Four years after the release of Friss Levegö, Ágnes Koscis second film saw the light of day. Pál Adrienn premiered in the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes film festival in 2010, where it won the FIPRESCI Prize. In the film, we follow the obese Piroska, who works as a nurse at a hospital terminal ward. She seems quite miserable and has difficulties standing up for herself at work. She lives with Kálmán who cares mostly about his diorama and his job.
One day a new patient arrives at the hospital called Adrienn Pál. The same name as one of Piroska’s best friend at school with whom she later lost contact. Now she decides to find out what happened to her and visits as many people as she can to find clues. However, many of the reactions she gets doesn’t confirm her own memories and are often contradictory to one another.
Deadly Boring Ritual
The film begins with interiors from the hospital. The first scene shows Piroska in an elevator going up from the morgue to the patient’s floor. We follow her out from the elevator while she’s dragging the, now empty, bed behind her. While the sound from the old Spica radio in the elevator fades away, we hear the clomping of her clogs.
It’s a sound that will be frequent during the first part of the film. Then we cut to the workstation where we see the nurse sitting in front of three rows of screens that monitor the ECG of each patient. The repetitive sound from those displays, as well as the sound of Piroska’s clog shoes, will be the aural representation of the rut that she is in.
An alarm sounds, and it’s time to see, yet another convalescent. Once there, the doctor declares the patient dead and tells Piroska to notify the relatives. In the elevator down to the morgue, she eats a piece of pastry, and it’s not the first one we see her eating. She leaves the body in the morgue. Before she goes out, she turns off the light, and there is a direct cut to her lying in her bed at home, suggesting that her domestic life is as dull as here working one. Her bed with its grid is also similar to the beds we’ve already seen in the hospital.
A Formal Affair
Hopefully, my lengthy description of the beginning paints a picture of a film which revels in the use of sound. Since Ádám Fillenz came back after Friss Levegö as cinematographer, it goes without saying that the lensing is topnotch as well. Initially, the camera follows the protagonist through the hospital’s narrow corridors with its drab green colours. Together with the sound design, the effect is quite hypnotic, even though it depicts something dreary.
Around thirty minutes into the film, there’s a scene where Piroska enters a cinema. While taking a seat, she asks Kálmán what happened. The answer is a laconic “nothing”. That echoes the sentiment of some of the critics when the film opened, in particular the Anglo-Saxon ones. One reviewer claimed that “it’s practically impossible to buy into the premise emotionally” even though “lensing, sound and production design are topnotch.”
The film is undoubtedly, intentionally, low on story-telling, but formally it’s one of the more formidable efforts of the previous decade. Comparisons have been made with Aki Kaurismäki and even Roy Andersson. Still, I would go further and suggest that the formal splendour on display here is equal to Jacques Tati’s in Playtime (1967). One example is when Piroska pays a visit to a former schoolmate who is now quite wealthy.
The camera starts outside the flat when she rings the bell, then follows her inside as the woman talks about her affluent, indolent life, tracks backwards through a corridor that is a stark contrast to the one in the terminal ward, to end up in the vast living room. They sit down in front of some glass doors with someone walking behind it like a shadow theatre, the immensity of the space is enhanced by the sound of whistling and broken glass off-screen. Later, she will meet an interior designer in a fancy space with a spectacular view. Piroska looks around uncomfortably during the numerous interruptions, caused by the phone calls he takes.
A later scene shows Piroska sitting on the tram. At first, it just seems that we are watching her in front of us facing the camera. When the camera moves left, we understand that it is, in fact, a reflection and that she was sitting with her back to us. Once the camera finishes its movement, we see a double reflection. If one is so inclined, one could see this as an image of her journey and that looking for Adrienn will eventually end up with her seeing herself differently.
Diegetic Music gets a Full Score
Unlike the first feature, there was no music written for the film. Instead, all the music heard is diegetic, and it’s used to great effect throughout the film. Kálmán regularly listens to classical music full blast, while working on his diorama. In a sequence that runs for two minutes, the camera follows a model train through the diorama landscape to end up with Piroska sitting behind it silently following the train with her eyes.
