Brought on by his unfortunate passing this week, our staff highlights some of our favorite Max von Sydow performances and films:
The Seventh Seal
Max von Sydow’s breakthrough role, and one of his most memorable performances, came in The Seventh Seal, the first of the eleven films he made with Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. In the film, he plays a knight, Antonius Block, returning from the crusades to find a home ravaged by plague (timely right?) but the worst of his troubles aren’t behind him yet as the personification of Death has come to take him away. Block challenges Death to a game of chess which will allow him to live so long as it is being played, and the game continues throughout the film. Though I’d say it’s far from the best work from either Ingmar Bergman or Max von Sydow, it is emblematic of the type of work both would turn in throughout their legendary careers. It’s a film full of striking images and it confronts the existential dread brought on by a crisis of faith at the end of a life but its most profound moments come from Max von Sydow’s ability to bring levity to the material even as he thoroughly embodies his character and all the gravity of his situation. His talent shone through in so many roles and elevated many a film but perhaps never more than when he and Death played chess on a beach and brought us one of the most iconic moments in world cinema. [Henry Baime]
Until the End of the World
As much as I love Minority Report (and Sydow’s stellar, underappreciated performance in it), I just cannot pass up this opportunity to talk about one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen. Wim Wenders’s Until the End of the World is…well, it’s difficult to narrow down: it’s a meandering road trip movie, a sci-fi adventure, an existential drama, and a romance, all rolled into one. It also has an unbelievable soundtrack with original songs from artists like Nick Cave, R.E.M., Can, Talking Heads, Lou Reed, and Depeche Mode. Oh, and it runs nearly five hours long.
Sound wild? Well, I haven’t even gotten to the plot which revolves around technology that transmits recorded video into the mind of a blind person—”revolves” serves a dual purpose here, as the first half (the weaker half; sans von Sydow, perhaps uncoincidentally) follows numerous characters traveling the globe, chasing one another. The second half settles in Australia, and the film uses the introduction of von Sydow (and his wife played by the also incomparable Jeanne Moreau) to explore the psychological ramifications of this technology in all its heady glory.
I don’t love Until the End of the World—in fact, I don’t even particularly like it—but it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen and I wholeheartedly recommend taking the 287-minute trip into this distinctly early-90s depiction of the futuristic late 90s. It’s on the Criterion Channel right now. [Kern Wheeling]
Shutter Island is one of the best thrillers to have been released in recent memory with its take on unreliable narratives and assorted twists and turns. The film takes place on a remote island that also works as an asylum for the criminally insane. Detectives Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule, who are played by Leonardo Dicaprio and Mark Ruffalo, work at unraveling the mystery of the whereabouts of a missing inmate. As time goes on the sanity of the residents, workers, and even the detectives is put into question.
One of the many highlights of the film is Max von Sydow’s role within it. His depiction of the enigmatic Jeremiah Naehring, although appearing to be quite a small role, ended up being an essential marker of the main character’s demise and was truly one of the performances that made the film great. He was able to remain grounded and logical while also maintaining an air of mystery that leads Teddy to question his motives and background. [Dani Ferro]
The year is 2054, we are introduced to a world where murder has not occurred for six entire years. The year of actual release is 2002, where Steven Spielberg spectacularly depicted a not too distant future where—stop me if any of this sounds too real—we have automated cars, personalized ads, augmented reality, flexible digital screens, wireless/controllerless control, digital interactive billboards, weaponized robotics, and heads-up displays. Or perhaps should I say, Spielberg brought this 1956 Philip K. Dick authoritarian disquisition short story to the global masses in the form of his third best film, Minority Report. Originally and quite evidently planned as a direct sequel to Total Recall (another Dick novel), this first collaboration between Tom Cruise and Spielberg is a thrilling future-infused noir that fits right in with Blade Runner, The Matrix, and a plethora of anime—the primary two coming to mind being Ghost in a Shell and the underrated Psycho-Pass. The film features quite a cast, Cruise, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, Neal McDonough, Peter Stormare, and the recently departed legend, Max von Sydow. It’s a terrific adaptation, and one of the films I recall the most from my childhood viewings, mainly because of the eye sequence.
Although the film wraps up the pseudo-dystopian neo-noir in a more optimistic light than the source material, I do appreciate the change of the precog names to Agatha, Arthur, and Dashiell: the three names slyly altered in reference to famed literary crime authors, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Dashiell Hammett. [Lee]
My favorite Stephen King book of those I’ve read so far, Needful Things follows a town terrorized by the mysterious and demonic Leland Gaunt. As with most of King’s work during that period, it was quickly adapted into a feature film with Max von Sydow in the villainous role. Like the novel, the film follows many of the townsfolk of Needful Things, but Gaunt is the overseer turning them on one another, slowly but surely.
While the film itself isn’t the best thing in the world, Sydow is wonderful as Gaunt. He’s able to walk a fine tightrope between magnetizing and sinister, and adds a dose of comedy here and there to fit with the film’s 90s cheese. His performance makes the film worth watching and every scene with him sees him firing on all cylinders. [Jen]
Lars Von Trier’s Europa is a slow train ride to certain doom. Following an American by the name of Leopold Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr) trying to get work in post-Nazi Germany immediately after World War II, it’s the story of a train conductor on tracks headed straight to a kind of purgatory. It’s grim, but with a certain beauty to it, and the moral complications of the story cut through the black of night. It’s nocturnal, set in the dead of night as the world sleeps, spare for our cast of mysterious night travellers.
The traditional love story at the heart of the story is in stark contrast with the nihilistic world it is set in. We may be in the midst of an ominous American military occupation, and threads of the past beliefs held up, but there’s a sweeping romance creeping in. The film is decidedly anti American, but the moral gray area ends up never giving it a side to connect with. [Sarah]
Picking just one performance to highlight from prolific Swedish actor Max Von Sydow’s career is difficult, but none received the same level of exposure as that of his titular role in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. It opened to a phenomenal reception from moviegoers on release in 1973, becoming a must-see movie event, with audiences drawn to the spiritual shocker like moths to a flame. Its quality was such that its power has endured through the decades, and is still rated by many as one of the all-time greatest horror films to this day. The Exorcist’s ability to affect its audience in the way that it did hinged, crucially, on Von Sydow’s performance as Father Merrin.
On its basest level, The Exorcist is about the eternal battle between good and evil, and Merrin represents the good, a beacon of light amidst the darkness, the only hope of salvation against the foul demonic presence inside of Regan. Von Sydow endowed Merrin with a stoic righteousness that could only be earned through half a century of divine conflict set within the frailty of a 79 year old battle-worn frame. The fact that Von Sydow was just 44 years old at the time of filming is simply mind-boggling, so much so that I had mentally placed him as decades older than he actually was for many years. It’s a special type of actor that can transform themselves in the manner that he did here, the projected experience alone more convincing than the most expensive make-up and special effects. The Exorcist required a performance of great stature and strength to stand in opposition to the blasphemous obscenities of the demon king Pazuzu, and it feels like only Max Von Sydow could have delivered it. [Chris Barnes]