The Reeler


November 29, 2007

Diving with Max

Reeler Interview: Von Sydow on Schnabel, Bergman and brief but essential turn in Butterfly

Close shave: Max von Sydow and Mathieu Amalric in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Photo: Miramax Films)

At a particularly poignant juncture of Julian Schnabel's new The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (opening Friday in New York), a freshly shaven Max von Sydow strokes his face in front a mirror. A photograph of his young self is wedged in the wooden frame. He smiles and mutters, only slightly joking, "They don't make them like this anymore."

Indeed. The 78-year-old who in 1957 affirmed his place in cinema iconography by playing chess with Death in The Seventh Seal remains an imposing presence on screen and in person, where every inch of his 6'4" frame upholds a half-century of gravitas. It's just one degree of the dignity threading Diving Bell, Schnabel's adaptation of the book by Jean-Dominique Bauby, the Elle magazine editor who overcame a paralyzing stroke and subsequent "locked-in syndrome" to literally blink out his memoirs in 1997. As Bauby's father, von Sydow figures in two brief but pivotal scenes crystallizing the warmth, fragility and anguish of unconditional love.

Von Sydow sat down with The Reeler this week to discuss his Diving Bell role, adapting to Schnabel's loose style and what the movies -- especially those of his late, longtime collaborator Ingmar Bergman -- teach us about mortality.

THE REELER: I recently read about the high number of roles you turn down. How did you determine these two scenes -- maybe 10 minutes of screen time -- were right for you?

MAX VON SYDOW: It was just a wonderful screenplay. I get a lot of screenplays, and unfortunately, too many of them are not very good. Or the dialogue is impossible. It could be anything. But this was extraordinary -- a treasure to read. I did something I'd never, ever done before: I wrote a letter to [screenwriter] Ronald Harwood and thanked him for the screenplay. We talk about cameos, and being as small a part as it is, you very rarely have a development. You see one facet of a character. Here, there is a development. It's two scenes -- the first a flashback to the good old days, when the father is old and stuck in his apartment but he's there. The son comes and visits; they kid each other, but you realize they love each other. It's a sweet scene. Then there's catastrophe, when there's no hope -- at least for the father. He'll never hear his son's voice again. Will he ever see him again? He says all the wrong things -- "How are you? Oh, well, maybe it's a silly question" -- but he means well.

R: This is a very personal project for Julian, who has said the story reflects his experience with his own father's death. In what ways did you sense that experience on the set?

MVS: He told me about it, but we didn't discuss it very much. I think what's in the text is very clear. Julian is a very generous director; he doesn't tell you what to do. He gives you freedom with the material, and that's it. And he started shooting immediately. He didn't rehearse much, either. It's funny, though: He did something about two weeks before I was supposed to be on the set. At the time I was in the south of France, and suddenly I got this phone call. It was Julian; he was on the set up north: "We're going to shoot the scene in the hospital with Jean-Do and the nurse, when you're supposed to call. We need your voice. Here's the phone number. Wait 10 or 15 minutes, dial the phone number and we'll shoot the scene." And they did. That's the first time in my life I acted over the phone.

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R: Julian also said he envisioned this film as "a self-help device for dealing with your own death." Is that a perspective you also sensed in Bauby's book or Harwood's script?

MVS: I don't know. It's a personal thing, but when you reach a certain age, at some time in your life you start thinking about death. Even if I didn't have any other reasons to think about death, I've done it so many times in films or theater. It's something you have to deal with.

R: How has cinema shaped your own conception of mortality over the years?

MVS: That's a tough question, and I don't know the answer. I worked so many times with Ingmar Bergman, and of course we touched the subject many times.

R: If you take your films like The Seventh Seal or Shame, for example, Bergman suggests grace and death are perpetually at odds. The circumstances are obviously different than Jean-Do's, but at a certain point it hardly seems to matter.

MVS: I agree to a certain extent. The Seventh Seal is an allegory; it was directly inspired by medieval paintings that Mr. Bergman had seen. The theme in the film is that the plague is coming, but I think what was behind it was the nuclear bomb that lurked in the background at the time. It had several different levels. Then there was Mr. Bergman's own concept of mortality and how to handle it. But I don't see [Diving Bell] being about death, really. It touches the subject, but it's about the human will, the insistence and the courage and the strength of the human spirit to go on.

R: Do you ever revisit your collaborations?

MVS: Sometimes; not often. But sometimes, with people who haven't seen certain films, I'll watch them. Usually younger people.

R: What was the last one?

MVS: I think it was The Virgin Spring.

R: How long had it been since you'd seen it?

MVS: Not since it was made, I think. It's a beautiful film with so many beautiful images, and it's still very strong today. It's a very Swedish film, and it's funny because it's one of the few for which he didn't write the screenplay. He was involved, but he did not write it. It takes place during a time when Christianity was very new in Sweden, and the old gods were not yet discarded. If needed, they were called upon. Yet I think it was somehow inspired by Kurosawa; Mr. Bergman was very impressed by his films. He liked Rashomon. I call it Mr. Bergman's Japanese film.

R: His passing earlier this year prompted many reappraisals of his career. Did you undertake one from your own perspective?

MVS: Nobody in this business has meant more to me than he has, on so many levels. I've been in 11 of his films and I don't know how many stage plays. I met him when I was young. We were both young; he was 10 years my senior. We had a very intense, continuous working relationship and friendship that lasted through the years. Nobody has meant more to my professional ethics than he, and I owe him so much for this. It's a gratitude I don't have words for.

R: Some of those reappraisals said he and his work were dated or out of fashion. Yet the sheer volume of those writings at the time suggested otherwise.

MVS: There is a younger generation that doesn't care about so-called "classics." To many, "classics" means Star Wars or The Godfather. But for people directly involved in the industry, I'm sure he will always be important. People who really want to produce good films will always come back to the classics -- to Bergman.

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