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Max von Sydow: the eternal knight in seven indispensable films

by ace
Max von Sydow: the eternal knight in seven indispensable films

Had he not been an actor, Max von Sydow, who died on Sunday at the age of 90, could have been in the military. He had the dryness of the body, the bearing and the voice of authority, made to command, as well as the grave mask. And he put that gravity in all his characters, be directed by his friend and mentor Ingmar Bergman (“It was Ingmar that made me as an actor”, he once said), with whom he worked in the theater and shot 11 films in Sweden, becoming if in his masculine face of choice and “alter ego” on the screen, he were to play a small or main role, in large Hollywood productions as in independent American or European films. Whether he was present for only five minutes or the entire time of the tape, von Sydow dominated the spotlight. And even if the film was smaller or indifferent, played a refined villain or a kind grandfather, we always remembered it in the end.

(“Ana and Her Sisters” 🙂

Von Sydow, whose name was Carl Adolf and went to get Max's stage name from the director of a Stockholm flea circus, became, thanks to Bergman, the first Swedish actor to be an international star. He was very stereotyped in American cinema, which loaded him with villains, from Nazi and mad scientists to the Devil (“Necessary Things”, by Fraser Heston, in 1993), and was the first to recognize him. But he also owes him unforgettable roles, such as Christ in George Stevens' “The Greatest Story of All Time” (1965), Father Merrin of “The Exorcist” by William Friedkin (1973), the professional killer of “The Three Days of the Condor ”, by Sydney Pollack (1975), the emperor Ming in“ Flash Gordon ”, by Mike Hodges (1980), or the arrogant artist of“ Ana and his sisters ”, by Woody Allen (1986). And he was a great James Bond villain, Blofeld in the “unofficial” “Never Say Never Again”, by Irvin Kershner (1986). This is after, years ago, he refused to be Dr. No in the first 007.

(“Never Say Never Again” 🙂

In the USA, it was also directed by John Huston, David Lynch, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese or Ridley Scott, and in Europe, by Wim Wenders, Lars von Trier, Bertrand Tavernier, Jan Troell, Valerio Zurlini or by the “Bergmanians” Bille August ( "The Best Intentions", in 1992) and Liv Ullmann (the telefilm "Private Confessions", in 1996). He made a single film, "Ved Vejen", in 1988, and also participated in the "Star Wars" saga, "Game of Thrones" and even "The Simpsons". He had just finished shooting a film in Greece. Whatever he did, he always brought category, thickness, circumspection and authenticity to his role. Even though I thought acting was “a futile activity. Even when an interpretation is recorded on film, there is nothing special about it. It is not like making a piece of furniture with our own hands or writing a book. ” Here is a selection of seven indispensable films with Max von Sydow.

By Ingmar Bergman (1957)

The chess game of Antonius Block, the medieval knight played by Max von Sydow, with Death (Bengt Ekerot) is one of the most emblematic images in the history of cinema. Von Sydow was never satisfied with this interpretation, as he said that the dialogue written by Bergman was grandiloquent and unrealistic, and that his role had resented it. But the figure of the knight is so convincing and remains so deep in his disenchantment and in his disbelief, that this is left to the background.

By Ingmar Bergman (1958)

If there is a film in which Max von Sydow functioned fully as Bergman's representative on the screen, it is this one, where he personifies Albert Vogler, a 19th century illusionist and mesmerizer, whose powers are questioned by the local authorities in one of the cities in which he is going to give a show. Vogler deeply despises those who do not believe in his art, his illusions and the conviction with which he practices them. And he only reveals his true face under makeup, when he is in intimacy with his wife.

By Ingmar Bergman (1960)

Like the sequence of the chess game with Death in “The Seventh Seal”, also that of “The Fountain of the Virgin”, also set in the Middle Ages, in which the character of Von Sydow, mad with pain for his dead daughter, incarnation on a tree, he stayed for Bergman's filmography and for the eternity of cinema. The actor plays a vengeful father who kills his daughter's rapists and murderers and then has to face a dumb God, with overwhelming authority and disturbing agony.

By Ingmar Bergman (1968)

Max von Sydow is Johan Borg, an artist on vacation with his wife on a remote island in Scandinavia, who cannot sleep and is plagued by terrible visions and nightmares. Through him, Bergman, who makes here what can be considered as his only horror film, tells the torment he experienced when he moved to the island of Faro. And all the merit goes to Von Sydow for never letting Borg's character become abstract, "symbolic" or improbable, but always human and is intensely and distressingly close to us.

By William Friedkin (1973)

After several films by Ingmar Bergman playing characters confronted and anguished by the silence or the absence of God, Max von Sydow had one of his greatest roles in “The Exorcist”, in a Jesuit priest, Father Merrin, who is anchored in his deep and unshakable faith in God and in Christ to expel a demon who has a girl. In a few films like this one, Von Sydow, who was less than 30 years old than the character, used to the maximum all the expressive power and all the authoritarian force of his unmistakable voice.

By Sydney Pollack (1975)

Max von Sydow entered several spy and action films, and it was Sidney Pollack who gave him his best role in this genre in “The Three Days of the Condor”. He is a murderer named Joubert, hired to eliminate the CIA analyst played by Robert Redford and his colleagues. Von Sydow interprets it wearing a hat and glasses, with the air of an anonymous citizen, flying a calm, polite and amoral indifference, and killing “for money and never for causes”, as Redford once said.

De Bille August (1987)

Von Sydow had his only Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his role in this Bille August period tape (he would also be nominated in 2012 for the Secondary Actor statuette for “Extremely Tall, Incredibly Close”), Personifies a Swedish emigrant who, together with his son, Pelle of the title, and other countrymen, he emigrates to Denmark in search of a better life. It is an interpretation made of dignity, suffering, determination and sacrifice, and Max von Sydow is as stoic as it is moving, without ever being melodramatic.


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