The Winter of Max von Sydow Being Quiet

I was already thinking about Max von Sydow quite a bit when news came out that he’d passed away this month. He was a dream subject for an obituary writer: an artist with a long, full life rooted deep in the Nordic past (His father was an ethnologist.), uncompromising as a young artist, and promiscuous, you might say, for Hollywood paychecks as a character actor later on life.

He also happened to be at the center of a body of work that feels very relevant during this extended winter of the Coronavirus: the ten or so films of Ingmar Bergman’s “great period” from the late ’50s through the late ’60s.


Playing chess against Death.

I first encountered these films years ago while living in Minneapolis. There was a dank video store with a backed-up septic system and shelves of VHS, and one winter I got in the habit of checking out a different classic film every night. I was a “transplant” in Minnesota, and that meant trying to make sense of what I was doing there at all, so it’s no surprise, given the Minnesotan-Scandinavian connection and the long shadow of winter, that by February I settled on the Swedish shelf.

Serious cinema was an ascetic discipline, or so I thought, so I stuck my nose deep  into these films, some of which in fact looked like illuminated manuscripts: The Virgin Spring, Hour of the Wolf, Persona, Wild Strawberries, and the great “trilogy” of Winter Light, The Silence, and Through a Glass Darkly.

“Trilogy,” incidentally, warrants quotes because by the following year I’d read Bergman on Bergman, in which he admits that these three films are considered a trilogy because of a schnapsidee (an idea that sounds brilliant while drunk) he had while drinking with a Bavarian film critic; they aren’t really a trilogy. “Great period” gets quotes because, even though these are his most Bergmanesque years, when he became a darling of international critics, the films that are aging best are his earlier ones, such as Summer With Monika, Sawdust and Tinsel, and the one I watch at least once a year, Smiles of a Summer Night – but I save that for another time.

Von Sydow was always present for the “great period,” often far beyond the number of words he actually uttered on screen. He was the fulcrum on which these (sometimes pretentious) masterpieces balanced.


Von Sydow and Lindblom, with Ingrid Thulin in background.

In Winter Light, he plays Jonas, a depressed young father who goes to the wrong pastor for advice. Von Sydow being quiet is as expressive as Brando being loud. Jonas hardly talks, but squirms and looks away evasively, as his wife Karin (Gunnel Lindbolm) explains to Pastor Thomas (Gunnar Bjornstrand) that they came to mass that morning because Jonas is suicidal. “It started when he read an article about the Chinese,” she says, describing a sensationalized Cold War account of the ascendant, nuclear-armed China.

Later, when Pastor Thomas questions Jonas one-to-one about why he’s depressed, he denies having money or marriage problems, elusive as ever. “So, it really is the Chinese?” Thomas says archly, and Jonas exhales the faintest guffaw. It’s so very Scandinavian, the kind of scene a Nordiphile laughs at (inside, of course), but that we can forgive most cinema fans for not caring about.

It also struck me, watching it last month for the fifth or sixth time, how contemporary the emotional terrain is. Many of my American peers were already walking around with either undiagnosed political anxiety or its opposite: Projecting onto world events their own internal gear-grinding. Friendships were being frayed by the Democratic primary elections. And this was before Coronavirus.

Although the viral hit (I can’t help it.) this month has been Contagion, The Seventh Seal was my obvious go-to, a more folkloric look at a contagious disease. That’s the first time Bergman and Von Sydow made a film together, in ’57. Von Sydow plays a knight, Antonious Block, returning to Sweden from The Crusades, during a bubonic plague outbreak.

The memorable scenes from it, the ones that make a 20-something trying desperately to fully comprehend it, are of deeply felt Christian angst or existential yearning – and if  they’re a little too earnest for some critics, I had no patience for the impatient back in my VHS days.

Watching The Seventh Seal last century, it felt like a handful of scenes full of dialogue about faith and existence, with a barebones and unfocused plot around it to give the dialogue some semblance of dramatic stakes. Watching it last week, it was more a series of visual tableaux – Antonius playing chess with Death, Christian believers flagellating themselves, Death leading his recent kills over the horizon – with comedy, lots of comedy, in between, and Antonius trying, not very successfully, to carry on an existential conversation.


When Death knocks, you answer.

