The most notable thing about Max von Sydow is that he has played them all. Strong heroes, existential figures, formidable villains—there are few actors in the history of film with the versatility of the Swedish star. With a career that began all the way back in the 1950s, von Sydow has continued to turn in unique performances throughout his career, working with celebrated auteurs like Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and, most notably, Ingmar Bergman. Sure, there are a handful of dud performances ("Dune," "What Dreams May Come"), but the strong performances still reign over all, and the range of the actor's work is simply astonishing. This week in Brooklyn, BAMcinematek begins a career retrospective of the formidable actor (all in 35mm!), and here we salute five of von Sydow's most powerful performances.
"The Seventh Seal" made Max von Sydow an international star, and with good reason. As a despairing knight returning from the Crusades, locked in a battle of chess with Death, von Sydow manages to commit to the despair and agony of the unknown. Ingmar Bergman certainly puts together some astonishing images, but his close-ups on von Sydow, especially as he prays to God in a church for some sort of solace, magnify the intensity of the existential angst on display. "The Seventh Seal" remains both Bergman’s and von Sydow’s most cited and celebrated work, and one that still deserves to be revisited. Few films bare their souls so bluntly as the duo here have managed.
During his younger years, it would seem odd that the incredibly handsome von Sydow would be often relegated to such draining and painful performances. But few actors had control of such unique facial contours like von Sydow, and in "The Hour of the Wolf," one of Bergman’s underrated works, the actor shows the mind of an artist deteriorating bit by bit. Playing a painter plagued by demons, possibly real, possibly imagined, von Sydow never overplays his visions—he let’s Bergman do the heavy lifting. Most actors might play up the crazy antics, but von Sydow understands the power of the close-up. Even the smallest gestures register the paranoia in this haunting parable, making the conclusion all the more devastating.
It almost seems like a comic stroke of genius for William Freidkin to cast von Sydow as Father Merrin, the man who is tasked with saving innocent Regan from the demon that has possessed her. But in this iconic horror classic, von Sydow brings a mode of intense and solemn confidence to the role that is almost opposite his performance in "The Seventh Seal." Merrin only appears in the last third of the film, and his final fate is certainly a strange affair worth discussing, but von Sydow’s conviction to the strength of this man, his belief in the Almighty, are what make that reveal so shocking. If this man can’t stop the devil, who can?
Like many European stars in the 1970s, Max von Sydow took a number of villainous roles in American thrillers. But von Sydow elevates the archetype of the silent foreign assassin in Sydney Pollack’s classic about an agent (Robert Redford) being hunted by perhaps his own government. Covering his face in thick-framed glasses, von Sydow marks his character Joubert with an intense, silently threatening presence that no doubt had an influence on Javier Bardem’s turn in "No Country for Old Men." But what truly makes his performance magical is the casualness of his final monologue—as he explains to Redford’s character about the quickly changing agendas in his line of business, von Sydow makes the specifics of the exposition simply mundane. This isn’t murder; it’s business.
Say what you will of Julian Schnabel’s life-celebrating work of visual expression, but von Sydow’s two-scene performance makes a strong mark on the picture. Playing the father of Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), who wrote his memoir with only the aid of his blinking eye after a massive stroke, von Sydow captures two brutal emotions in two very different scenes. In the first, we watch as Bauby gives his father a shave, their banter casual but somewhat dismissive. In the latter, we watch as von Sydow speaks to his now locked-in son over the phone, who cannot say a word back. Saying goodbye to a child might seem like a cloying moment for any actor to go over the top, but von Sydow builds the scene around his character attempting to retain dignity in this moment, to stay strong for his son. But how can one do that? When he breaks down into tears finally, we do as well.