He was Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and the Devil in Needful Things (1993), Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon (1980) and Blofeld in Never Say Never Again (1983). Yet he turned down the title role in Dr. No (1962) and Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music (1965). More recently, he has cropped up in Star Wars: Episode VII The Force Awakens (2015) and Game of Thrones (2011-). Yet, despite appearing in 120 films, Max von Sydow will forever be associated with his 11 collaborations with Ingmar Bergman between 1957-71.
It would have been 13, only Bergman refused to cast von Sydow as a policeman in Prison (1949), while the actor priced himself out of the bishop’s role in Fanny and Alexander (1982). They did reunite on the Bergman-scripted The Best Intentions (1991) and Private Confessions (1996). But, by then, the 6ft 4in von Sydow (who took the name Max from the star of a flea circus) had become an imposing presence in a dazzlingly diverse range of pictures by some of the biggest names in the business. Whether playing Nazis, arch-villains, tormented artists, errant husbands, stern patriarchs, demanding mentors or genial grandfathers, von Sydow brings gravitas and class to every role.
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The Seventh Seal (1957)
Director: Ingmar Bergman
The image of the crusading knight playing chess with Death (Bengt Ekerot) has become iconic. Yet von Sydow has never been happy with his performance in Ingmar Bergman’s stark plague allegory on the threat of nuclear war. “I have always been bothered by the way I recited my lines,” he confessed. “Bergman’s dialogue from that time was very stylised, which would have made it difficult for me to recite my lines in a realistic manner.” But the formality of von Sydow’s encounters with the cowled Ekerot make his repast with strolling player Nils Poppe and his devoted wife Bibi Andersson (and its resulting sacrifice) all the more poignant.
The Magician (1958)
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Von Sydow essentially plays Bergman’s alter ego in this chillingly mischievous treatise on the art of illusion and the exertion of creation. Bergman often used the name Vogler for self-doubting artists, but any crisis of confidence that 19th-century mesmerist Albert Emanuel experiences is shrouded as von Sydow goes almost an hour without saying a word in answering sceptical Stockholm scientist Gunnar Björnstrand’s accusation that he’s a charlatan. Bergman would go on to explore the silence of God in The Virgin Spring (1960), Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and Winter Light (1962), but his ruminations were rarely more eloquent than in this bawdily unsettling and harshly neglected metaphysical morality play.
Director: George Roy Hill
Still new in Hollywood, von Sydow earned a Golden Globe nomination for his imposing performance in this provocative and enduringly relevant study of religious fundamentalism and cultural intolerance. Director George Roy Hill inherited the project after Fred Zinnemann was blocked from adapting James A. Michener’s bestseller as two films, and he allows von Sydow the time to create the character of Abner Hale, a socially gauche Yale divinity student whose desire to bring Christianity to 1820s Maui is doomed by his Calvinist pride and the lack of human empathy that blinds him to the error of his ways until he has alienated wife Julie Andrews and nearly annihilated the souls he came to save.
Hour of the Wolf (1968)
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Taking cues from Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931), this lacerating account of a tormented artist’s descent into madness opens a trilogy that concludes with Shame (1968) and The Passion of Anna (1969). Von Sydow again stands in for Bergman, who suffered a similar ordeal after moving to the island of Fårö, where “the demons would come to me and wake me up, and they would stand there and talk to me”. Liv Ullmann excels as the wife reflecting on her husband’s inexplicable disappearance. But von Sydow’s restraint in Sven Nykvist’s relentlessly claustrophobic close-ups make his growing sense of humiliation, emasculation and dread excruciatingly real.
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Anyone who had seen von Sydow sneering as a ruthless neo-Nazi in Michael Anderson’s The Quiller Memorandum (1966) would have been taken aback by his initial appearance in Bergman’s harrowing pacifist tract as a shambolically disaffected musician who doesn’t have the gumption to shoot a chicken. But, as a “little war” encroaches upon his island retreat, von Sydow’s apolitical recluse is transformed, and wife Liv Ullmann is unable to comprehend how a sobbing coward could become the cold-blooded killer of the quisling mayor and a frightened young soldier. Ending with the couple stranded in a small boat in a sea of corpses, this is Bergman at his most radical.
The Emigrants (1971)
Director: Jan Troell
Some of von Sydow’s most lauded displays have come during his eight-film collaboration with Jan Troell. But, while he won the Pasinetti Cup at Venice for Flight of the Eagle (1982) and the Swedish Film Institute’s Guldbagge for Hamsun (1996), the actor was on peak form opposite Liv Ullmann in this epic Vilhelm Moberg adaptation and its 1972 sequel, The New Land. Running for 394 minutes, this masterly duology follows some impoverished farmers and religious outcasts from Småland to Minnesota, charting their progress over the half century from 1840. For much of the time, Troell opts for documentary intimacy. But the contrast between von Sydow hauling rocks on a godforsaken smallholding and striding out to stake his New World claim is exhilarating.
The Exorcist (1973)
Director: William Friedkin
Having doubted so often for Bergman, von Sydow produced a titanic display of faith in the power of Christ in William Friedkin’s record-breaking adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s novel. Abetted by makeup artist Dick Smith, von Sydow aged himself 30 years to play Father Merrin and, even though the Jesuit only has a handful of scenes, he imparts a sagacious solemnity and an awed sense of trepidation that forewarns the already racked audience about what’s coming in the climactic exorcism. Perhaps the death of his brother as he began shooting informed von Sydow’s performance. But its roots lay in 25 years of screen anguish.
Three Days of the Condor (1975)
Director: Sydney Pollack
Although he seems too monumental to be inconspicuous, von Sydow plays stealthy assassins with deft precision in both Sydney Pollack’s tense adaptation of James Grady’s bestselling conspiracy thriller and John Hough’s undervalued Second World War saga, Brass Target (1978). As Joubert, the contract killer hired to eliminate researcher Robert Redford’s colleagues at the New York office of the American Literary Historical Society, von Sydow conveys a predatory civility that makes his final speech about working for fees not causes all the more disconcerting. It’s as though he has assumed Death’s mantle in a sinister CIA reworking of The Seventh Seal.
Pelle the Conqueror (1987)
Director: Bille August
Von Sydow received his sole Oscar nomination for best actor in Bille August’s Palme d’or-winning adaptation of Martin Andersen Nexø’s novel about the hardships endured by turn-of-the-century Swedish immigrants on the Danish island of Bornholm. Deservedly so, as he exudes splintering dignity as the father striving to protect son Pelle Hvenegaard from the harshest of truths. Four years later, he reteamed with August for an episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, with von Sydow playing Sigmund Freud. The Academy recognised him again with a best supporting actor nomination for his deeply moving performance as the silent lodger in Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011).
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)
Director: Julian Schnabel
There are many candidates for this final spot: Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Father (1990), The Silent Touch (1992), Minority Report (2002), even Conan the Barbarian (1982). But von Sydow’s artistry is most readily evident in the the two scenes he did for free in a single day in Julian Schnabel’s interpretation of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s poignant memoir. The housebound 92-year-old tries to be positive during a phone call with locked-in son Mathieu Amalric, but his helpless tears contrast agonisingly with his bullish bluster, as Amalric shaves his father while he admits to having more affairs than Casanova before boasting, “they don’t make them like me any more.” They most certainly don’t.
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