There are other effective, and sometimes hilarious usages of music as well, whether the location is a nursery home or a karaoke club. The most beautiful use of music occurs during a child’s birthday party in a scene that defies the notion that the film would lack emotion. It’s also a setting that is very colourful. In general, the film becomes more saturated in the second half when Piroska’s world seems to open up and become livelier.
It should be pointed out, that for all the cinematic brilliance that the film displays, it wouldn’t be the masterpiece that it is, without Éva Gábor in the leading role. She is virtually in every scene, and she’s consistently perfect. It was her first role ever, and she embodies Piroska in a way that makes it impossible to imagine anyone else playing the part. In a smaller role, we see Izabella Hegyi from Friss Levegö playing a rookie nurse, learning the ropes.
Favourite films are always the hardest ones to describe. Again, I feel I hardly scratched the surface of this fascinating work, and I left out several pieces of the puzzle to avoid spoilers. Hopefully, I managed to stir the curiosity of the reader enough to watch this endlessly rewarding film.
I saw To the Stars In November last year during the American film festival in Wrocław. The film is a coming of age story, set in Oklahoma in the sixties. Iris (Kara Hayward) is a teenage girl being constantly bullied in the small town she lives in. Suddenly, newcomer Maggie (Liana Liberato) sweeps in and provides protection, as well as friendship for Iris. It turns out that Maggie has some secrets of her own.
I liked the film a lot, and I was lucky enough to meet the director, Martha Stephens, to talk about her film. We touched on some other topics as well. Some questions refer to the Q&A, conducted after the screening the previous day.
I would like to start, talking a bit about your previous film, Land Ho! Was that film an important step for you?
Yes, maybe it was what jump-started my career in a way, and it gave me access to an agent. It premiered at Sundance, and it got picked up by Sony Pictures Classics. It did well.
And that was your third film?
Yes, and the other two movies I made were made for like no money. So this is my first time selling a film, and it was funny after I got agents at the amount of all the old man scripts I was sent because they were like “Oh she’s gonna do old man comedies. That’s like her thing.” And I’m not really a filmmaker that specifically wants to do comedy. I like moments of levity, but I like all genres, and so it’s people tend to want to put you in some kind of box. It makes their job easier
And your job more frustrating I guess.
I saw that film years ago. I remember it as funny and relatively lightweight.
Yes, it was supposed to be like, what I’m really interested in doing is taking a very specific kind of movie that we’ve all seen and putting my spin on it so Land ho! was my eighties buddy comedy like John Candy, Steve Martin kind of buddy comedy but through my lens and so, To the Stars was a very classic coming of age story that we’ve seen, but through my specific lens again.
Working with Aaron Katz
You co-wrote the script of the previous film, and you were two directors. How did that work, co-directing with Aaron Katz?
We went to film school together, and we both had made low budget, no budget movies which had as much success as you can have for movies made for nothing. So collectively, we had had five features at South by Southwest, and we were both trying to take that leap where we were getting bigger budgets, and it just wasn’t coming fast enough. So we decided to try to come together to make something more mid-range that wasn’t the budget we were looking for. More or less just a way to keep active and work and that’s Land Ho!. It came from being restless, and it was really fun. We both worked with the same cinematographer separately on our movies.
And he shot this one as well.
Yes, we all have known each other for so long. It was an easy dialogue between us. It wasn’t heated. Aaron and I were on the same page, so it was kind of weirdly effortless.
But this is only the second time you worked with cinematographer Andrew Reed?
Yeah, well he shot my film school movies, and I tried to get him to shoot my other movies, but he was tough to get a hold of for a while. He would’ve shot all my stuff if he had not been busy.
To the Stars
You mentioned that the script, written by Shannon Bradley-Colleary was handed to you in some way. So it was more or less finished?
So concerning the script, there was no money. There was no cast attached. There was only a script, and it had been around. It’s like a fifteen-year-old script maybe older, and it had actually been at Annapurna, maybe like eight years ago. They didn’t reoption it, and it didn’t have a home and some agent that my producer was friends with sent it to her. He was like “This is a script that I really enjoy, and I think you should produce it.” And so she read it and thought of me.
