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.