Knight to rook 3

By Peter Craven
Remembering Max von Sydow, the greatest actor of his generation

Max von Sydow in The Exorcist (1973). Mary Evans Picture Library

It’s strange what goes unremarked in this time of plague. A couple of weeks ago Max von Sydow died and there was barely a mention of it in the national press, though he was one of the very greatest actors of the Brando generation and probably made more great films than any of them – more than Brando, certainly more than Richard Burton, probably more than Marcello Mastroianni, or even Alain Delon. But Max von Sydow has high claims to top any list because he made 11 films with Ingmar Bergman – nearly all of them masterpieces – which have the enormous advantage of being the work of a great dramatist of the cinema. This means there is a power at least equal to, say, Tennessee Williams, in the words themselves, even though Bergman translated them and accompanied them with the extraordinary cinematography of Sven Nykvist, which has never been surpassed. And von Sydow was his empathic collaborator because, like Bergman, he was a great man of the theatre and they believed in an absolutely negotiable bridge between stage and screen.

It is von Sydow you see playing chess with Death in The Seventh Seal, and it is von Sydow you see acting with his Swedish peers, with Bibi Andersson and Ingrid Thulin, with Gunnar Björnstrand (the squire in The Seventh Seal, the father in Winter Light), with Harriet Andersson, and, of course, in a suite of the greatest films ever made – including Shame and The Passion of Anna – with Liv Ullmann.

And then, almost belatedly, there was von Sydow’s dazzling Hollywood career. He played Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told with a seriousness and an intensity appropriate to the subject, and then went on to play the priest in The Exorcist, one of the milestones in the history of Hollywood. He was the missionary in Hawaii, Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon, and even took flight as The Three-Eyed Raven in Game of Thrones.

He was born in the year of the Depression, 1929, to a father who was an ethnologist at the University of Lund, and an aristocratic mother, the Baroness Maria Margareta von Rappe, who found her mission in life as a school mistress. His initial education was at the Catholic Lund Cathedral School, though the young von Sydow, of partly German background, was a Lutheran in his days of committed Christianity, which receded with the years though he seemed to have shifted back a little in later life.

He fiddled with an amateur theatre group but ended up at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm. In 1955 he collided with Bergman, who was the head director of the Malmö City Theatre. There he played some of the great roles of the classic modern theatre. He played Alceste, that infirm horror of a character in Moliere’s The Misanthrope, and he did Goethe’s Faust. They say – and a recording tends to confirm it – that Ralph Richardson was the greatest interpreter in the English speaking world of the title role in Ibsen’s epic Peer Gynt, and I once saw Robert Menzies play the role like a god for Jean-Pierre Mignon. But would you back either of them against von Sydow directed by Bergman? He even in the 1950s played Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and it’s not hard to imagine the introspection and excruciation he might have brought to the role of the guy who mourns his dead mate more than he loves his stormy wife. He did that cavalcade of enigmas, Pirandello’s Henry IV and, three decades before he did the all-but-impossible thing of playing him on the English stage, he played Shakespeare’s valedictory magus Prospero when he was barely 30.

The images of von Sydow as the knight stalling for time as he plays chess with Death in The Seventh Seal in 1957, and then of the carnival of silhouettes outlined against a sky, dancing to whatever doom, are so famous in the history of the modern cinema that they have almost become a stereotype. It is difficult to recapitulate the original experience of seeing them. What is not in doubt is the world of gravity, the sheer histrionic weight von Sydow brought to the role. And it is there with a tremendous vengeance – and vengeance is the theme – in The Virgin Spring (1960), where he plays a father set on killing the rapists and murderers of his daughter. The scene where he whips himself with birch rods as an ascetic cleansing before the terrible moment of justice is like the reanimation of a lost world of medieval resolution, and von Sydow and Bergman do it at once ritualistically and with a frightening power.

But part of von Sydow’s power with Bergman was that he was at once both the star and the ensemble player. He’s a minor figure in Wild Strawberries (1957), that extraordinary homage to old age, to ripeness is all. He could play an attendant husband in Brink of Life (1958) or the charismatic lead in The Magician (1958) – dark and handsome to the point of being almost unrecognisable as his gaunt, blond self, looking, in fact, like a Satanic inversion of Jesus. He could seduce the camera towards him, almost wordlessly. In Through A Glass Darkly (1961) he’s the husband who watches aghast as his wife, Harriet Andersson, descends into an inner hell of derangement for herself and others. Here, Bergman made films that had the spectrum of big roles we associate with plays. In Winter Light (1963), von Sydow plays the son who thinks he’s going to see the world extinguished, but it’s Gunnar Björnstrand (the Ralph Richardson figure in Bergman’s troupe, who’s also central to his greatest comedy, Smiles on a Summer Night, as the old lover) who actually owns the film as the priestly father, based on Bergman’s own.

