Max von Sydow – actor
Born April 10, 1929; died March 8, 2020
Max von Sydow, who has died aged 90, was an actor of magnetic and monumental gravitas, whose presence gave any film he appeared in a richness and a weight that elevated it in stature. This was the case with the eleven films he made with Ingmar Bergman that began with The Seventh Seal (1957) as much as it was as Jesuit priest Father Merrin in William Friedkin’s big-screen version of William Peter Blatty’s novel, The Exorcist (1973).
In the former, the scene of Von Sydow’s character playing chess with Death has become one of cinema’s most iconic moments. While the latter film became tabloid fodder, the hysteria surrounding it was offset by a seriousness carried largely by Von Sydow, who aged himself by thirty years to give a solemn and stately performance as he confronted the Devil eight years after playing the Son of God in George Stevens’ all-star biblical epic, The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965).
Carl Adolf von Sydow was born in Lund, Sweden, to Carl Wilhelm von Sydow, an ethnologist and professor of folkloristics, and Baroness Maria Margareta von Rappe, a school-teacher. Brought up a Lutheran, von Sydow attended Lund Cathedral School, where he learned English, and developed an interest in drama after seeing a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and he started an amateur theatre company with school-friends.
While serving with the Army Quartermaster Corps, von Sydow adopted the name ‘Max’ from the star performer of a flea circus. He studied at the Royal Dramatic Theatre, Stockholm, between 1948 and 1951, where he again started a theatre group, and made his stage debut in Goethe’s play, Egmont. He also made his screen debut, in Only a Mother (1949) and Miss Julie (1951), both directed by Alf Sjoberg.
During a season at the Norrkoping-Linkoping Municipal Theatre, von Sydow appeared in nine plays, including Peer Gynt, before moving to the City Theatre in Halsingborg in 1953, where he spent two years. While still in his mid-twenties, a sign of von Sydow’s authority saw him play Prospero in The Tempest and the title role in Pirandello’s Henry IV. Von Sydow’s burgeoning talent was recognised in 1954, when he received the Royal Foundation of Sweden’s Cultural Award for young actors.
In 1955, von Sydow joined Malmo City Theatre, where Bergman was the main director. Casting his new charge as Antonius Block, the jaded fourteenth century knight returning from the Crusades to a plague-stricken Sweden in The Seventh Seal was a move that would see them artistically entwined for life. Other Bergman films von Sydow appeared in included Wild Strawberries (1957), The Magician (1958), The Virgin Spring (1960), Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and Winter Light (1963). Onstage, von Sydow played the title roles in Peer Gynt and Faust in what was effectively Bergman’s ensemble company who appeared on both stage and screen.
Von Sydow resisted offers from Hollywood, including the title role in James Bond film Dr No and Baron von Trapp in The Sound of Music. His first English language role came in, The Greatest Story Ever Told, in which he played Jesus Christ. This led to other American films, including contemporary western, The Reward (1965) and as a Calvinist missionary alongside Julie Andrews and Richard Harris in Hawaii (1966). Von Sydow would work with Andrews again when he played a psychiatrist treating a successful musician with multiple sclerosis in the film of Tom Kempinski’s play, Duet for One (1986)
Outside Sweden, von Sydow found himself often cast as villains, be it the neo-Nazi of the Quiller Memorandum, a Russian colonel in The Kremlin Letter (1970), Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon (1980) and finally appearing in a Bond film as Blofeld in Never Say Never Again (1983). The same year as making Flash Gordon, von Sydow appeared as Romy Schneider’s estranged husband in Death Watch, Bertrand Tavernier’s portent of reality TV starring Harvey Keitel and Harry Dean Stanton, and which was filmed in Glasgow and Mull of Kintyre.
Von Sydow went on to appear in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), and two years later made Katinka (1988), his sole film as director. He reunited with Bergman in mini-series The Best Intentions (1991), directed by August, and Private Confessions (1996), directed by Liv Ullmann. He later featured in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002), based on a Philip K. Dick short story, and in Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)
Von Sydow received two Oscar nominations, for his role as a turn of the century Swedish immigrant in Denmark in Bille August’s Pelle the Conqueror (1987). August would go on to cast von Sydow as Sigmund Freud in an episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (1993). Von Sydow would later be nominated for best supporting role Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011).
Von Sydow was married to Christina Olin from 1951-1979, then to film-maker Catherine Brelet from 1997. Having become a French citizen in 2002, he was made a Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres in 2005, and named a Chevalier de la Legion d’honneur in 2012.
Latterly, von Sydow voiced computer games, played Lor San Tekka in Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015), and appeared in three episodes of Game of Thrones. These were some of the last in a long line of elder statesmen roles which von Sydow had always been made for in a career that spanned generations, but which in execution remain timeless.
He is survived by his wife, Catherine Brelet, and his four sons, two with Brelet, Cedric and Yvan, and two with Olin, Clas and Henrik.
The Herald, March 12th 2020