You mentioned you made some changes. Was it also in the visual style, or were those things already in the script? Like when we see the world through the glasses in the third shot and in the final shot, we see the glasses objectively.
Usually, screenwriters are told not to put in camera direction unless they are directing. However, that was the only thing we kept. The script talks about seeing kind of the world through her eyes, and that was maybe the only visual thing in the script that we went with. Otherwise, it was just really subtle things that we changed, just little tweaks and dialogue. I think Iris’s mom, Francie we worked pretty hard at making her not just a complete villain and on paper, she read just like an awful bitch. (laughing)
Were there changes made to other characters than her in the script?.
I think all the actors brought more life to everyone, but she especially read very one-dimensional, so Shannon and I talked about it. There’s like that moment at the end of the movie where Iris hugs Francie, and that wasn’t in the script. So just giving Francie like a moment of grace, I felt was really important. Jordana, the actor that played Francie: She and I did a lot of talking about France’s motivations and really tried to figure out why she did the things she did. And I don’t think the things that we came to were necessarily things Shannon had in mind when she wrote the character.
So what does Shannon think on the film?
She loves It. We’re very close now.
You didn’t know each other in the past?
No, but now she lets me sleep on her couch when I go to L.A, and I just saw her the other week. She’s like a big sister now.
So I was thinking about that. The characters don’t feel evil. It feels like everyone is trying their best, even Maggie’s father. They don’t have the tools to deal with the situation rather than just being evil or ignorant.
Right. Right. I sometimes think, as a modern audience you’re quick to judge, but you really have to think about the time and the place and the morals and values and all that stuff that was pushed on people. And so I honestly do think everyone is trying in some way. I mean the younger kids, they are kids, but the parents I do think they in their own way think that they are doing what’s best for their child.
“It’s very much like a movie that feels like a movie. You know what I mean?”
Through a modern lens
Talking about through a modern lens, there are some people who commented on that the Maggie character feels quite modern. Was that intentional because that’s not necessarily a flaw. It could work as an anachronism or something.
I think I thought of it more like she comes from a bigger place. She’s more worldly. but I wasn’t trying to place, like a modern character in the past or anything. Still, I think there’s a fine balance with performance, making the characters feel somewhat naturalistic, but also it’s very much like a movie that feels like a movie. You know what I mean? It’s not purely documentary-style narrative filmmaking.
No, not at all, I would say.
No, but that’s the thing. I have made those sorts of movies in the past which feel like it’s real life. So this is a balance and the way we shot it was also a balance of those things Obviously it’s in black-and-white and a lot of our framing and lens choices reflect older films, but we use some modern tools that movies didn’t use back then to try to meld those things.
“In the US there is still this idea that you need huge actors to get people to see a film and I don’t agree with that way of thinking. I mean look at The Farewell, it’s doing very well, and half of it is in Mandarin.”
Why the film is released in colour
Talking about it being in black-and-white. I heard it’s picked up by Metro-Goldwyn, but it seems it’s going to be released in colour as far as I understand. Why is that? I guess it’s a compromise on your part.
Yes, it’s a compromise. It’s tricky with some coming of age story, you know. In the US there is still this idea that you need huge actors to get people to see a film and I don’t agree with that way of thinking. I mean look at The Farewell, it’s doing very well, and half of it is in Mandarin, but yeah I think that there’s a lot of fear with black-and-white.
It ended up being the way that the film can be released theatrically and even though I wish it were being released in black-and-white, we did do a colour version of the film, and we knew that this might happen, so we made sure that everything looked good if it was to be seen in colour.
What does it look like in colour? There’s not even a trailer yet.
No, not yet. We looked at old sort of department store portrait photography from the fifties, so it’s kind of peachy skin tones and things like that.
So it’s only going to be released in colour in the US ?
In theaters, and then I don’t know about the streaming. You know, when you have a movie it’s not just me. It’s a bunch of people that are involved, and it means so much for my actors to say they have a movie in theaters because it helps their career. I don’t want to stand in the way of that even if it isn’t being released the way that you hoped it would be.
But in festivals it will always be in black and white?
