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Take Three: Max von Sydow

Craig (from Dark Eye Socket) here with another Take Three. Today: Max von Sydow


Take One: Hour of the Wolf (1968)
It goes without saying, of course, that a von Sydow Take Three wouldn’t feel right unless one of them was an Ingmar Bergman film. All three could’ve been, but the aim is to err on the side of variety whenever possible. They made 11 films together: The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, The Magician, The Virgin Spring, Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, Shame and The Passion of Anna are all classics. But Hour of the Wolf, in which von Sydow plays a painter losing his grip on his sanity, doesn’t always get the high mention it deserves. It contains some of von Sydow’s best work in any film, for any director.


With his handsomely regal face, von Sydow boldly dominates the film. His sinisterly unhinged stillness and almost unreadable presence cement the notion that he’s a tormented artist uncertain of his place in the world. He's visited by people, possibly demons in human disguise, who embody his trauma, his shame. In a possibly imagined, probably symbolic, but definitely surreal dinner scene von Sydow’s deathly wan countenance crumples in extreme close-up. His mind seems to deteriorate due to the inane banter of the chattering souls surrounding him. (No one said Bergman’s personal parables were cheery.) Von Sydow masters depression and disgust like breathing and underplays his scenes like a covert pro. With complete skill von Sydow does as much as an actor can to attempt to place the viewer inside his character’s brain.

Take Two: The Exorcist (1973)
I don’t think it’s via Jeez himself, but, Christ!, the power of character acting compels me... to write about Father Lankester Merrin in The Exorcist for this Take.

Demonic Possession and Demonic Behavior after the jump

By the time we see von Sydow's faithful Father roll up in a cab to stand in front of the MacNeil house - poster image! - we’ve seen him fret through an archaeological dig for a bestial statue in Iraq. We know how peaceful and dedicated he is to uncovering the evil of Pazuzu (the maybe-mythical demon possessing Linda Blair’s Regan), having encountered him and many other devilish ids before. But this exorcism’s a doozy, and enough to give him a heart attack.


The often-used ‘expert called in to help’ plot device in horror movies was best exemplified in von Sydow’s collared demon expeller. His entrance is formidable and a long time coming: bathed in awe, he slowly emerges from the dark night. But as soon as he sets foot inside the MacNeil home the devil upstairs hollers and gurgles forth his objection. As the most distinguished and lauded actor in the cast it was baffling that he was the only one of the four main players to not receive an Oscar nomination. (His only nod so far was for 1987’s Pelle the Conqueror.) It’s in the actual exorcist-performing scenes where von Sydow shines best. Throughout all the levitating beds, sucked appendages in hell and head-spun vomit (which he calmly wipes off his face without so much as blinking), von Sydow commands the screen as he does that chilly bedroom: with masterful assurance.

Take Three: Minority Report (2002)
A quick pre-Take warning: spoilers below

There are a fair few science-fiction films nestled among the Bergmans, the arthouse masterpieces, play adaptations and highly-regarded dramas in von Sydow’s filmography. He’s not averse to genre filmmaking, thus Death Watch, Dreamscape, Dune, Until the End of the World, Needful Things, Judge Dredd, What Dreams May Come and of course his Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon dot the resume. However, his best sci-fi appearance was in Spielberg’s Minority Report.

He gets an ‘and Max von Sydow’ credit after all the other main cast members, so he must be important. And he is. As Lamar Burgess, director of the Precrime division in the imagined Washington of 2054, he’s running (police) man Tom Cruise’s mentor, father figure and boss. He’s the shady villain of the piece, too. We only find that out later, however, in a cunningly performed scene when von Sydow permanently silences snooping agent Colin Farrell. Von Sydow’s delicious line delivery and expressionistically-lit face combine perfectly to signal just how warped and duplicitous Lamar turns out to be. One of his best scenes comes near the end after Lamar’s been found out (as a result of the twisty-turny plot). He’s confronted with an almost inescapable quandary: don’t kill Cruise, proving the precogs are wrong, destroying his beloved Precrime division; or kill him, thus proving them right (and himself guilty) and Precrime continues. His facade collapses like a precarious puzzle. Here, as earlier, we see futility written in his expression. It’s a subtle performance full of crooked intricacies. Only a seasoned ace like von Sydow could pull it off in just the right way.

Three more key films for the taking: The Virgin Spring (1960), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Intacto (2001)

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Reader Comments (11)

Thanks Craig - you must have been reading my mind, because I'd been wondering if I ought to view Hour of the Wolf (any Bergman is of course essential viewing but - which one next?) I shall definitely add it to my viewing list.

August 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

Thanks Craig. A great piece for one of my favorite actors. As I read through it I kept thinking "where's Pelle, or Hanna and Her Sisters..." but in fact, this is the way it should be done, highlighting how Max's greatness spans all kinds of films.

One more recommendation for ya. If you're a Von Sydow fan and you've not yet seen 1996's Hamsun (where he plays the naive Nazi-sympathizing title character) it's essential Von Sydow. The man has given amazing performances through 6 decades. Really something else.

August 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRobert

I had the opportunity to meet him (when Diving Bell & Butterfly was coming out) and it was one of my favorite interviews ever. I should repost it.

August 14, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Love the "Hamsun" mention, Robert. It is one of his greatest unsung performances, a towering biopic role that ought to have earned Max a second Oscar nomination. It was also von Sydow's last film made with Jan Troell, his most important collaborator after Bergman.

He may not have all that many movies in him anymore, so it's nice to see him getting to work with directors like Scorsese and Daldry.

August 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMarkku

Where's his honorary Oscar?

August 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohn D.

His contribution to Minority Report is so often overlooked (and that of all other actors in that film as well, especially Lois Smith in a attention-grabbing, wicked little supprting role). Thanks for fixing this!

August 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGustavo

I've seen The Seventh Seal seven times - I really like that one. And I have to admire the way he played Christ in the Greatest Story Ever Told. Not that that's one of my favorite stories, but that's a hard role to play, and I give credit to any actor who takes it seriously and really tries to do a good job and then does okay. Willem Dafoe for example, I felt just gave up.

August 14, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteradri

It's almost ridiculous just how expansive and well-rounded von Sydow's career is -- to work across half a century, multiple continents, many of the greatest directors of all time, and every rung of the show business ladder. You've gotta hand it to him; he doesn't quit. I love him in The Seventh Seal, The Passion of Anna, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Shutter Island (where he was terribly underused) to name just a few.

My dad likes to tell an anecdote about seeing von Sydow give a talk, followed by a Q&A. One audience member stood up and earnestly asked, "Mr. von Sydow, how would one go about getting a career in biblical epics?" I don't know what he answered, unfortunately.

August 15, 2011 | Registered CommenterAndreas

//I had the opportunity to meet him (when Diving Bell & Butterfly was coming out) and it was one of my favorite interviews ever. I should repost it.//

Nat, please do, I missed it the first time 'round, but I'd love a second chance in light of Craig's write-up.

August 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJanice


One of my favorite Bergmann films! Up there with The Silence and Wild Strawberries for me.

And The Exorcist is one of my favorite films of all time. I've always said it was as if Bergmann had directed a horror film with its themes of faith and doubt . . . and the casting of Max von Sydow underscores that.

August 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAlejandro

He has said doing biblical epics is easy because he plays the characters as men, not holy men. Like Bergman he's a non-believer.

And where is his Honorary Oscar indeed?

August 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMarkku
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