Von Sydow’s less successful films for Bergman include Hour of the Wolf in 1968, a long aria of hysteria for a histrionic personality. For once, von Sydow’s monumental discipline as an actor seems to desert him as he does his unconvincing best to tear a passion to tatters. And then in 1971 there was The Touch, Bergman’s first English language film, in which von Sydow shares the screen with Elliott Gould. It also fails to work. Bergman had been directing at Britain’s National Theatre, doing a famous Hedda Gabler with Maggie Smith, but somehow the combination of colour and translated dialogue fails to bring the celluloid into life.

By this time, von Sydow had in some sense paved the way for Bergman to go international, because he had himself finally crossed the water to embrace the Babylon of Hollywood. It could scarcely have been a bigger splash. The man who had refused to play the Bond villain Dr No (though he did later play Blofeld in Never Say Never Again, the Sean Connery throwback in 1983), had accepted the role any actor might think would end his career: he agreed to play Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told.

This was when the role of Christ was invested with an all but untouchable mana. Since Cecil B. DeMille’s silent King of Kings, there had only been the remake in 1961, with the exceptionally good-looking Jeffrey Hunter, who captured a holy picture-prettiness in Jesus but not the authority or the tonal range. Although other people were to have a go, and none of them were slouches – Robert Powell for Zeffirelli, Willem Dafoe for Scorsese and Jim Cavaziel for Mel Gibson – von Sydow is the one manifestly great actor who attempted to cinematically incarnate the Lord Most High. An enormous amount of trouble went into teaching him to speak a variety of English that was not Swedish but was neither English nor American. It sounded like a lost accent with an extraordinary lineage. Time magazine said of his performance that it had a brilliant intensity but it was all in one key. This may be true but, if you want to sample von Sydow’s Jesus, have a look at the sequence where he raises Lazarus from the dead, which was directed anonymously by David Lean.

Something about the divinity of this role probably both made and limited von Sydow’s international career. It’s a little like one of Lean’s greatest actors, Sir Alec Guinness. Still, The Exorcist and its successor are nothing to sneeze at. Like Guinness, von Sydow was the starriest kind of character actor as he grew older.

On the other hand, those late ’60s films in Swedish are staggering achievements and represent both von Sydow and Bergman at their zenith. Shame is about a couple attempting to cope with some catastrophe that bids fair to end everything (and in this film, von Sydow, like Brando in Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, improvised some of his dialogue). Then there’s the knife-edge deadly drama of The Passion of Anna. The Hollywood films – Hawaii, The Immigrants (with Liv Ulmann) – are a footnote to this. He’s in the rarely seen Steppenwolf and David Lynch’s Dune and a quite good TV miniseries of Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March (in German). Woody Allen, for whom he appeared in Hannah and His Sisters, said that von Sydow and Geraldine Page were the only actors he ever directed who he had been in awe of.

In 1991 von Sydow did The Best Intentions, with a script by Bergman and directed by Bille August, and, in 1996, Private Confessions with another Bergman script and Liv Ullman as director. He voiced a forger on The Simpsons; he received an Oscar nomination for the Jonathan Safran Foer adaptation Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close when he was 82 years old.

Max von Sydow’s second wife was French, so he became a French citizen and lived there. I met him when he was in Australia in the early ’90s. I saw him at the first night of some Melbourne Theatre Company production at Russell Street, and I was so obsessed with meeting him that I rang the arts critic Maria Prerauer and began one aspect of my freelance career by being engaged to interview him.

He was that rarest thing, an introspective actor, with deep blue thoughtful eyes. He talked about playing Prospero in The Tempest for Jonathan Miller and the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford. “Imagine me,” he said, “daring to do Shakespeare in English…” He didn’t think Prospero was an old sweetheart. “He keeps afflicting them, you know,” he said, “with what he calls ‘pinches’”.

He also talked about consulting a hexapla, one of those bibles that prints different versions side by side, when he played Jesus. I think he said to me, almost at the end of the 90-minute conversation, “There were times when I didn’t know where Ingmar ended or Jesus started or I came in. It was difficult keeping us apart.”

Bergman, the pastor’s son, told the by this stage agnostic actor that he would visit him after he died. Someone later asked von Sydow if he saw the director again after his death. “I did, actually.” When? How? The old knight who had played chess with death wouldn’t elaborate.

Peter Craven

Peter Craven is a literary and culture critic.

Max von Sydow in The Exorcist (1973). Mary Evans Picture Library

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