The importance of festivals
The director Mark Jenkin made a film called Bait that won the New Horizons competition here in Wrocław a few months ago. He had an interesting take on distribution saying that festivals were not only a window but could he be the distribution. How do you feel about such an idea?
It’s a springboard for other distribution. With my first two movies, if I didn’t have festivals, then I wouldn’t have a career right now, because they were movies that were too rough around the edges to be released theatrically. Festivals were the only life they had, and those were my building blocks to keep going. So they are so important.
You would see it as a step toward something else. You wouldn’t see it as an end in itself? You wouldn’t be happy with only distributing in festivals?
I think that it’s important. I think having both is great, but I wouldn’t want to just do festivals just because then you’re not reaching everyone that you could. But then again, To the Stars is probably going to be released in like twenty-something screens. So it’s still not gonna reach certain smaller cities.
You mentioned yesterday that you would like conservative people in smaller cities to see it. Then it has to be shown there first.
I would like that. There’s always streaming. Everyone has access to everything now.
A golden age of television?
You talked about streaming yesterday, and you sounded a bit dismissive over the fact that in the so-called, Golden age of television, it’s difficult to get films made for the cinema. You don’t see it as an opportunityas well?
Well, it’s complicated.I didn’t mean to sound negative. I think that the marketplace for independent films is at an all-time low right now. People are not buying as many films. So then investors are not as willing to invest in them, so it’s just harder to get an indie film in there. The streaming companies are now making everything in house, so they’re not really buying. At first, they started buying stuff, but now they don’t.
So all of them?
Oh, they’ll buy a thing here and there. But when they first came on the scene they were buying up movies, and now they’re making more movies in house, and if you want to make a movie on your own it’s just harder to make the sale at this point, and that’s all. There are opportunities because there’s so much content out there. There are more jobs for directors, but if you want to make, like your own film it’s more difficult. I’ve gone to Netflix and pitched stories to them, but they have a particular kind of thing that they’re looking to make for their viewers, and what I’m selling them is not that. So that’s all.
Costumes and Actresses
Let’s talk about the cinematic aspects of the film. I was struck by the cinematography but also the costumes. You said this was the highest budget you had so far.
Yeah, this is the highest budget we’ve had. I worked with the costume designer (Kiersten Hargroder) pretty intimately trying to figure out clothes that suited each person. The thing that you don’t always think about is that beyond the actors, the costumes are the thing that’s closest to the camera, so it’s really important you get them right. She luckily has a lot of connections and got a lot of favours pulled to bring that wardrobe over. So I really lucked out. She’s just got a great eye for this.
How long was the shooting?
We did pre-production for five weeks and then we shot the movie in twenty days.
Were there lots of rehearsals for the actresses before?
Oh no, there was no time for that.
I’m asking because when I left the screening, I was thinking about the cast. I started singling out great achievements in my mind, but then when I thought about it, I felt it was a brilliant ensemble. They meld so well together. I thought that was a result of an extended rehearsal period.
I think of it also has an ensemble. The girls in the movie, they all just spent a lot of time together. We’were all staying in the same tiny budget motel together and I think that shows on the screen that they kind of form this little group. The girl that plays Hattie, Sophie (Bairley), she’s actually Liana’s best friend and she helped us find her for that role. All these young actresses kind of know each other because they all go audition for the same things and they’re all out and away. Madisen (Beaty) that place Clarissa, she and Liana have known each other for eight years so they have a past.
As always I started thinking about references. To me, the film feels like a cross between The Last Picture Show and Carnival of Souls. The latter maybe because of the pond.
That’s cool. Carnival of Souls I’ve actually never seen. I’ve been meaning to. It’s been on my list forever, but I’ve never seen it.
That’s what I mean. We just impose things. (laughing)
The Last Picture Show, definitely. Other Bogdanovich films like Paper Moon as well. Dorothea Lang photography, Frankenstein, monster movies. We watched The Master, so that gave me a little bit. There’s even a touch of Edward Scissorhands in there, which also reflects monster films. Kind of all over the place with the influences.
