RIP Max von Sydow (1929-2020)

von Sydow

This is one of the main obituaries I’ve always dreaded writing. I knew it would come one day, but I always hoped it wouldn’t. To state it simply: I love Max von Sydow. How could a lover of foreign cinema not? He was Ingmar Bergman’s go-to leading man and he became an international star known all throughout the world. He was even a presence in Hollywood which is something that doesn’t happen to many foreign film actors no matter how big of a star they are. Not only did von Sydow have the impressive film credits to back him up, but he was also incredible to watch. His hauntingly sad film persona has always made a mark on cinema and on viewers in particular. There was always something about him that we could root for even when he wasn’t playing a hero.

Seventh Seal

Alf Sjöberg gave von Sydow his film debut in Only a Mother (1949) and he also cast him two years later in his classic Miss Julie (1951). These were small roles, but being in the cast of a film from one of Sweden’s most well-known directors was something to be proud of. His next notable film was the lead role in what would become his signature movie, The Seventh Seal (1957). In the film, von Sydow plays a knight that wanders through a landscape covered in the death of the Black Plague. In order to escape his own death, he plays chess with Death himself. The movie is on every single “Best Movies Ever Made” list in existence and it remains many people’s introductions to Bergman as a director.


The partnership with Bergman wouldn’t end with The Seventh Seal, von Sydow continued to act in the films of the noted director. His films with Bergman include Wild Strawberries (1958), Brink of Life (1958), The Magician (1958), The Virgin Spring (1960), Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1963), Hour of the Wolf (1968), Shame (1968), The Passion of Anna (1969), and The Touch (1971). His roles were various across these classics. For instance, he had a small role in Winter Light, but certainly leaves a strong impression on the viewer. He is perfectly cast as a con artist in The Magician (1958). He plays a man beyond his years with a vengeful side in The Virgin Spring. He is pathetic and weak in Shame. In all of these films, he gave something. Whether in a small role like in Wild Strawberries or a lead role like in Hour of the Wolf, he was a sight to behold. His way of acting was universal and he commanded the screen while also feeling connected to his co-stars.

Greatest Story Ever Told

Naturally, von Sydow made more noted films for directors other than Bergman. He played the prestigious role of Jesus Christ in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and a missionary in Hawaii (1966), both films from Hollywood. Despite becoming a name in Hollywood and starring in movies there, he still remained a part of Swedish cinema with roles in Here Is Your Life (1966) and in the duo-logy of The Emigrants (1971) and The New Land (1972) opposite frequent co-star Liv Ullmann. The Jan Troell films about the American Dream from the viewpoint of Swedish immigrants remains two of Sweden’s best remembered films. Von Sydow is gives off his relatable, down-to-earth side in these films and creates a protagonist that audiences can cheer for.

Three Days of the Condor

One of von Sydow’s best-remembered roles came from the horror classic The Exorcist (1973). He also makes a good villain in Three Days of the Condor (1975). Still, von Sydow’s 1970s and 1980s Hollywood credits were more of a mixed bag than the classics he made in Sweden. For example, he played Emperor Ming in the ultra-cheesy film adaptation of Flash Gordon (1980) which has a cult following. He also played the role of the king in Conan the Barbarian (1982) starring pre-Terminator Arnold Schwarzenegger which, also, has a passionate following. He also had roles in Dune (1984), Minority Report (2002), Shutter Island (2010), and Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015). While many of these films either gained a cult following or were big blockbusters, von Sydow still gave his best work overseas.

Pelle the Conqueror

Von Sydow became one of the rare foreign film performers to be nominated for an Oscar for Pelle the Conqueror (1987). The film offered von Sydow another role as a Swedish immigrant, this time coming to a Danish island rather than America. One of his better films from his later period was in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) which is clearly one of Allen’s Ingmar Bergman-inspired films which is probably why it benefits so much from von Sydow’s presence. Von Sydow also got to narrate the noted Lars von Trier film, Europa (1991). He was even in a supporting role in the famed French film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007). Clearly, he still had a lot of artsy films under his belt even in his later years.

von Sydow 3

Von Sydow was nominated one more time after Pelle the Conqueror, for Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011). While the movie is noted for being a bad movie to receive Academy Award nominations, no one seems to dislike von Sydow’s work in the movie. Outside of his impressive film career, von Sydow also did work in video game voice acting and television shows. While von Sydow made some of the artiest films ever made, his work in blockbusters and noted Hollywood productions showcase that he was a good presence no matter what work he was given. Therefore, he is one of the few older stars who is actually recognizable to a wide variety of viewers today. His name will live on, but not only that, so will his sorrowful, gazing eyes whether in the role of the faithful knight or in the part of an immigrant dedicated to a better life no matter what. He was always excellent.






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