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The Young Person’s Guide To Max Von Sydow, Part One

Last week the announcement came down the Internet Entertainment Pipeline that the controversial, sexual-assault-centric HBO series “Game Of Thrones” would be getting a new cast member, an 86-year-old screen veteran named Max von Sydow. One of the more reputable of the Internet Entertainment Pipeline’s outlets, Entertainment Weekly, cited von Sydow as “‘Exorcist’ star,” which he certainly was. A more fancentric source, which may or may not have been trolling, named von Sydow as a star of the as-yet-unreleased “Star Wars” episode “The Force Awakens.” Which indeed he also is.

These citations touched off great waves of disapprobation from Old People and Cinephiles and the overlap of these two groups on social media the world over. Because Max von Sydow is more than just a star of “The Exorcist” and “The Force Awakens.” He’s also Brewmeister Smith in the underrated SCTV-derived comedy “Strange Brew.”

And he’s also a genuine legend, a giant among actors of BOTH stage and screen, and the lean, severe face of several unforgettable characters in more than a handful of capital-G-Great movies, and a bunch of very good ones. In this and a subsequent post, please find an illuminating and, I promise, enjoyable primer to the work of this amazing actor.

"The Seventh Seal" (1957)

Max von Sydow and his lifelong friend and collaborator Ingmar Bergman grew acquainted in the Swedish theater, where, von Sydow once recalled, he and the maestro did a fair amount of comedy. But their movie collaborations are known for their intensity, profundity, and darkness. Although as we’ll see shortly, that’s not the whole picture. In any event, both the actor and director made a huge impact on international art cinema with this movie, a tragicomic allegory set in medieval Europe after the Crusades. Von Sydow plays Antonius Block, a lean knight returning to a desolate, plague-ridden homeland. Death himself approaches Antonius and challenges him to a game of chess, the stakes being of course the knight’s life. This much-parodied movie became a touchstone of art film and a target for the ridicule of such. The charge against Bergman’s movies is that they’re “pretentious” and of course they’re no such thing. There’s also “slow” and “difficult” and so on. The thing is, “Seventh Seal” is actually a very brisk (97 minutes!), engaging, beautifully shot, and sometimes funny movie.

"The Magician" (1958)

This 19th century story of magic and illusion—two different things—gets a lot of mileage out of its metaphors, with Von Sydow as the titular showman/conjurer. A man of several faces, he swindles his way into wealthy drawing rooms until he’s challenged by a vengeful rationalist. This 1958 beauty is the closest von Sydow and writer/director Ingmar Bergman came to making a comedy together; one could call this a dark movie with a light streak.

“The Virgin Spring” (1960)

As von Sydow and Bergman’s collaboration dug deeper, the material became ever darker. Here, the director and actor return to the medieval, in a story of rape, revenge, and faith. This is, indeed, heavy stuff, depicting existentially challenged characters poised on a knife-edge separating paganism and Christianity. Where the film itself fails with respect to this may surprise you—and recall the work of another Nordic master of cinema, the Danish director Carl Dreyer. Von Sydow’s work as the father of a murdered girl is one of his most eloquently tortured performances. Believe it or not, the movie’s plot line directly inspired the harrowing grindhouse classic “The Last House On The Left.”

Although he was only 31 when “The Virgin Spring” was released, von Sydow had a longstanding knack for playing older characters. His patriarch in this movie has a bearing we’d associate with someone at least a decade past von Sydow’s actual age. His ability in this area proves useful indeed as his career progressed.

"Through A Glass Darkly" (1961)

Von Sydow is a supporting player in this sledgehammer of a contemporary drama from Bergman, an economical (almost ruthless) account of a woman’s descent into complete madness after discovering her own father has been exploiting her mental illness for his own creative work. Von Sydow plays the woman’s sympathetic but somewhat clueless husband, one of the actor’s rare forays into playing something like an ordinary man.

"The Greatest Story Ever Told" (1965)

Speaking of non-ordinary men, great American filmmaker George Stevens wanted a New Face to play Jesus Christ in his epic, cameo-filled adaptation of the Gospels. Von Sydow, who’d never acted in an English-language movie before (but whose English is not just impeccable but better than that of most native speakers, if we’re gonna be brutally honest about it), got the role based on the intense soulfulness he’d displayed in Bergman pictures. “Greatest Story” is almost a combination White Elephant/Termite film—it’s a big studio undertaking that has undercurrents of deeply personal moviemaking—and it doesn’t altogether succeed.

"The Quiller Memorandum" (1966)

“Greatest Story” did not catapult von Sydow to international superstardom, and his next big Hollywood production, “Hawaii,” in which he costarred with Julie Andrews (no, really) was plagued by production troubles and subsequently flopped. His profile in English-speaking films would largely, from that point on, be narrowed to character roles, often in star-studded thrillers. This one, from a Harold Pinter script, is a pretty good one, and von Sydow gets to flex his villain chops, which are considerable, playing the leader of a neo-Nazi group menacing George Segal.

"The Hour Of the Wolf" (1968)

As he diversified, von Sydow continued to work with Bergman, although their collaboration would end soon after this bonafide horror film (von Sydow’s character is physically, not just psychically, attacked by demons). A frightening, sometimes hard-to-watch character study, it was an exhausting ordeal for both director an actor. Von Sydow had wanted to return to Bergman for his 1988 first farewell to cinema, the very great “Fanny And Alexander,” but business negotiations squelched the deal, a course of events which the actor says he deeply regrets.

The Emigrants”/”The New Land” (1971/1972)

Swedish director Jan Troell is in some respects a more conventional artist than Bergman, but he’s a narrative filmmaker of the first rank with a tremendous feel for period and character. These two films pair von Sydow with the beautiful and prodigiously talented Liv Ullmann (with whom he costarred in several Bergman pictures) in a sweeping but simple story of a couple who make their way from Sweden to the U.S. in the late 19th century. 

Glenn Kenny

Glenn Kenny was the chief film critic of Premiere magazine for almost half of its existence. He has written for a host of other publications and resides in Brooklyn. Read his answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

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