The film has a kind of whimsical feel, but it’s kept in check. Also immensely helped by the score written by Heather McIntosh.It all blends together. The cinematography and the music.
Yeah, she’s a dream. She doesn’t come from a traditional film score environment. I don’t think she studied music in the same way that some composers did. She came up through indie rock in Athens, Georgia, from the indie music scene there.
She is in bands?
She played around. I mean, she plays the cello. She’s in bands, and she just has an intuition about things that you can’t teach.
There’s one thing you talked about yesterday that you made alterations to the scene where the men attack the car. At the end of that sequence, it almost felt like the last scene in The Birds or something. However, that’s a scene where you said you dialed down the melodrama because it’s still pretty dramatic compared to the rest of the film.
Yeah, I heard that before that it’s kind of a totally tonal change. Some of that has to do with the writing. I guess that’s the script.
But you were looking for that tonal change?
Yeah as I said, it’s like our Frankenstein moment. Also, that’s one of the scenes where we ran out of time, and I feel like I didn’t get everything I needed to completely construct the scene the way I wish I could have, but the sun came up so there was nothing we could do and that car kept breaking down. It was like some kind of a nightmare, that was rough. Shooting nights is hard for everyone, but I kinda like the scene. I like the flip.
There are many beautiful moments in that scene, like when Len says “I’m not good enough for you” and you see him through the broken car window. He is also trying his best. Of course, he’s not acting in the right way, but he is still trying. He is in pain, and he doesn’t know how to express that, and it comes out more violently.
He’s married to a woman that he’s not attracted to. And he’s attracted to, it’s unrequited, but he’s attracted to this hairdresser and the fact that it’s like his manhood is being challenged, and it is. It does come from embarrassment and pain. I really think that all of the actors tried to understand humanity and empathy. Noone’s a villain.
It would be easy to make the male characters villains, but I feel you didn’t. The scene feels like it comes from a different film, but it’s your Frankenstein moment, as you said.
Yes, we went there. We’re like: “We’re gonna do it!”
The pond scenes
In action films, there is often a second unit in some exotic location. Here though, in the credits, a “pond unit” is listed. Why is that? The pond is almost like a character in the film.
So the pond unit is different because we shot everything else in March, but it was too cold to film the pond. So we had to regroup and come back in June to film there. We had to film all the pond scenes in three days. It was awful. Oh, it was bad. We needed more time. When I look at all the pond scenes, I’m frustrated because I had to throw away my shot list all the time, since we ran out of time.
It still looks cool. The beginning with the clouds, then Iris in the water, and we see through her glasses as I mentioned earlier.
Thank you. Yeah, we hustled. But I think we put pond unit because a lot of different people couldn’t come back, so we had a different crew.
The upcoming project
I was really impressed by the film and you took a big cinematic leap from Land Ho!
Thank you, it’s amazing what more money can do. That’s the frustrating thing when you’re an independent filmmaker, and especially when you’re trying to make bigger budget movies like I am right now, they’re like “well, what can she do? Can she handle a fifteen million dollar movie” and I’m like,” did you see what I did with that movie? I made it look twice its budget. So just imagine what I can do with more money,” So that’s the thing. It’s the same with Andy, my cinematographer. The more money he has, the better. It equals more time, better equipment and he can do interesting stuff. I mean he’s a very talented guy.
So there is a new project in the works?
Nothing that has money yet. I have a script I wrote that I’m trying to make. It’s a car movie, so it has a lot of practical car stunts. It’s kind of like a throwback to the old Hal Needham seventies car movies and mixed with seventies sports movies like Slapshot and The Bad News Bears. It’s really a fun project, but those practical car stunts are expensive.
Well, in a way, you practised a little bit with car stunts in this film.
Maybe, but not quite as much as I would like to, but that’s the baby. That’s what I really want to do, but I’m attached to a couple of other things that I didn’t write.
That you would want to do anyway?.
Yeah, it’s an interesting dance.
Many directors have said that one doesn’t make the films one wants to direct, one makes the films one can direct.
Who said that?
Well, Alain Resnais for example, and many others as well.
That makes sense. Life isn’t long enough to wait for things that may or may not happen. Sometimes you have to take something, knowing that it will hopefully help you get the thing you really want to make.
