait” Bergman gave her for Maria in CRIES AND WHISPERS, other than what was in the script, was “she’s the sort of woman who never closes the door after she enters the room.”
⁴ Doris Day, in her memoirs, said something almost identical about Hitchcock’s lack of direction of her in THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. I can’t find the exact quote quickly, but according to Wikipedia‘s paraphrase: Hitchcock “said everything was fine; if [Day] wasn’t doing what he wanted he would have said something.”
⁵ Throughout, von Sydow pronounced the surname of Bergman’s ace cinematographer, who von Sydow said was as great in his field as Bergman, as “NOOK’-vist.” Which sounds wrong to me (I want to say NIGH’-kvist), but he’s the one who speaks Swedish.