I once spent the better part of a day with great actor Max von Sydow and other Swedish film actors including Bibi Andersson.
One of my many strange jobs over the years but this one made memories. Bibi was a delight but Max took a while.
The gravitas of his signature roles was evident. No George Clooney or Cary Grant smiles expected. But he did come around, and we even had a few amusing moments.
Max von Sydow passed a short time ago leaving behind a career of roles few dared to attempt. He looms large in the trauma of today. No role has more power than von Sydow’s disillusioned knight back from the medieval Crusades playing chess with Death during the plague in Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece 1957 film, “The Seventh Seal.”
The all-too-human vanities in the face of terror and disease and the fatal denials in this film are timeless.
The nuanced suffering of von Sydow’s knight bears witness today in this latest time of plague. He of course loses to Death but does save some innocents as many arrogant victims die before him.
But no one is really spared in plagues — cynics or the faithful.
Pandemic body counts are cyclical throughout history but often dismissed as a fantasy in the modern era. This even though smallpox, malaria, polio and terrible viruses even seen in the last decade are ever present and always will be underfoot or twirling tendrils close by. We ignore them as if from another planet.
But artists keep us honest.
A jump to modern times and the year of 1918 in America. Not ancient history. In Katherine Anne Porter’s short novel, “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” we see similar truths to Bergman’s film under another Biblical rubric from the Book of Revelation. Oddly never made into a major film — the visuals of Porter’s story are a film in the mind and rival anything a director could imagine as the main character Miranda moves between horrid reveries and nightmares caught by the 1918 plague at the end of World War I.
Those who ignore pandemics and recent American history are advised to see “The Seventh Seal” and then read Porter’s novel. The lead character, Miranda, young and as disillusioned as von Sydow’s knight, must negotiate the searing hypocrisy of those who deny history and the 1918 pandemic and focus only on the latest war while more soldiers and personnel everywhere die from the pandemic in numbers exponentially beyond the battlefield casualties. (President Wilson during this time, mum and evasive, was himself eventually struck down by the disease.)
The images of Bergman and Porter come back with terrifying echoes across time. Both Miranda and Max von Sydow’s knight underscore our daily headlines. It’s there in front of us — not under the bed. Has anything changed? Must we lose most of humanity as before? Porter’s Miranda is a talisman for today, left with the bitter truth that much more could have been done.
As reporter Calvin Woodward recently wrote, “Despite a century’s progress in science, 2020 is looking a lot like 1918.”
With pandemics, there will always be a next time.