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“God, they don’t make them like me anymore,” Max von Sydow tells Mathieu Amalric, playing his son, in Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and there’s not a truer line in the film.
It takes some kind of actor to be able to play both Jesus and Satan (with Ming the Merciless thrown in for good measure), but von Sydow was such a man. Imposingly tall, entirely credible as royalty and peasant, at ease in several languages and a walking definition of gravitas, the Swedish actor, who died over the weekend at 90, provided heft and legitimacy to every film he ever appeared in (not least of them Strange Brew). His was a long and exceptional career.
For the masses around the world, this virtually accent-free performer will be most immediately remembered as the title character in The Exorcist, the priest who engages the growling, profane and levitating girl in an epic battle of good and evil. Just as his returning Crusader played chess with Death in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal — which for many of a certain generation was among the first foreign-language films we ever saw, and one that defined what an “art film” was — his Father Merrin in William Friedkin’s 1973 blockbuster was a definitive character in a very different kind of portrait of good versus evil.
It has been said of von Sydow that he automatically made every film that he was in better than it would have been otherwise, which helps explain why so many great directors sought him out, often on multiple occasions. Bergman used him 11 times, perhaps most notably in 1959 in The Virgin Spring, in which he forcefully played a father avenging the rape and murder of his daughter in medieval times.
Another director to whom the actor was consistently loyal was Jan Troell, who collaborated with von Sydow on seven films. The most celebrated of these was the saga that took two films to tell, The Emigrants and The New Land, in which the actor and Liv Ullmann starred as a couple making their way through many difficulties as they moved from Scandinavia to Minnesota in the 1800s. It’s one of the most honest, detailed and credible immigrant stories on film. (Rather less successful was the same director’s sadly misguided handling of his one stab at a Hollywood super-production, Hurricane, in which von Sydow had the nominal lead in the thankless role of a priest stuck in Tahiti.)
For the first 15 years of his career, the actor worked exclusively in Scandinavia, refusing all offers from Hollywood and elsewhere. But director George Stevens was adamant that von Sydow was the only actor fit to play Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told and finally wore him down. The ponderously paced spectacular was an epic flop, but there is nonetheless a resilience and integrity to the actor’s performance that rivets the attention; he was uncommonly tall and physically powerful compared to anyone else who ever played the role, his stride purposeful, his belief commandingly voiced. I’m not inclined to watch the whole film again just to prove a point, but it seemed to me that the actor never — or barely — blinks in the course of his performance, which I took as a subtle suggestion of an otherworldly connection.
Once his international career was launched, von Sydow for some time alternated between religious and villainous parts. He played men of the cloth in Hawaii and, in his most famous American role, Father Merrin. Although in his early 40s when he played the character, he was made up to look 70ish, and from this point on was often cast as older characters, repeatedly as bad guys in international thrillers (Three Days of the Condor, Minority Report, as Blofeld in Never Say Never Again) — and, most rewardingly, as an older mate cast off by Barbara Hershey in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters.
But the saving grace was that there was always Europe to go back to, and some of his best work came in this later period. Twice he triumphed working with Danish director Bille August in two Cannes Palme d’Or-winning dramas, Pelle the Conqueror and The Best Intentions, the latter with a script by Bergman and in which von Sydow played Bergman’s father.
But in my view, the actor’s greatest late-career achievement was his study of the deluded Nobel prize-winning author Kurt Hamsun in Troell’s 1996 film Hamsun. Incomprehensibly, the aged Norwegian writer became one of the few European intellectuals to support Hitler, and von Sydow’s performance brilliantly traces the delusions, mental contortions and ultimate bewilderment of this once-distinguished man. For anyone keen to experience von Sydow’s mature actorly mastery, Hamsun would be a great place to either start or finish.
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