Ágnes Kocsis has completed three features to date. Since her first film was released in 2006, she’s hardly the most prolific director around. Nevertheless, she still stands out as one of the more interesting formalists working today. After three shorts that played in numerous festivals, it was time for her above-mentioned debut.
It’s called Fresh air (Friss levegö) and is the story of Viola who works as a restroom attendant in the Budapest metro. 1The international premiere was at the Cannes film festival in the Semaine de la critique section. She lives with her teenage daughter Angéla who resents her mother’s job and dreams about becoming a fashion designer. Whenever Viola comes home from work, the daughter routinely opens all the windows to demonstrate her contempt for what her mother does for a living. They barely communicate at home, and their only mutual activity is watching their favourite Italian TV show, La Piovra (The octopus) in silence. The series and its origin will be significant for future events for both of them.
Lonely Hearts Club One Man Band
We first meet the mother at a dating event. Here we are introduced to the dry sense of humour that Kocsis will revel in, that wouldn’t be out of place in a Kaurismäki film. The couples are dancing “left foot first!” to a sad song performed by a man singing behind a keyboard. Cinematically Kocsis diverges from the Finnish director. The dance is depicted with a 360-degree camera movement (beginning at 0.20) which, together with the round lamps in the introductory scene, splendidly introduces the concept of circularity.
Thus the recurrent motif of the film is established. Visually in the way, round objects regularly appear in the image. At one instance, jokingly when the light forms a halo above a character’s head. The narrative also shows the characters performing the same routines over and over and being stuck in a vicious circle. Viola routinely smells her hand on her way home from work. Once home, she goes through a rigorous cleaning in the bathtub. Her obsession with the scent of the air fresheners hardly seems healthy. At one point in the story, one of the protagonists starts a journey near a circular highway and will later, unexpectedly, end up at the same spot.
The storyline itself also seems to end up where it started.2 The script initially had the idea of starting and ending in the same location, but during the editing, it was decided that it would be more interesting to commence the film with the Lonely Hearts scene. There are however small signs that new horizons might open up and that greener pastures are awaiting at least one of the characters. Green being the operative word here since that’s the colour that Angéla is associated with throughout the film. She is adept at sewing and designs her clothes, often from second-hand garments and practically always in green. When she asks her mother for money, she receives two green two-hundred Forint notes.
Fifty Scents of Red
If Angéla favours green, there’s never any doubt about which Viola’s favourite colour is. From the very first scene, we see her dressed in red and different shades of red will continuously be associated with her, whether she goes on a date or to work. That goes for her sense of decoration as well. We first see a burgundy armchair and curtain in her home, and later we discover that she uses the same material in her working space, for the wall as well as for the cabinet door. There she also has an artificial red plant (with green leaves) that hums and moves.
Red and green are, of course, complementary colours and one of the points is that even though they might seem like each other’s opposites, they actually have much more in common than Angéla would care to admit. The director partially demonstrates this with the way red and green will interact, in particular, during the second half of the film. A potential boyfriend of Angéla will later be seen in a red sweater.
If the Lonely Hearts Club location was reminiscent of a Kaurismäki film, another Nordic director comes to mind when it comes to the portrayal of the living room: Bent Hamer in his debut Eggs (1995). Also a formidable formal work about two old brothers with their daily routine aided by their very low-tech setup. Similarly, we see mother and daughter quietly watching television in a room with a quirky design.
The Virtues of Shoestring Production
Produced on a meagre budget over one year, the film is strikingly shot by Ádám Fillenz. It was his first feature as well, but he collaborated with the director on her second short in 2003. He also lensed Kocsis’ follow-up Pál Adrienn (2010) as well as Tegnap which screened in last year’s Hungarian film week. If there are numerous memorable shots in the film, there are very few close-ups and those that are present are carefully chosen and all the more effective for it.
With all the formal grandeur on display, one shouldn’t forget to mention the thespians. Júlia Nyakó, who was an established actress at the time, is perfect as Viola down to the tiniest movement. She can also be seen in Ildikó Enyedi’s On Body and Soul. More surprising is how accomplished Izabella Hegyi’s performance as the daughter is. She never hits a false note, and she would return for Pál Adrienn four years later. As far as I know, those are her only films.
