Max von Sydow is the key figure in one of the most famous shots in world cinema; a world weary knight plays chess with the figure of Death on a stony beach as a grey sea rolls behind them. For me this was one of the key images and revelations of contemporary art cinema when I saw the film on 16mm at the Bournemouth Film Society. After a decade of mainstream entertainment I became engaged with a world of cinema that was often slower, usually more ambiguous but which was intellectually challenging in a wholly different register.
Max von Sydow became interested in acting during school trips to the Theatre. After military service he trained at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, where Bibi Andersson also trained. Both had small parts in Alf Sjöberg’s Miss Julie / Fröken Julie (1951). He moved to work at the Malmö City Theatre where Ingmar Bergman was chief director. The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet, 1957) followed. Few actors can have enjoyed such an iconic character in their first leading role. His ability to play characters that were reflexive and cerebral made his performance stand out in the film and in contemporary cinema.
There followed a series of films with Bergman, defining both the work of the director and of the actor. Max von Sydow at times seemed to represent an alter ego for Bergman, He appeared in both leading and supporting roles in the films. The Virgin Spring / (Jungfrukällan, 1960) was another medieval tale, this time following the revenge of a father (Christian Per Töre) for his raped daughter. Once more the film was censored [parts of the rape scene] in the USA. Like The Seventh Seal this was a grim and dark tale, but with a ray of light at the resolution.
Then in Through a Glass Darkly (Såsom i en spege, 1961) he played Martin, the father of Karin (Harriet Andersson) who suffers from schizophrenia. This is an intimate small-scale drama set on the island of Fårö, a location Bergman was to use for several more films. This is one of my personal favourites among Bergman films. I have watched it numerous times and I am always completely taken with the writing, acting and the development of drama and character. And the film enjoys the great artist, Sven Nykvist, as director of cinematography,
Bergman made a further series of what can be described as ‘chamber pieces’. Max von Sydow was a lead in the fine Winter Light (Nattvardsgästerna, 1963). As Jonas Persson von Sydow is part of a small church congregation. The film then explores question of faith and of the wider issues in the world, including the then ever-present threat of the bomb [nuclear]. This film, along with the other chamber works, set up exploration of faith and the spiritual which seemed to dominate Bergman’s work in this period.
There were three films in which Max von Sydow played opposite Liv Ullmann. Hour of the Wolf (Vargtimmen, 1967), filmed on an island in the south-west: Shame (Skammen, 1968), film on the island of Faro: and A Passion / The Passion of Anna (En Passion, 1969) also filmed on Faro and the only title of the three in colour. I was not quite as struck with these films as the earlier chamber pieces but the acting of Ullmann and von Sydow was really impressive.
Von Sydow had parts in later Bergman films and also worked with the director in theatre (‘Peer Gynt’ and, ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’) and dramas for Swedish radio and television. He also worked with other Swedish film-makers, notably in Jan Troell’s two part The Emigrants (Utvandrarna 1971) which followed people from the old world to the new world of North America. In the 1950s and 1960s von Sydow had resisted offer from the USA and for international productions. Then in 1965 he accepted a lead part in The Greatest Story Ever Told. This was against the advice of Ingmar Bergman, and after seeing the film I agreed with the latter.
Better was the 1967 Hawaii, adapted from a sprawling James Michener novel. Von Sydow played opposite a miscast Julie Andrews but the plotting was fascinating; one could read this as a dramatisation of Jane Eyre’s possible life if she had accompanied St John Rivers to the missions.
The other key film for his career was the 1966 The Quiller Memorandum. Von Sydow is part of a gang of neo-nazis, notably violent and sadistic. And frequently in his subsequent career his particular persona was used for villains, often pretty over the top. Three Days of the Condor was a happy exception where he was a completely professional assassin. But Escape to Victory (1981) was more typical; we, like he, had to watch Sylvester Stallone pretending to be able to play British-style football. This long trajectory as a villain always rather puzzled me. It crept into the European art scene with a film by Jan Troell’s Hansum (1996) as a real-life collaborator from World War Ii.
There were other pretty good films. Von Sydow won an Academy Award for Pelle the Conqueror (Pelle erobreren, 1987) where he performed the most difficult challenge for an adult actor; playing opposite a child. He also won an Academy Award for The Exorcist (1973). I have never understood Mark Kermode’s love of this film. It seems to me that Bergman’s religious dramas are both far more interesting and closer to the real world.
Max von Sydow clocked up 163 credits for work in film and television. I have only seen a fraction of these. Some actors are very careful in the parts they considered and take on; Jeremy Irons would seen an example, even in a conventional genre film his character is really interesting. Max von Sydow appears closer to someone like Michael Caine who seems to take everything they are offered; fine films and dross. And I am not really certain why?
In retrospect, like his fellow thespian from the Royal Dramatic Theatre Bibi Andersson, I think he is defined by the work with Ingmar Bergman. Some of the director’s best and most memorable films feature his fine acting. And as I expect these to remain classics of world cinema I expect Max von Sydow to be long remembered.