The Wide and Deep Range of Max von Sydow

Max von Sydow in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957)

In a video survey of Max von Sydow’s performances in eleven films directed by Ingmar Bergman, scholar Peter Cowie quotes the Swedish director’s comments to a French journalist in 1958: “Max is wonderful. You’ll see that posterity will consider him as one of the greatest actors of our time.” As if to prove the point, Terrence Rafferty, writing for the Atlantic in 2015, called von Sydow “the greatest actor alive.” On Monday morning, French documentary filmmaker and producer Catherine von Sydow announced “with a broken heart and with infinite sadness” that her husband had died. He was ninety.

Few who saw von Sydow’s on-screen debut as the medieval knight who challenges Death to a game of chess in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) could have foreseen the depth and breadth of the actor’s range across well over a hundred films in the decades that followed. His tree-like, six-foot-four stature, his somewhat gaunt features belying deep reservoirs of strength, and perhaps above all, his deep, authoritative voice all suggested a future career of playing characters as upright as the knight Antonius Block.

But von Sydow was not one to be boxed in. On the occasion of a retrospective in 2012, Eric Hynes noted in the Village Voice that von Sydow had been “a headlining international star as well as a card-punching Hollywood character actor. He has been typecast as both a tweedy effete and a glowering giant, and has played Jesus, a serial killer, and a Bond villain.” He went up against a rabid demon in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) and voiced the Devil himself in an animated adaptation of Igor Stravinsky and C. F. Ramuz’s The Soldier’s Tale (1984), whose cast also included Dušan Makavejev and André Gregory. He played dozens of villains, a good number of husbands, and worked with directors as varied as John Huston (The Kremlin Letter, 1970), Sydney Pollack (Three Days of the Condor, 1975), John Milius (Conan the Barbarian, 1982), David Lynch (Dune, 1984), Wim Wenders (Until the End of the World, 1991), Steven Spielberg (Minority Report, 2002), Ridley Scott (Robin Hood, 2010), and Martin Scorsese (Shutter Island, 2010).

But of course, his name will forever be associated with Bergman’s. In the New York Times, Robert Berkvist notes that, looking back on his final conversation with Bergman, who passed away in 2007, von Sydow recalled that the director told him, “Max, you have been the first and the best Stradivarius that I have ever had in my hands.” In The Virgin Spring (1960), von Sydow plays a prosperous Christian in medieval Sweden who kills three herdsmen who have raped and murdered his daughter. “For most of the film,” writes Rafferty, “von Sydow is steely and righteous, but after he’s taken his revenge, his stern facade begins to crack, his steps become slower, heavier, until at the side of a stream he stops and his erect frame just crumples to the ground, as if it has lost all definition. This is what it looks like when a man’s will, sustained too long, drains suddenly from his soul. Bergman shoots it in a wide shot, from the back; nothing else is required. It’s one of the most beautiful pieces of physical acting you’ll ever see.”

Bergman paired von Sydow with Liv Ullmann in three films that allowed the actor to explore some of the darkest emotional terrain for which Bergman is, fairly or not, best known. “Here he is, unequivocally, Bergman’s alter-ego,” declares Cowie, “a prey to the pressures and conflicts to which the director himself was susceptible.” Von Sydow plays an artist living on an isolated island with his pregnant wife and losing his mind in Hour of the Wolf (1968). Von Sydow and Ullmann had become close friends by this point, and in our interview with her last year, Ullmann described the “shattering” experience of seeing von Sydow turn on a dime from their warm rapport to the abusiveness and insecurity of his character in Shame (1968)—and The Passion of Anna (1969) is something of a sequel.

Von Sydow and Ullmann reteamed to work with another renowned Swedish director, Jan Troell, on a sweeping, nineteenth-century tale of a married couple’s journey from rural Sweden to America told over the course of two features, The Emigrants (1971) and The New Land (1972). In the essay that accompanies our release, Terrence Rafferty writes that Troell was working with “two great actors who had probably spent more time together, learning each other’s habits and quirks and tricks, than many husbands and wives do. The audience has no trouble believing that Karl Oskar and Kristina are each other’s homeland, in both the Old World and the New.”

For Eric Hynes, von Sydow’s “powers might never have been better exploited than in his three scenes” in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). As an aging artist who has fallen hard for a younger woman (Barbara Hershey), “he’s a walking matryoshka doll of authority, desire, dependence, and desperation.” As she prepares to leave him, he “bellows with that von Sydow voice and glowers with that von Sydow visage, but it’s his full-bodied frailty that really registers here, most apparent, as it was in The Virgin Spring nearly three decades prior, when he’s faced away from us, his back curved toward his co-star, his reddened neck seizing with every registered offense.”

The following year, von Sydow played an elderly Swede emigrating to Denmark with his son (Pelle Hvenegaard) in the 1850s in Bille August’s Pelle the Conqueror (1987). The film scored the Palme d’Or in Cannes, an Academy Award for best foreign film, and the first of two Oscar nominations for von Sydow (the second came in 2011 for his turn as a mute tenant in Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close). Remembering von Sydow in the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw suggests that it was probably Pelle the Conqueror that “brought von Sydow into a career phase that he had arguably always been preparing for: the old man. Perhaps the planes and lines of his face were always waiting for age to bring them to their fullest meaning.”

To return to Rafferty’s appreciation for the Atlantic, one of von Sydow’s “loveliest late-career performances,” he finds, is in Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007). Von Sydow appears briefly as the ninety-two-year-old father of a French journalist (Mathieu Amalric). “In just a few minutes of screen time,” writes Rafferty, “he sketches a swift, deft portrait of an old Parisian roué whose powers are fading but whose sense of himself remains miraculously (and very Frenchly) intact.” Having just been shaved by his son, “he looks in the mirror and says, only half in jest, ‘God, they don’t make them like me anymore.’”

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