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The Swedish star immortalised in two of cinema’s most enduring images

Max von Sydow and Bengt Ekerot The Seventh Seal - Credit: ullstein bild via Getty Images

CHARLIE CONNELLY on the astonishing film CV of Max von Sydow.

In the summer of 1959 Max von Sydow was attending the Cannes Film Festival. Two years earlier The Seventh Seal, his first high-profile starring role and arguably the best of his collaborations with director Ingmar Bergman, had picked up the Cannes jury’s Special Prize but this time he wasn’t there to promote a film. He’d just turned 30 and recently wrapped on another Bergman project, The Virgin Spring, which the following year would win the Academy award for Best Foreign Language Film. If he thought this visit to Cannes would be a peaceful interlude, he was mistaken.

Six months earlier The Seventh Seal had been released in the US to positive, if occasionally slightly baffled reviews and decent box office for a European art film. Hence von Sydow was bemused to find himself approached by a succession of American film executives dangling the possibility of a move to Hollywood.

“I told them I had no intention of starting an international career,” he recalled. “I told them I was perfectly content in Sweden.”

That wasn’t enough to arrest a string of offers that continued to arrive as a result of a remarkable performance as Artemius Block, the 14th century knight returning from the Crusades questioning his faith, searching for the innate goodness of the human soul and playing chess with Death in an attempt to prolong his own life while saving those of his travelling companions. ‘Iconic’ is an overused word but it’s justified when it comes to the monochrome image of Block and Death sitting either side of a chess board with a menacing sea beyond under a darkly cloudy sky, von Sydow’s gaunt features all shadow and light compared to the panstick white of Bengt Ekerot’s Grim Reaper.

Among the offers he turned down were the title role in the 1962 Bond film Dr No and Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music, but finally, in 1965 he was offered a role he didn’t feel he could reject – Jesus Christ in the star-studded epic The Greatest Story Ever Told. Block and Christ might not have had much in common on the face of it, but what appealed to the Swedish actor was an opportunity to again explore what he’d brought to his disillusioned Crusader knight: a nuanced, deeply felt portrayal of tortuous inner conflict.

“There are glimpses of Mr von Sydow, playing the role of Christ, that light the huge screen with revelation of the raptures and torments of a soul,” said the New York Times of a performance characteristically underplayed, tiny gestures and fleeting expressions conveying the psychological turmoil of his character yet still managing to touch cinemagoers right at the back of the theatre.

“I think I have achieved through the years a certain simplicity and economy of expression,” he told an interviewer during the 1990s. “If you are new to a sport, for example, you use too many muscles. The same thing is true in acting because you want to express everything, all the time. But you exhaust the audience. If you have a line and you emphasize too many words the audience won’t get the meaning. You have to emphasize just what’s important in the line, and the same thing with character. Centre only on that or the audience won’t see anything, because there’s too much.”

Jesus Christ would have been a challenge to any actor and a role very easy to overplay but von Sydow looked beyond the broad sweep of the character, beyond the mythology and reverence surrounding the most significant historical figure of the previous 2,000 years, and gave a subtly human performance.

When 15 years later William Friedkin directed von Sydow as Father Merrin in The Exorcist he found him struggling to invoke the name of the Holy Trinity with any conviction during the exorcism scene. Between takes Friedkin took the actor to one side and asked what the problem was.

“I just don’t believe in God,” he said. When Friedkin pointed out that he’d played Jesus Christ himself, von Sydow replied, “Yes, but I played him as a man. I did not play him as the Son of God or a man of God, I played him as a man.”

Although he’s remembered chiefly for The Seventh Seal and The Exorcist von Sydow’s screen CV runs far deeper, with roles in a string of productions from high art to high camp. There was an unforgettable Karl Oskar in The Emigrants and its sequel The New Land, King Osric opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan the Barbarian, Blofeld in Never Say Never Again, the SS officer struggling with his sense of sporting integrity in Escape to Victory, the tormented Lassefar in Pelle the Conqueror, which brought him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, and Ming the Merciless in the riotous 1980 revival of Flash Gordon. Towards the end of his life he was Lor San Tekka in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Three Eyed Raven in Game of Thrones. He even turned up in The Simpsons: not bad for someone who was in his mid-30s before giving in to the overtures of Hollywood.

Yet for all the high profile roles, to which he always brought a subtle gravitas even in the most commercial productions, von Sydow will always be most closely associated with his collaborations with Ingmar Bergman in their native Sweden.

He was born Carl-Adolf von Sydow in Lund, the son of a professor of Scandinavian folklore already in his fifties when his son was born. “When I was 20, he was 70, and on his 70th birthday he had a little stroke. Small strokes followed for the next four years. That changed him. And I regret that I was not more curious about him at that time. All the questions I would like to ask today, I haven’t asked.”

Being the son of older parents made von Sydow a solitary child who soon fell in love first with cinema, then theatre.

“I remember a few of the first films I saw – I couldn’t distinguish them from reality,” he said in 1989. “I didn’t understand how films were made and I was fascinated by them. I can’t remember any of the actors because to me the characters were the real people.”

He adopted the name Max during his military service – “after the war Adolf was not a good name” – taken from an imaginary flea he employed as part of a comedy turn in an army revue, then trained for the stage at Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theatre. He moved to Malmö’s Municipal Theatre in 1955 where Bergman was the chief director. The Seventh Seal was made between theatrical productions of plays such as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

The Seventh Seal was an experiment made on a low budget, a ridiculous budget, equivalent to $40,000,” said von Sydow. “Of course, we had no idea then that it would become an international classic but we knew it was an important film. The suspense is on another level, it’s there from the beginning as soon as Death is introduced. Say you’re playing a scene on stage: the moment an actor opens a drawer, picks up a gun and puts it on the table the content of the conversation, even if it’s exactly the same conversation, changes, you don’t even have to point the gun or shoot it. So the moment Bergman introduces Death, the movie becomes charged.”

In all von Sydow made 11 films for Bergman on top of several theatre productions and the two remained close for the rest of their lives. When he accepted the role in The Greatest Story Ever Told it was against Bergman’s advice: he didn’t need to leave Sweden. Indeed, for all his gradual acceptance of Hollywood following the success of The Seventh Seal von Sydow felt he suffered from a lack of directors’ imagination in the wake of working with the visionary Bergman.

“I wish I could have a wider choice of roles in American productions, parts that aren’t centred on the very fact that this is a foreigner,” he said in 1983. “America is a country full of accents so it wouldn’t be strange if I played something other than a hired gunman from abroad or a German scientist. But in this country, producers are, of course, cowards, and they only offer you exact copies of roles you successfully performed before.”

Despite this frustration von Sydow still managed to embrace almost every genre of cinema in a way almost impossible to imagine for any other modern actor. Thanks to The Seventh Seal’s chess game and the poster design for The Exorcist he is also immortalised in two of cinema’s most enduring images.

As his character Papinou said in 2007’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly looking in the mirror while being shaved by his son, “God, they don’t make them like me anymore”.

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