• Salute to Max von Sydow at Eighty

    By Peter Cowie

    frame grab

    The first time I “met” Max was in May of 1959, when Bergman’s stunning production of Urfaust came to London for just one week in the World Theatre Season. Groupie of all things Swedish that I was, I waited outside the stage door at the end of the evening and gathered the signatures of Max, Gunnel Lindblom, and Toivo Pawlo in my program booklet.

    Not enough people know that Max was among the most gifted Swedish stage actors of his generation, if not the most gifted, and during his years at Malmö Civic Theatre, he appeared in nine productions under the direction of Bergman, who said at the time: “Max is wonderful. You’ll see, posterity will consider him as one of the greatest actors of our time.”

    We really only became friends in the early 1980s, when Max played the Emperor Ming in Mike Hodges’s version of Flash Gordon and was stationed at Shepperton Studios for a stint. I went down to interview him for my book on Bergman, and then one year later, I was invited to visit the shoot of Jan Troell’s The Flight of the Eagle, in which Max played the intrepid, obsessive explorer S. A. Andrée.

    To reach the “location” on The Flight of the Eagle, you endured a fifty-minute ride across rough ice on a snowmobile just south of the Arctic Circle, in the Gulf of Bothnia. Andrée and his two companions tried to reach the North Pole in a balloon in 1897, and it seemed Jan Troell was having as much difficulty launching the balloon that day as the explorers must have experienced more than eighty years earlier. It lurched upward, then lost height, and suddenly Max was trapped between the ice floe and the gondola basket. The crew managed to free him, but almost immediately the ice started breaking up. A helicopter was summoned, and I was flown back to shore with Max and two of the actors. While awaiting the return of Troell and his crew, Max led the way to a nearby farm. As darkness fell, the farmer’s wife served coffee and smorgasbord to us all, not recognizing Max. Then the others arrived, and we all drove back to the small town of Kalix in a Volkswagen minibus laid on by the production company. Max nodded off in the front seat. Once at the hotel, makeup had to be removed, and a late supper devoured. Long after midnight, the producer moved among the tables, circulating the next day’s call sheet. “9:00 a.m.,” said Max gravely, and with his consummate professionalism, “Yes, that sounds acceptable.”

    Max’s professionalism has also always gone hand in hand with a certain, remarkable modesty. In 1988, he came to London to appear as Prospero in Jonathan Miller’s staging of The Tempest at the Old Vic. He had an apartment in South Kensington, and there we would meet regularly to work on a small book I was writing about his work. Max invited me to see his friend Tim Pigott-Smith in A Winter’s Tale at the National. I barely recognized Max in the foyer—coat collar turned up and a cap pulled down over his dark glasses. After the performance, Max said he’d promised to visit Tim in his dressing room. We went through security at the stage door, and as Max signed the visitor’s book, a man in a dirty raincoat (literally) sprang up from a couch nearby and asked Max to sign an 8 x 10 glossy from The Seventh Seal. “Certainly,” intoned Max in that medieval voice of his. Halfway up the spiral staircase to the dressing rooms, he turned and asked me: “Peter, how do you think that man found out that I would be here this evening?” I mumbled something about the price of fame, but he, the most self-effacing of actors, was clearly impressed.

    It’s all too easy to classify Max as a Bergman actor and not much else. But his work for Jan Troell has been enormously fruitful. They have made seven films together, at least three of which are classics—The Emigrants, The New Land, and The Flight of the Eagle—and the latest of which, Hamsun, features a subtle and perceptive portrait of Norway’s most notorious writer. Nor should we forget some of Max’s Hollywood characterizations, such as the assassin in Three Days of the Condor, the defense attorney in Snow Falling on Cedars, and Father Merrin in The Exorcist (“Not many realize, Peter,” he said to me, tongue in cheek, “that I am the exorcist in that film!”). And what about his marvelously petulant painter in Hannah and Her Sisters, and the scorn he puts into that memorable line: “Can you imagine the level of a mind that watches wrestling?”

    When Max played the knight in The Seventh Seal, he was a mere twenty-seven years of age, and looked more than double that. When I last saw him, he was relaxed in T-shirt and chinos, and at eighty he must surely appear younger than the knight ever did. Happy birthday, Max!

12 comments

  • By Collin Kelley
    April 10, 2009
    08:17 PM

    One film I would recommend is Wim Wenders' "Until the End of the World," lambasted by critics at its release in the early 90s, but it's an epic, beautiful film. Von Sydow's scenes with the equally fabulous Jeanne Moreau are the highlight of the film. Find the five-hour director's cut if you can.
    Reply
  • By J. Scott
    April 10, 2009
    09:26 PM

    Though decidedly more "low-brow" than his work mentioned here, he is excellent in 'Strange Brew.'
    Reply
  • By Ebrahim
    April 11, 2009
    08:17 AM

    A true gifted rare actor, all hails.
    Reply
  • By David Hollingsworth
    April 11, 2009
    09:56 PM

    This is a truly great article of a truly remarkable actor. I can't wait to rediscover him in "The Seventh Seal".
    Reply
  • By Lachrymologist
    April 13, 2009
    03:42 PM

    Agreed to all of you. Von Sydow makes all films that he is in better. Though not mentioned here, his portrayal as the father in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is phenomenal as well. Simple and understated.
    Reply
  • By Paul
    April 15, 2009
    03:18 PM

    But he was awful in "The Greatest Story Ever Told"....probably the worst film-Jesus ever.... What other actor did portray both Jesus and the devil, as Max von Sydow did?
    Reply
  • By VAN COCKCROFT
    April 15, 2009
    03:44 PM

    He embodies incomparable gravitas.
    Reply
  • By herb348
    April 16, 2009
    03:42 PM

    i loved him in rush hour 3 lol
    Reply
  • By Ian Cottage
    April 18, 2009
    10:11 AM

    Who could ever forget him in The Seventh Seal or The Passion of Anna or Shame or Through A Glass Darkly or...... What a wonderful actor. Truly unique, clever and modest. Happy 80th Max.
    Reply
  • By Moon
    May 29, 2009
    03:53 PM

    Let's not forget his performance in Conan the Barbarian, as King Osric! What a fun scene!
    Reply
  • By David Deal
    July 19, 2009
    08:28 PM

    I would like Criterion to come out with the movie Until the End of the World as well as the Jeremy Irons movie Kafka. These two are really fun movies.
    Reply
  • By Laurel Anderson
    January 19, 2010
    01:45 PM

    Please, Criterion, please issue The Emigrants and The New Land (Utvandrarna, Nybygarna) in complete, English-subtitled editions!
    Reply

Or using your Criterion.com account.

You are logged in to your Criterion.com account as . Log out.