I never knew, till I saw it with a hundred or so people in a theater, how funny The Seventh Seal is! Gunnar Bjornstrand may be a cloudy day of a protagonist in Winter Light (’63) and many other films, but back in ’57 as the vassal to Antonius he seemed relieved to have so few shades of darkness to get across, and to revel in being a wiseass and leave the heavy lifting to Von Sydow. His casual asides drew loud laughter both times I saw it on the big screen.

The most crafted scene in The Seventh Seal is when Antonius happens on a church; he knows he’s going to die soon, and when he sees a hooded figure inside the confessional he jumps at the chance. He confesses his inability to believe in God, and adds that he started playing chess with Death that morning. Only after he reveals his strategy does the confessor turn around: He’s not a priest, he is Death, and Antonius just threw the chess game.

It’s so momentous, in my memory, this scene happened around minute 60 out of a 90 minute film. (One good thing about the Svensk Filmindustri catalog is they are on point about keeping films short, with crisp three acts coming right on time.) That’s how I remembered it because that’s where I would have put it, but in fact it comes around minute 30, barely into Act Two.


The Magician

The storyteller has already played his best card, and Antonius is already tricked. What narrative forward motion you get in the rest of the film comes from his chance meeting with the traveling minstrel troupe, and his impulsive offer to escort them through a dangerous forest.

In The Magician (’58), Von Sydow plays a traveling doctor named Vogler, a cult-like charlatan who rarely speaks, but whose gravity at the center of the traveling troupe is a persuasive element in their scam. (This always struck me as an expression of Bergman’s artistic self-doubts.)

In The Virgin Spring (’60), Von Sydow plays Töre, a medieval father who doesn’t say much either, and who is called upon to get revenge for his daughter’s murder. This one holds up even better than the others. A study in narrative preparation, I could watch Töre prepare his ritual bath again and again. Ang Lee says that “Life changed” after he watched The Virgin Spring at age 18. “I’d never seen anything so quiet, so serene, and yet so violent.”

In Hour of the Wolf (’68), Von Sydow plays Johan, an artist isolated on an island with his wife Alma (Liv Ullman). Generally a man of few words, Johan descends from his usual orneriness to insanity, as narrated by Alma. I’m writing this post over a few consecutive nights’ hours of the wolf (the hour before dawn), and I think a lot of us can relate to that couple, maybe even to both partners in it, while we’re cooped up waiting for Coronavirus to pass.

I saw Von Sydow in person one time, appearing to promote a comedy he was in, that seemed like a labor of love or maybe a personal favor. At a Q & A afterward, a few members of the public were eager to hear more about The Greatest Story Ever Told, which was 30 or so years old at the time, in which he played Jesus. You could tell by how delicately he answered the questions that he was used to it. He also gracefully accepted a ribbing from the moderator about his role in Strange Brew.

Ironically, the minstrels in The Seventh Seal think they’re doomed when they get separated from Antonius and his escort due to a rainstorm, but that’s what saves them. Antonius brings the rest of the party “safely” to his house, where his wife starts making everyone breakfast. Then the door knocks. Spoiler alert: It’s Death, and there are no more reprieves.


The Death of Napoleon.

Death, as I’ve seen it, is not the dramatic event idealized in pre-Civil War times, a fitting final chapter to a meaningful life. It’s the thief who comes while you’re making other plans. And who cheats at chess besides. In these past few weeks the Coronavirus situation has come over us the same way, as we incrementally bust through our own concentric rings of denial. One day you’re saying, “I wonder if Corona is affecting business.” The next day you conclude that it must be. The next day you’re locking the doors, and you haven’t even said good-bye.

Give Bergman and the Swedish film industry credit for leaving us this legacy of sometimes entertaining movies that unabashedly aim high. Taken as a whole, Bergman used Bjornstrand, Von Sydow, or sometimes Ullman to show us how he, the privileged son of a rather severe minister, was slowly adjusting to 20th Century reality. He was warm-hearted enough to acknowledge, again and again, that the extra stuff in life, the plot fillers, the small mercies we give to strangers, the favors we do out of personal devotion rather than divine duty, aren’t beside the point of our existential journey. They are the point. And the jugglers and clowns are possessed of a wisdom beyond us.


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