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The Essentials: 5 Great Max Von Sydow Performances

by Peter Labuza
November 27, 2012 11:10 AM
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Max Von Sydow

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 Max Von Sydow
1. "The Seventh Seal" (1957)
"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.

Hour Of The Wolf Max Von Sydow
2. "The Hour of the Wolf" (1968)
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.

The Exorcist Max Von Sydow
3. "The Exorcist" (1973)
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?

Three Days Of The Condor Max Von Sydow
4. "Three Days of the Condor" (1975)
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.

The Diving Bell & The Butterfly Max Von Sydow
5. "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" (2007)
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.

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  • Nanks | April 10, 2013 2:26 PMReply

    It's a crime that, like Peter O'Toole, Max has never won an Oscar. He should have won for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. In a film that I found to be remarkably unsentimental about a devastating illness, Max carried the emotional weight of the entire film in the phone call scene.

  • MAL | November 28, 2012 10:00 AMReply

    He is my favourite actor. So glad you included his performance in "The Diving Bell...". So many of his performances could be included here. My personal favourite of his is in Bergman's "Shame". He plays an everyman civilian caught up in a war he does not understand. His struggle between fear and cowardice is powerful and painful, with his most striking moments (alongside his equal in Liv Ullman) performed without dialogue, using only expression.

  • gert | November 28, 2012 4:36 AMReply

    He was great in Beginners. Oh wait..!

  • Duckface | November 27, 2012 5:36 PMReply

    Pelle The Conqueor????

  • Paul | November 27, 2012 3:13 PMReply

    No "Flash Gordon" = FAIL. Period.

  • Todd | November 27, 2012 3:05 PMReply

    He was only in a couple of scenes, but von Sydow was hilarious in "Hannah and Her Sisters"

    "If Jesus came back and saw what's going on in his name, he'd never stop throwing up"

  • Real | November 27, 2012 1:27 PMReply

    Great you included "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly". Fantastic, touching performance but I thought you might overlook it due to the brevity.

  • Ugolin | November 27, 2012 1:02 PMReply

    I love the Hour of the Wolf addition, although I think Shame was the greater performance that year. Also surprised you left out Pelle the Conqueror - I assumed that'd be on the list for sure. Honorable Mentions to Hamsun, Flight of the Eagle, and The Emigrants.

  • Archer S. | November 27, 2012 11:27 AMReply

    If one really thinks about it picking The Exorcist was not such an obvious choice. So thank you for this. People tend to forget that Von Sydow was 44 years old back then and yet he is amazingly convincing as a weary old man. Thanks to Dick Smith's make-up yes, but also because he's a great actor.

  • Michael | November 27, 2012 11:22 AMReply

    Von Sydow is also quite good in "Flight of the Eagle" (1983)

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