Sight&Sound - 05.2020

(Jacob Rumans) #1

14 | Sight&Sound | May 2020

It’s impossible to do his vast filmography
anything close to justice here, but standouts
include the haggard Father Merrin in The
Exorcist (1973) and Exorcist II: The Heretic
(1977), several decades older than von Sydow’s
actual mid-forties; the fedora-toting assassin
Joubert in Three Days of the Condor (1975);
assorted representatives of Nazi Germany and
the Soviet Union in The Quiller Memorandum
(1966), The Kremlin Letter (1969) and Escape
to Victory (1981); an Italian Supreme Court
president in Francesco Rosi’s Illustrious
Corpses (1976), expounding a philosophy of
justice too abstract for the messiness of the
real world. For Steven Spielberg he was Tom
Cruise’s malevolent boss in Minority Report
(2002), and no less sinister as a psychologist
in Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010).
Von Sydow stamped his authority on a scene
so rapidly that many of his most memorable
performances lasted mere minutes: his studiedly
serious painter Frederick, perpetually buffeted
by numbing trivia (“Can you imagine the

By Michael Brooke
Appropriately, the first indelible impression
that Max von Sydow made on world cinema saw
him surrounded by jagged rocks while staring
death in the face. Only in his late 20s when he
starred in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal
(1957), he already gave the impression of a man
who’d witnessed a lifetime of anguish, to the
point that when actually confronted by Death
(Bengt Ekerot), his gaunt, Crusades-weary knight
Antonius Block reacts with a disarmingly calm
“Are you coming for me?” before challenging
the white-faced spectre to a game of chess.
Death finally claimed von Sydow on
8 March 2020, but only after he had amassed a
filmography that set him among the immortals.
This would be true even if he’d never worked
outside his native Sweden; indeed, even if he’d
worked exclusively with Bergman we’d still have
his mesmerist Albert Vogler in The Magician
(1958); distraught fathers dealing with different
types of bereavement in The Virgin Spring (1960)
and Through a Glass Darkly (1961); men driven to
existential crisis through fear of atomic warfare,
in Winter Light (1962), or trying to remain neutral
in the face of societal breakdown, in Shame
(1968); the tormented painter in Hour of the Wolf
(1968), and equally troubled lovers/husbands in
The Passion of Anna (1969) and The Touch (1971).
Bergman wrote the part of the cruel bishop in
Fanny and Alexander (1982) for him, but it went
to Jan Malmsjö after a dispute over von Sydow’s
fee – the actor later admitted his mistake.
Von Sydow also had lengthy creative
partnerships with Jan Troell and Bille August.
For the former, he was the paterfamilias
emigrating to Minnesota in the two-part epic
The Emigrants/The New Land (1971/72) and
Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun in Hamsun
(1996); for the latter, his personal favourite role,
the poor migrant farmer Lasse Karlsson who is
the father of Pelle the Conqueror (1987), while in
the Bergman-scripted The Best Intentions (1992)
he played his mentor’s maternal grandfather.
So content was he with his Swedish career
(which included extensive theatre work) that
von Sydow initially resisted blandishments from
abroad, refusing the title role in Dr. No (1962) and
Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music (1965).
He finally succumbed to George Stevens’s offer
of the part of Jesus Christ in The Greatest Story
Ever Told (1965); nearly 30 years later, he’d make
an equally convincing fist of the Devil in the
Stephen King adaptation Needful Things (1994).
However, when it comes to embodying pure evil,
there’s little to touch Ming the Merciless in Flash
Gordon (1980), infusing his schlocky dialogue
with just the right amount of gravitas. He finally
became a Bond villain in Never Say Never Again
(1983), although his Blofeld was trumped by his
Brewmeister Smith in the same year’s Strange
Brew, plotting world domination through
the addition of mind-altering drugs to beer.



The actor who gambled with
Death in Ingmar Bergman’s 1957
The Seventh Seal energised both
arthouse and blockbuster cinema


Max von Sydow stamped his

authority on a scene so rapidly

that many of his most memorable

performances lasted mere minutes

Immortal beloved: the young Max von Sydow

As the father in Pelle the Conqueror (1987) IMAGES: ALAMY AND BFI NATIONAL ARCHIVE
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