Trying not to spoil too much, I feel I only scratched the surface of what this rich film has to offer. There is much more material that could warrant a formal analysis. On the other hand, it should be pointed out that the film never feels dry or academic, but rather perceptive and also quite funny. Friss Levegö was a good start for Ágnes Kocsis, but there were bigger things to come, four years later.
Today, a headline in The Independent read “The Exorcist and Star Wars actor Max von Sydow dies aged 90.” That prompted me to write a piece of my own. Born, Carl Adolf von Sydow in 1929, he attended The Royal Dramatic Theatre’s acting school 1948-1951. During this period, he had small roles in two famous films by Alf Sjöberg. The first was Only a mother 1949 (Bara en mor) where Eva Dahlbeck starred as Rya-Rya.
The second one was more famous abroad. Miss Julie (FrökenJulie 1951) based on August Strindberg’s classic play, won the Grand Prix in Cannes the same year (shared with Miracolo a Milano). In 1954 he moved to Malmö and started acting in the Municipal theatre there, not least under the direction of Ingmar Bergman, in plays by Ibsen, Molière and others. In 1957 they would collaborate in a film for the first time in The seventh seal (Det sjunde inseglet)
Featuring the iconic chess game that crusader, Antonius Block plays with Death, the film became an instant success and catapulted the director and actor to world recognition. Already the same year, Bergman released Wild Strawberries (Smultronstället 1957) where von Sydow had a minor part. They would make another nine films together, notably The Magician (Ansiktet 1958), Through a glass darkly (Såsom i en spegel 1961) and the underrated A Passion (En Passion 1969).
There was actually supposed to be a twelfth collaboration between the two. The role of Bishop Vergerus in Fanny and Alexander (1982) was specifically written for von Sydow, but his agent asked for a salary that wasn’t possible to pay in a Swedish production at the time. The actor later said that it was the biggest regret of his acting career.
Entering the visual world of Jan Troell
Another important Swedish collaboration was with the great visualist Jan Troell. Even though von Sydow’s international career had started with the role of Jesus in The greatest story ever told (1965) he still agreed to make a 30 minute short with the unknown director. The following year he had a small part in the ambitious epic Here is your life (Här har du ditt liv 1966). The most famous role he played for Troell was as Karl-Oskar in the sweeping dilogy, The Emigrants (Utvandrarna 1971) and The new land (Nybyggarna 1972). Based on the widely read tetralogy, written by Wilhelm Moberg the films came with high expectations.
Even though the films received mixed reviews in Sweden, few had anything negative to say about the interpretation of Karl-Oskar. Subsequent collaborations between the two, include the majestic Flight of the eagle (Ingenjör Andrés luftfärd 1982) that depicts Engineer André’s attempt to be the first man on the North Pole and Hamsun (1996) where the actor was an impressive presence as the controversial, titular, character. That is obvious even without subtitles.
Max von Sydow Beyond Sweden
As the opening quote suggests, von Sydow’s career would, more often than not, take part outside Sweden. Looking back at his catalogue, one discovers an extraordinary range with filmmakers as different as Woody Allen, Sydney Pollack, David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, Bertrand Tavernier, Dario Argento and countless others. Even though he claimed that he was mostly cast as villains or priests, the roles were actually impressively different from each other. A vulnerable character, such as in the Oscar-nominated role as Lassefar in Bille August’s Pelle, the conqueror (Pelle erobreren 1987) with his trembling hand trying to comfort his son is unforgettable.
On the other hand, the role of Emperor Ming in Flash Gordon tapped into other aspects of his range, even including a sense of humour. Lars von Trier utilized his commanding voice as the literally hypnotic narrator in Europa (1991) Whatever the role required he delivered with a consummate mastery of the craft, and more than once he rose above the material. A clear example of that was the film that would render him his second Oscar nomination, Extremely loud & incredibly close (2011). A personal favourite of mine is his role as Joubert in Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor (1975)
Finally ending up by the road
With all these characters in mind, there was still one part that he dreamed of doing for 25 years, but it never seemed to happen. It was the role of Bai in Herman Bang’s novel, Ved vejen. (By the road). Von Sydow was hoping that someone would make the film so he could, finally, play his dream role. While shooting The flight of the eagle, he mentioned the idea to Danish producer Bo Christensen. He suggested that Max should direct the film instead, with Danish actors.
