#202. Ingmar Bergman

In a market saturated with American films, we often forget there are many excellent, prolific, and award-winning directors outside the borders of North America. This is probably due to the entirety of foreign cinema being contained in a single Oscar category: Best Foreign Film. Because these films are simplified to the equivalent of a “Best Picture” category, their directors are often unrecognized for their efforts, especially after many years of multiple wins. After 1956, when the Best Foreign Film category finally became more than an honorary award, few directors have had multiple wins. Second only to Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman has had the most Best Foreign Film wins in the Academy’s history (again, not considering the honorary awards before 1956). This week’s two films highlight some of the best of Bergman’s work.

The Seventh SealThe Seventh Seal
Year: 1957
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 96 minutes / 1.6 hours

Even though it was not accepted as one of the nominees for Best Foreign Film, The Seventh Seal (1957) was Sweden’s second unsuccessful submission for the award. A mere three years later, Bergman’s film, The Virgin Spring (1960), would go on to win the first of Sweden’s three Oscars. The next year, Bergman was able to recreate the feat with Through a Glass Darkly (1961). And while Sweden has been nominated for the prestigious award many times, only Bergman’s films have managed to claim that gold statue for his country. However, even if The Seventh Seal didn’t win any awards, it is considered by most to be Bergman’s best-known and most influential work. The iconic chess match between a knight of the Crusades and Death personified has reappeared in many forms since it hit the screen in the late 1950s.

As was the case with many of Bergman’s other films, The Seventh Seal focuses on death, and not just the personified incarnation portrayed by Bengt Ekerot. The death that had come to Sweden was that of severe illness: the black plague. Many in the country had started to falter in their faith, especially Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), a knight who had just returned home from the Crusades. In his new, bleak view of the world, Block’s visions of Death make him seem insane to the casual observer, but his goal is to stay the inevitable grip of Death for just a while longer, hoping to save someone in the process. Fortunately, their game of chess draws out long enough that a few traveling actors can survive the “danse macabre” that Death takes most of them on, leading to their irreversible demise.

Fanny and AlexanderFanny and Alexander
Year: 1982
Rating: R
Length: 188 minutes / 3.13 hours

The third Best Foreign Film Oscar Bergman earned for Sweden came more than two decades later with Fanny and Alexander (1982). A decade before this win, Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1974) managed to transcend its “Foreign” status and became his first film to be nominated for the top award: Best Picture. Even if these films are occasionally nominated for the highest award, they have yet to win this penultimate designation. This film also marked Bergman’s first nomination for Best Director. Three years later, he would be nominated again for Face to Face (1977).  His final nomination for Best Director would come with his third “Best Foreign Film,” the aforementioned Fanny and Alexander. This was also the last in a string of Best Original Screenplay nominations Bergman had received through his illustrious career.

Fanny (Pernilla Allwin) and Alexander (Bertil Guve) are the titular characters in this turn-of-the-century family drama. When their father dies from a stroke, their now-widowed mother, Emilie (Ewa Fröling), sets out to re-marry. Finding a partner in the widower bishop, Edvard (Jan Malmsjö), the two get married, and she moves her family into his strict and disciplined home. Finding that she cannot enliven the stuffy bishop’s house, Emilie can do nothing but watch as her children’s new stepfather hands out harsh discipline. In particular, Alexander and Edvard are constantly clashing, the latter punishing the former for creating false stories about him. Unable to obtain a divorce, Emilie is eventually able to run away with her two children, and the one she is expecting. Finally free from the bishop, the family can start over again, a new daughter now part of its makeup.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 incredible Ingmar Bergman films

Bacon #: 3 (En passion / Max von Sydow -> Minority Report / Tom Cruise -> A Few Good Men / Kevin Bacon)

#201. Max von Sydow

Not all actors come from North America. Hollywood has an irresistible pull that brings in many actors from all parts of the globe, thus Americanizing them and exposing them to American audiences. Some actors will spend some time working on their craft in their home countries. If they are successful in doing so, it is likely they won’t stay there long. Everyone desires to be famous, so when Hollywood comes knocking, most will answer that call as fast as they can. However, there are a select few who resist the pull of Hollywood and instead make a mark on their native film landscape. This sort of national pride is somewhat rare, but one of the actors who has epitomized this trait is Max von Sydow. While he did eventually come to America, he made sure to leave a lasting impression on his native land. This week’s two films look at Sydow’s work in the U.S. and Sweden.

                                      Extremely Loud and Incredibly CloseExtremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Year: 2011
Rating: PG-13
Length: 129 minutes / 2.15 hours

1965 marked the arrival of Max von Sydow in American films with The Greatest Story Ever Told, wherein he portrayed Jesus Christ. Because he didn’t yet have partnerships with directors like he did in Sweden, his work was quite diverse. From the protagonist of The Exorcist (1973) to a Bond villain in Never Say Never Again (1983) to Liet-Kynes in Dune (1984) to PreCrime’s Director in Minority Report (2002), Sydow has managed to age gracefully through his numerous roles. His latest role in this winter’s Star Wars: Episode VII (2015) will expose him to a fandom who idolizes many of its key actors. Of course, his acting skill has been nominated for an Oscar twice: first for his performance in Pelle the Conqueror (1987), and second, 24 years later, for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011).

A year after losing his father in the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center, Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) finds that an old man (Max von Sydow) has moved in with his grandmother (Zoe Caldwell). The man does not speak but instead has the words “Yes” and “No” tattooed on his palms (a la The Night of the Hunter (1955)). Oskar starts bringing the old man along on the scavenger hunt his late father gave him, conquering several fears along the way. When he realizes the old man is probably his grandfather, Oskar plays the answering machine messages of his dead father, which causes the man to become emotional. This incident causes the old man to move out and tell Oskar to quit the scavenger hunt. Once it is revealed that the search was set up by Oskar’s mother, Linda Schell (Sandra Bullock), the grandfather eventually returns to live with Oskar’s grandmother.

The Seventh SealThe Seventh Seal
Year: 1957
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 96 minutes / 1.6 hours

Sydow’s early career started in 1949, but it wasn’t until 1957 that his acting really flourished. This was due to his partnership with director Ingmar Bergman. In total, Bergman directed 11 films with Max in the cast. Films like Wild Strawberries (1957), The Brink of Life (1958), The Virgin Spring (1960), and Through a Glass Darkly (1961) gave Sydow the chance to show Scandinavian audiences his acting skills. There’s no doubt that Hollywood took notice, but he managed to resist its pull, taking full advantage of the partnership with Bergman. Of course, most of these films pale in comparison to the first collaboration these two masterminds created: The Seventh Seal (1957). The scenes of Death playing chess are some of the most recognized scenes in all of European cinema, if not in the entire world.

Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) is a knight who just returned to Sweden following his service in the Crusades. Finding his home country is now plague-ridden, Block encounters Death (Bengt Ekerot) and challenges him to a chess match to delay his inevitable demise. As the knight heads back to his castle, he and his squire, Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand), run across some actors. Heading into a church, Block gives his confession that he wants to perform “one meaningful deed” to a priest who turns out to be Death. After enjoying a picnic lunch with the actors he met earlier, Block invites them to his castle. Along the way, Block encounters Death in a few more forms, eventually finishing their chess game. As a last-ditch effort, Block swipes the pieces off the board, which gives the actors just enough time to escape Death’s grasp, the final checkmate sealing the knight’s fate.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 spectacular Sydow performances

Bacon #: 2 (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close / Tom Hanks -> Apollo 13 / Kevin Bacon)