Dir. Ingmar Bergman. Starring Max von Sydow, Liv Ullmann, Bibi Andersson
There may not be an actor whose star persona has interested me more in the past eighteen months than Max von Sydow’s. (I admit to a limited understanding of his Scandinavian film career outside of Bergman and Jan Troell, so I’m not going to pretend like I can speak authoritatively about everything he’s done.) His early roles play to his striking physique, his great height and his lean, powerful body. The Seventh Seal, The Magician, and The Virgin Spring each need him to be a towering, masculine figure. In The Seventh Seal, he possesses the sheer nerve to challenge Death himself to a chess match but makes the youthful mistake of boasting about it. In The Magician, there is once again a certain arrogance in his mien, but this time countered with a horrifying use of his body to return from beyond the grave. The Virgin Spring, quite famously, has von Sydow’s character kill his daughter’s murderers with his bare hands; I doubt that any other movie allows him to so completely express his physical power. And then, almost immediately, these magical and profoundly physical roles are pulled back. He plays a series of scholars, farmers, musicians, exorcists, fathers, grandfathers, husbands. This is occasionally interpolated by some exotic foreign killer, but for the rest of the 20th Century—and especially in movies made outside the United States—he was pulling away from the muscular portrayals of the late ’50s.
Consider how Andreas beats Anna (Ullmann) as he loses control of himself for the first time in the film. He is chopping wood while she needles him, and eventually he decides that he can stand it no longer. He raises his axe above his head and brings it down near Anna’s. The two of them slap each other, and Andreas’ slaps are these broad, wild blows that would inflict more fear than pain. There is no doubt that if Andreas wanted to hurt Anna, really hurt her like she was hurt in the car crash that killed her husband and child, then he could do so. But Andreas does not kill her, or even incapacitate her. There is more scuffle than sizzle to the fight. (Because one says it, and one ought to: Andreas obviously should not have resorted to physical violence against a woman.) He holds back, as his character has held back extensively during the film.
In The Passion of Anna, Bergman gives us little glimpses into what the actors think of the characters they’re playing. Each of his four principal actors is seen, sort of like the heading of a chapter I assume those interviews are scripted (and I’m sure there are special features somewhere that I haven’t watched which hold the answers), but even if that’s so, von Sydow’s take on Andreas is incisive. He’s making a sort of prison for himself in isolation, von Sydow says. We learn about halfway through the movie that he has a prison term behind him, that his background is a little unsavory. It’s no wonder that he lives all alone, then, working on a small cottage during the day and sitting with his single lamp during the night. The isolation prison is one, though, which is self-enforced. He is the inmate and the guard and the warden all at once. He keeps giving people away: he keeps a little dachsund for a little while after he saves it from being hanged, but then gives away Half-Pint to Eva (Andersson). He gives Eva back to Elis, more or less, once he stops sleeping with her and takes up with Anna. The suicide of a friend, Johan (Erik Hell), concerns him on more of a societal level than a personal one. Johan was believed to be the person murdering animals around the island; the fact that he was beaten and then killed himself out of a need to escape speaks to Andreas’ intellectual side, not his emotional one.
The people of The Passion of Anna are strange, much stranger than they appear in the average Bergman movie. There is no individual to turn to who feels like “just folks.” Andreas is too far away from himself. Anna and Eva are both living with trauma from their past. The death of her first family in an auto accident makes the former a car-created time bomb and the latter a sleepy insomniac moving at three-quarters speed after sleeping pills forced a miscarriage. (Anna’s take on Eva, who she likes, even, is not particularly charitable. Eva is not much of a person, Anna tells Andreas while she’s accusing him, correctly, of having slept with her. She is what other people want her to be.) Anna appears, for a long stretch of the film, to cope more or less normally with this grief. She is obviously hurting, limping around for much of the film and en route to a surgery to fix her badly broken leg, and yet has opened herself up a relationship with Eva’s husband and then, of course, with Andreas. It is only late in the film, when the relationship between the two has grown stagnant, that they enter a car together on an icy road and, of course, the past returns with violent intentions.
Elis (Erland Jospehson) has no such trauma in his past, and the facade is as normal as we get. Elis makes a good wage—at one point he loans money to Andreas, a proposition which locks the man down on his luck very thoroughly into the other’s circle—and spends most of his free time indulging in a photography habit, which is hardly the first sign of a psychopath, but his entire mien is threatening. Some people look as though they’ve never had a pimple; Elis looks like he’s never had a laugh. He likes to photograph emotions and emotional reaction, organizing his vast storehouse of photos (in a shed behind the house) by emotion. “An irrational classification,” he says, “just as meaningless as the collection itself.” With a chuckle it’s a self-deprecating line, meant to make Andreas feel at home in a surprisingly spacey setting. After Elis has said “Once I collected only pictures of violent acts,” though, it feels like an excuse, a way to explain away something abnormal he’s said. Elis is, like Gunnar Bjornstrand before him and Jan Malmsjo after him, a Vergerus, a name in Bergman which translates roughly to “jerkface.” Vergerus of The Magician is a scientist who sneers at “magnetism” and those who practice it; Vergerus of Fanny and Alexander is a bishop who obliterates disorder and those who fall prey to it. Elis Vergerus of The Passion of Anna is not so easily defined his fellows, being neither as sarcastic as the former nor so dogmatic as the latter. His collection of emotions, a great file to pull from and by definition beyond use, seems to suit his unfeeling way of life. As much as the idea of an unseen menace killing animals appeals as a plot point, I spent most of the movie fairly sure that Elis would be revealed as the killer. The fact that he seems like a likely culprit is probably evidence enough.