That is how his only directorial effort came into being. The film was called Katinka outside the Nordic countries and had its premiere at Un Certain Regard in Cannes 1988. Incidentally, the same year as Pelle the conqueror won the Palme d’or. It would go on to win the Guldbagge awards for best Swedish film and direction, in 1989.
Shot by Sven Nyqvist, with a cast including Ghita Nörby, Tammi Öst and Ole Ernst in the role as Bai, the film is a little-known gem. Huus is the new foreman who arrives in a small village, befriending Bai and his wife Katinka. gradually falling in love with the latter.
The film is classical in style, but there is a rare subtlety at work here, in the telling of the love story that cannot be, as well as in the cinematography and set design. The opening with a marriage hymn being sung in an unusual context had me hooked immediately and the film never lost its grip on me. It deals with mourning and sensuality with clarity and maturity. A film to check out for sure.
Max von Sydow would actually emigrate for real, to France and he became a naturalised French citizen in 2002. In the process, he lost his Swedish citizenship. That kind of bureaucracy mattered little to Swedes though, and he will always be remembered for his great contribution to cinema and the theatre, in Sweden and abroad.
“Never adopt a child. Abandoned children are all wounded.” The quote sounds like it could be lifted from Systemsprenger, but is actually from Adoption (Örökbefogadás 1975). The line is spoken by Anna, a girl from a boarding school, to Kata who is considering adoption. Mészáros’ film was the first Hungarian film competing in Berlin and won The Golden bear in 1975, as well as a bunch of other awards, which made her the first woman ever to walk away with the main prize of the Berlinale. In 2019, a restored version of the film was screened in Berlinale classics, with Mészáros in attendance.
Kata (Katalin Berek) is a 43-year-old factory worker who lives alone. The film starts out, almost like a British sink realism film. We see Kata wake up, take a shower and make breakfast. Then we follow her when she goes to work where we also see her perform her monotonous tasks.
She has a lover, Jóska (Godard regular László Szabó). She wants a child with him, but he rejects the idea. When she later meets Anna, the idea of adoption comes to her. Anna moves in with Kata to be able to meet her boyfriend Sanyi, and an unexpected friendship begins.
The director co-wrote the script with frequent Jancsó collaborators, Gyula Hernádi and Ferenc Grunwalsky. It paints a bleak portrait of Hungary in the mid-seventies, notably for women. This fact is demonstrated in scenes that are uncomfortable to watch, but still quite understated. Mészáros, thankfully, never becomes overly didactic even though the film can clearly be labelled as a feminist work. The thing that stands out the most is maybe the frank and unsentimental depiction of a woman’s situation in the seventies in Hungary. The style is unfussy but focused and give the actors plenty of space to shine.
A cinematic breath of fresh air: The films of Ágnes Kocsis Part 1
Márta Mészáros may not be one of Hungarian cinema’s most inventive stylists, but there still are moments of cinematic ingenuity. For instance in the meeting between Kata and Jóska, discussing the child. The scene starts with them sitting at a table outdoors with the camera slowly circling around them, mirroring the calm discussion they are having. Then the scene continues inside (since Kata says she’s cold) this time the discussion gets slightly more heated, which is depicted with cross-cutting.
The restoration was performed under the supervision of the cinematographer, Lajos Koltai. He would later work for directors like Péter Gothar (Megáll az idö 1982), Pál Gábor (Angi Vera 1979) but maybe he is best known for his work with István Szábo, in particular, the Klaus Maria Brandauer trilogy: Mephisto, Oberst Redl and Hanussen. The film holds up well after 44 years. Even though Mészáros may not rank among the top tier of Hungarian filmmakers, the film is worth seeing for its honesty alone.