The world of cinema lost one of its most respected and revered figures today when news broke that Swedish actor Max von Sydow had died at the age of 90 at his home in Provence, France.
von Sydow’s cinematic career began way back in 1949 at the age of 20 when he stared in the Swedish film Only A Mother by Torment (1944) director Alf Sjoberg. But it was a film made 8-years later in 1957 that would make von Sydow a household name in Sweden and earn him a place among the greats in the cinematic canon; the breathtaking masterpiece that is The Seventh Seal by the visionary director Ingmar Bergman. You can read a previous piece I wrote about Bergman and his movies The Virgin Spring (1960) & Winter Light (1963), both of which featured his great muse and favourite actor Max von Sydow here.
von Sydow stared in over 100 films during his 71 year career but it was his time working with Bergman from the 1950s onward that made his name on the international scene. von Sydow and Bergman made 11 films together and each deserves its own analysis, which will be forthcoming shortly.
Beyond his work with Bergman, von Sydow is perhaps best known for his role in the controversial horror masterpiece The Exorcist (1973). Given his reputation at the time it was a career risk for von Sydow to appear in the William Friedkin’s religious horror but the risk paid off. His turn as the devout, demon-battling elderly priest Father Merrin earned him a whole new fan base.
In 1980 he stared as Ming The Merciless in the camp-catastrophe Flash Gordon. The less said about that the better. Even the greats make mistakes. His next major film appearance was four-years later when he appeared in a sci-fi movie called Dune an adaption of the popular 1965 novel of the same name by Frank Herbert alongside a young Kyle MacLachlan (Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet). Dune of course was directed by a then little-known filmmaker called David Lynch.
Other well known for von Sydow during this time roles include his two outings alongside the late Robin Williams in the comics dramatic films Awakenings (1990) and the often unfairly maligned What Dreams May Come (1998).
von Sydow’s career continued into the new millennium and Millennials may know him best as the Bran-loving ‘Three-eyed Raven’ on Game of Thrones. His role on that show earned the then 80-something year old actor a Emmy nomination. In 2010 he appeared as Dr. Naehring in the criminally underrated Scorsese psychological-thriller Shutter Island alongside Leanardo di Caprio, Mark Ruffalo & Sir Ben Kingsley. Another big role for von Sydow came in 2002 when he stared with Tom Cruise as Director Burgess in the Steven Spielberg’s futuristic-crime thriller Minority Report.
During his career von Sydow earned himself two Oscar nominations. In 1987 he was nominated for playing Swedish immigrant father Lasse Karlsson in the 1850s epic drama Pelle The Conqueror but lost out on the Best Actor award to Paul Newman for his role in The Color of Money. He was beaten to the post again in 2011 after he received a Best Supporting Actor nod for his excellent performance in the Tom Hanks & Sandra Bullock film Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close about a boy with Aspergers living in New York city. The winner this time was fellow verteran Hollywood star Christopher Plummer (The Sound of Music, The Insider) for his turn in Mike Mills rom-com Beginners. Needless to say the latter result raised some eyebrows.
von Sydow’s legacy in the sci-fi community grew even more when he appeared as Lor San Tekka, the Force devotee and old friend of Luke Skywalker in the opening scene of the first Star Wars sequel The Force Awakens (2015). I will never forgive Kylo Ren for what he did to poor Lor shortly after.
His final on screen appearance came in 2018 when he appeared in the French-Belgian WWII action movie Kursk with Colin Firth (Kingsmen, Downton Abbey) and the late Michael Nyqvist (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo).
Max von Sydow will go down in cinema history as one of the all time greats. A actor who challenged expectations at every turn, took risks at key points in his career and who could jump from genre to genre giving performances ranging from the eloquently beautiful to the absurd and everything in between. Few actors can say they have worked with the likes of Spielberg, Lynch, Scorsese, Abrams, von Trier & Ingmar Bergman. All these directors have unique styles and are make very different films from each other but all of them shared an admiration for von Sydow and knew he was versatile enough to do exactly what they wanted.
von Sydow leaves behind a legacy of dedication, passion and skill. From contemplating the meaning of existence with Death himself on the frozen shores of Sweden to wandering the wilds of Westeros with a broken prince, Max von Sydow’s career spanned decades, and while the roles changed and the years aged him one thing remained – his domination of the screen. Young aspiring actors, watch and learn.
R.I.P. Max von Sydow: April 10 1929 – March 8 2020.
Last modified: 9th March 2020