Max Von Sydow first came into prominence through his work with the great Swedish filmmaker, Ingmar Bergman. In fact, one could argue that had Von Sydow done nothing other than the films he made with Bergman he would be a legend. In the annals of film history. It’s hard to think of a more significant actor/director relationship. DeNiro/Scorsese? Mifune/Kurosawa? Maybe. That’s the level we are working on here.
Starting with Wild Strawberries in 1957 through 1971’s The Touch, Von Sydow and Bergman made eleven movies together – many of them classics. Perhaps none greater than The Seventh Seal, where Von Sydow plays chess with death in one of the most memorable, memed, and mimic’d scenes in the history of cinema.
Von Sydow first made a splash on this side of the Atlantic playing Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told (let’s take a moment to consider that only a little over a decade into his career, Von Sydow has both played chess with death and died for all mankind).
His most iconic role in America would come eight years later in the form of “Father Merrin” in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Few have ever played a character with such distinct moral rectitude so well. The film desperately needed that sort of grounding too. While their are many impressive attributes to Friedkin’s film, a movie about a young girl possessed by a demon who abuses herself with a crucifix, spins her head around in a circle, and vomits up pea soup has the potential to go off the rails if it’s not centered by great actors who are capable of making those moments believable. Certainly, Jason Miller, Ellen Burstyn, and Linda Blair made extraordinary contributions to the film, but it was Von Sydow’s good father who held the film together.
Just two years later, Von Sydow would play the assassin in Sydney Pollack’s crackling thriller, Three Days of the Condor. His capacity for menace was apparent. The steely blue eyes, that hang dog face, and the cruel, yet somehow placid, demeanor made him an exceptional heavy.
Which is probably a good point to land on. It’s pretty hard to think of another actor who was so adept at playing both malevolence and benevolence. It was as if he has any range available to him. He could go dark as night, bright as day, and encompass all the hours in between. He had such command when onscreen (I suppose his 6 foot 4 frame didn’t hurt), that he needed only to raise an eyebrow to tell you everything you needed to know about his character.
I don’t know what kind of magic he had in his bag, I only know he had an endless supply of it.
Over the final forty plus years of his career, Von Sydow worked steadily. After Condor he went through a bit of a rough patch, ending up in some unfortunate camp like The Ice Pirates, Flash Gordon, and Dune (although it must be said he was entertaining in all of them).
The mid-eighties were kind to him though. A plum supporting role in Woody Allen’s classic 1986 Comedy, Hannah and Her Sisters was followed by one of his finest performances one year later in Billie August’s, Pelle the Conqueror.
The film, a two and a half hour epic about a father and son who flee a poverty-stricken Sweden only to find equally miserable conditions in Denmark, could loosely be described as a Swedish/Danish Ken Loach film. It’s about ordinary people in an extraordinarily difficult situation. In Pelle, Von Sydow achieves a sort of downtrodden grace as a poor farmer who gives everything to his son even when all hope is evaporating. It’s a heartbreaking performance. One that earned Von Sydow his first Oscar nomination as best leading actor.
As Von Sydow entered his senior years, he was generally relegated to supporting roles. There were many fine ones. He appeared notably in Salaam Bombay, Awakenings, Minority Report, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Shutter Island, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (for which he earned his second Oscar nomination – this time as supporting actor), and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, just to name a few.
He made what I’m sure will be one of his most lasting impressions on the small screen as the Three-Eyed Raven in Game of Thrones during that landmark show’s sixth season. Once again, even well into his eighties, he was a figure of incredible force and subtlety. He still had that wonderful, deep timbre in his voice which enunciated each word in a way that made you lean in because you thought at any moment some wonderful secret might escape his lips.
I guess that’s the thing about Von Sydow – he always had an air of mystery. Like he knew something we didn’t. As if he was born with some sort of wisdom we all coveted. So, when he was onscreen we gave him our rapt attention, hoping he would share one lone morsel with us.
He was truly one of the greatest actors of his or any other generation.
How lucky we were to live in his time.
Max Von Sydow died today. He was 90 years old.