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Remembering Max von Sydow By the road

Max von Sydow

Today, a headline in The Independent read, “The Exorcist and Star Wars actor Max von Sydow dies aged 90.” That prompted me to write a piece of my own. Born Carl Adolf von Sydow in 1929, he attended The Royal Dramatic Theatre’s acting school from 1948-1951. During this period, he had minor roles in two famous films by Alf Sjöberg. The first was Only a mother (Bara en mor 1949), where Eva Dahlbeck starred as Rya-Rya.

The second one was more famous abroad. Miss Julie (Fröken Julie1951), based on August Strindberg’s classic play, won the Grand Prix in Cannes the same year (shared with Miracolo a Milano). In 1954 he moved to Malmö and started acting in the Municipal theatre there, not least under the direction of Ingmar Bergman, in plays by Ibsen, Molière and others. In 1957 they would collaborate on a film for the first time in The seventh seal (Det sjunde inseglet)

Featuring the iconic chess game that crusader Antonius Block plays with Death, the film became an instant success and catapulted the director and actor to world recognition. Already the same year, Bergman released Wild Strawberries (Smultronstället 1957), where von Sydow had a minor part. They would make another nine films together, notably The Magician (Ansiktet 1958), Through a glass darkly (Såsom i en spegel 1961) and the underrated A Passion (En Passion 1969).

There was actually supposed to be a twelfth collaboration between the two. The role of Bishop Vergerus in Fanny and Alexander (1982) was specifically written for von Sydow, but his agent asked for a salary that wasn’t possible to pay in a Swedish production at the time. The actor later said that it was the biggest regret of his acting career.

Entering the visual world of Jan Troell

Another essential Swedish collaboration was with the tremendous visualist Jan Troell. Even though von Sydow’s international career had started with the role of Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), he still agreed to make a 30-minute short with the unknown director. The following year he had a small part in the ambitious epic Here is your life (Här har du ditt liv 1966). The most famous role he played for Troell was as Karl-Oskar in the sweeping dilogy, The Emigrants (Utvandrarna 1971) and The new land (Nybyggarna 1972). Based on the widely read tetralogy written by Wilhelm Moberg, the films came with high expectations.

Max von Sydow
Max von Sydow in The Flight of the Eagle.

Even though the films received mixed reviews in Sweden, few had anything negative to say about the interpretation of Karl-Oskar. Subsequent collaborations between the two include the majestic Flight of the Eagle (Ingenjör Andrées luftfärd 1982), which depicts Engineer André’s attempt to be the first man on the North Pole, and Hamsun (1996), where the actor was an impressive presence as the controversial, titular, character. That is obvious, even without subtitles.

YouTube video
Max von Sydow in Hamsun.

Max von Sydow Beyond Sweden

As the opening quote suggests, von Sydow’s career would, more often than not, take part outside Sweden. Looking back at his catalogue, one discovers an extraordinary range, with filmmakers as different as Woody Allen, Sydney Pollack, David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, Bertrand Tavernier, Dario Argento and countless others. Even though he claimed that he was mostly cast as villains or priests, the roles were actually impressively different from each other. A vulnerable character, such as in the Oscar-nominated role as Lassefar in Bille August’s Pelle, the conqueror (Pelle erobreren 1987) with his trembling hand trying to comfort his son, is unforgettable.

On the other hand, the role of Emperor Ming in Flash Gordon (1980) tapped into other aspects of his range, even including a sense of humour. Lars von Trier utilised his commanding voice as the literally hypnotic narrator in Europa (1991). Whatever the role required, he delivered with a consummate mastery of the craft, and more than once, he rose above the material. A clear example was the film that would render him his second Oscar nomination, Extremely loud & incredibly close (2011). A personal favourite of mine is his role as Joubert in Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor (1975)

YouTube video
Max von Sydow as Joubert in Three Days of the Condor.

Finally, ending up by the road

With all these characters in mind, there was still one part that he dreamed of doing for 25 years, but it never seemed to happen. It was the role of Bai in Herman Bang’s novel Ved vejen. (By the road). Von Sydow was hoping that someone would make the film so he could finally play his dream role. While shooting The Flight of the Eagle, he mentioned the idea to Danish producer Bo Christensen. He suggested that Max should direct the film instead, with Danish actors.

That is how his only directorial effort came into being. The film was called Katinka outside the Nordic countries and had its premiere at Un Certain Regard at Cannes in 1988. Incidentally, the same year as Pelle, the conqueror won the Palme d’or. It would go on to win the Guldbagge award for best Swedish film and direction in 1989.

Shot by Sven Nykvist, with a cast including Ghita Nörby, Tammi Öst and Ole Ernst in the role of Bai, the film is a little-known gem. Huus is the new foreman who arrives in a small village, befriending Bai and his wife, Katinka, gradually falling in love with the latter.

The film is classical in style, but there is a rare subtlety at work here in the telling of the love story that cannot be, as well as in the cinematography and set design. The opening with a marriage hymn being sung in an unusual context had me hooked immediately, and the film never lost its grip on me. It deals with mourning and sensuality with clarity and maturity—a film to check out for sure.

Max von Sydow would actually emigrate for real to France, and he became a naturalised French citizen in 2002. In the process, he lost his Swedish citizenship. That kind of bureaucracy mattered little to Swedes, though, and he will always be remembered for his outstanding contribution to cinema and the theatre in Sweden and abroad.

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