Saturday, September 22, 2007

TIFF 2007: Max von Sydow On "The Virgin Spring"

"The Virgin Spring" (Dialogues Series)
(Sweden, 1960, 90 minutes)
Written by: Ulla Isaksson
Directed by: Ingmar Bergman
Cast: Max von Sydow, Birgitta Valberg, Gunnel Lindblom, Birgitta Pettersson

This year’s Dialogues series was one of the most impressive since the programme’s inception, with such luminaries as Peter Boganovich, Sidney Lumet, and Lord Richard Attenborough appearing in person to introduce and discuss films and filmmakers who had an influence on their own careers.

But on Friday September 12, The University Of Toronto’s Isabel Theatre hosted a Dialogues event more intimate than most. To honour the late Ingmar Bergman, his longtime friend and leading man Max von Sydow presided over an evening to his memory, speaking candidly about their classic collaborations and focusing specifically, on their second film together, 1960’s “The Virgin Spring”, which won the 1961 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.

After a humid week, the weather suddenly turned thanks to the fallout of Hurricane Isabel and the ticket holders had to endure chilly winds and an incessant downpour as the event started late. The perfect backdrop for a Bergman tribute, perhaps…

The esteemed actor/director took to the stage for a brief introduction, and immediately reinforced what a commanding, even intimidating, presence he can be, even at the age of 78. But von Sydow responded to his standing ovation with humility and self-deprecating humour. But he often paused thoughtfully to find the right words when discussing Bergman’s memory--clearly, he was still struggling with the loss of his friend just this past July.

“I owe him (Bergman) so much. This is not a happy reason (to be here). No one in film and the theatre has meant more to me…my career…my professional ethics…I owe it all to him.”

“I was asked to choose a film of his—which was difficult, because I’ve been in a few!” he joked. Indeed, the seemingly indefatigable actor continues to be a familiar face to art house and mainstream filmgoers of several generations, having appeared in this past summer’s “Rush Hour 3” and with two new features premiering at this year’s TIFF: Julian Schnabel’s drama “The Diving Bell And The Butterfly” and Paolo Barzman's “Emotional Arithmetic.”

The Virgin Spring” was based on a “(13th century) medieval ballad, and it was one of the few for which he did not write the script. It was also Bergman’s first collaboration with cinematographer Sven Nykvist, although they had met once before.”

“It is a brutal subject--it takes place in a time when Christianity hadn’t grown strong and there were a lot of pagan beliefs…set in Sweden in the early spring.”

And then, the film, still beautiful and heartbreaking with its sparse settings and characterizations and an unnerving climax of shocking physical and emotional violence:

At a remote farm in medieval Sweden, prosperous Christians Töre (von Sydow) and Märeta (Valberg), prepare their 15-year old daughter Karin (Pettersson) for a day’s journey to a nearby church to deliver ceremonial candles. She is accompanied by her adopted sister Ingeri (Lindblom), a pagan who worships the ancient Norse deities. The two become separated, and Karen encounters three nomads—two men and a young boy--and invites them to share her food. To the boy’s horror, the elder men rape and kill Karin and steal her clothing.

The criminals, seeking shelter, unknowingly come upon the home of the girl they have just murdered. Tore and Mareta discover welcome them in, feed them, and offer seasonal work. But one of the men tries to sell Mareta her daughter’s clothes. Tore locks them in, and kills all of them with a blade, including the young boy. The next morning, they are lead by Ingeri to Karin’s body. Tore promises Mareta that although he does not understand God, he will build a church on their daughter’s final resting place in his honour. As Karin is lifted, a spring suddenly flows from where she was murdered.

Von Sydow returned to the stage after the screening and took his seat beside interviewer Piers Handling, Toronto International Film Festival Director and CEO. He looked at the audience cheerily and quipped: “That was a long time ago!”

“It still moves me.”

Handling asked him to recount his first encounter with Bergman: “I was at the acting academy in Stockholm. And there was this admired new director everyone was talking about. He was doing “The Visitor”, and needed extras to play policemen. I called him at home, from a phone booth, and he answered! But all the roles had been cast. Later, at the Elisabeth theatre, I met him again. When he was at the municipal theatre—he invited me to come and perform in two plays that season. In the spring, he was offered me a role in “The Seventh Seal”, which was shot in the summer of 1956.”

“It was a wonderful time, especially for young people. They’d hire for 8 months of work, 12-15 young actors. You did anything and everything—classical, modern, comedies, tragedies. Small parts, leads. To learn acting, you must do. He’d be editing the film in the autumn while he did stage productions. He had a wonderful ability to make people enthusiastic to work with him. After four years, Bergman went to the Stockholm National Theatre, and I went a year later.”

“He (Bergman) was an extraordinary stage director, and that’s what makes him absolutely unique. His theatre productions influenced the films he wanted to make.”

“He said to me: my play—“Wood Painting”, I think—I’ll do a film based on it. There’s a clown I’d like you to play. He loved art…music. He’d ask: Did you see the Picasso paintings “A Family Of Clowns”? (von Sydow was likely referring to 1905’s Family of Saltimbanques) Then, a few weeks later, he called back: “I’ve changed my mind. There’s a knight I’d like you to play. There’s no dialogue—his tongue has been cut out. But Bergman changed it, and wrote the character dialogue.” (“Wood Painting” was the basis for “The Seventh Seal”, in which von Sydow’s Antonius Block famously plays chess against Death during the Black Plague).

And what of Bergman’s process? “He’d give you a script. Everyone would read through it. He did not analyze or instruct much. Moods, meanings, but no direct instruction during shooting. He had a wonderful capacity for “blocking”, onstage or on the film set. Very precise blocking, to find the psychological rhythm. He’d use simple physical terms: ‘warmer’, ‘colder’. But never any psychological analysis.”

“This was a very liberal approach for an actor, but I was always worried I wasn’t doing the right thing!”

“Bergman gave us the freedom to work and fantasize and carry on. Actors like to believe we have a little bit of the initiative.”

“He could make ordinary human beings of great classical characters. And he liked to joke about them--joke about his own characters and stories.”

“There weren’t many takes--complex camera moves, yes, maybe the odd required retake.”

On Bergman’s first time collaboration with cinematographer Nykvist: “Sven and Ingmar understood each other so well. Sven preferred as little artificial light as possible. No direct lights, always indirect, reflected light.”

“One day, they shot the arrival of the guys (the men who rape and kill Karin) to the farm to stay for the night. Bergman was upset with the rushes: Sven had created dramatic shadows, which he did not like and are still in the film.”

Why did he select “The Virgin Spring” for this screening? Because it represents to me everything I experienced as very valuable in the work of Mr. Bergman. The part, the story, the wide register of the performance.”

“We shot it in early spring, when the light was rather cold. There is betrayal, guilt. He was the son of a Lutheran minister, his relationship with his father was complicated, and he talked about faith so many times. The collision between heathens and Christianity is very clear.”

(Interesting that according to Peter Cowie’s Criterion Collection essay, Bergman never really regarded The Virgin Spring as one of his achievements. In fact, his own films rarely performed well in Sweden. The title is barely mentioned in his two autobiographies The Magic Lantern and Images).

“The shoot was wonderful, we had good time.” For Bergman, it was a transitional film. He had just married (his fourth time, to pianist Käbi Laretei), he had a new cinematographer, a script from another writer--he was happy at this time.”

Did Von Sydow regard himself as Bergman’s onscreen alter ego? “Yes, but most of his characters were”. He thought “Hour Of The Wolf” as Bergman’s most personal and autobiographical film—“Bergman’s horror film.”

The most difficult scene to shoot? “The hardest scene was the end scene. It is not perfect, I’m sorry to say. It was a very long take, should have been reshot, but we didn’t have the time. I had to direct myself to God, away from the camera. The emotion was impossible to express in satisfactory form.”

“There is no music in the climax—it is not needed. It allows us the time to feel in the tragedy, to experience the emotion of the people exposed to terrible tragedy. It was very courageous.”

An audience member asked if there was any repressed sexuality intended between Töre and his daughter? Von Sydow shrugged off the notion: “No, someone else came up with that.”

Von Sydow expanded humorously on the “birch tree” scene, in which Töre, having deduced that his boarders have killed his daughter, violently attempts to uproot a tree: “You know the culture of sauna in Finland and Sweden? The classical way was to whip yourself in the steam to clear out your frustration.”

“It was funny to shoot: they couldn’t find a good birch tree so they planted one—one amongst millions!--close to the farm in the middle of nowhere. And the locals were watching and thinking: we have enough birch trees!”

“Well, the camera assistant made an error and the shot came back as a silhouette. My character was not visible, just black on black. So when he came up the hill, he’s invisible approaching the tree. So the tree rocks back and forth on its own!”

“The farmers watched again as ten days later, we came back and did it all over again.”

“He would write for a performer…based on a conversation. We were prepared to the minutest detail. There was little improvisation. Quality was the most difficult thing to provide. To be true to the character. Bergman was very demanding. It was all in the preparation: Who he is. Why does he do what he does? What interests him in his life? What does he want to achieve?”

“Bergman never allowed actors to look at rushes. He let us create the character on our own.”

Another attendee inquired: Where do you go to recall Bergman beyond the cinema? Von Sydow paused thoughtfully, and responded simply “I can’t talk about that.”

Another asked if von Sydow would like to do "King Lear"? “I’ve never done it. Bergman did it in Stockholm. But not long ago, on the phone, he admitted he wanted me for the role. But now, I’m too old.”

He admitted that he'd choose Bille August’s 1987 Oscar-winner “Pelle the Conqueror” as his finest work as an actor, but clarified that he regards his 11 collaborations with Bergman as “the most important”.

“The four years of continual work with Bergman was my happiest time. It was a great school, a great academy. I was at the right place, at the right moment.”

“He spoiled me.”

©2007 Robert J. Lewis