Memories of Max Von Sydow

“Queen’s Gambit”, Eat Your Heart Out!

Max Von Sydow (b.1929) was 90 when he passed away a month ago and I was surprised to find myself tearing up at the news. The scope of Von Sydow’s career was mind-boggling. He was a true international star, and, rare among European actors, he managed to carve out a long-lasting place for himself in Hollywood. Most come to America and manage to appear in a handful of movies at most. Von Sydow appeared in English language productions over half a century, mixed in with scores of European credits. Hollywood being Hollywood, Von Sydow played not only Scandinavians, but also Germans, Russians, Jews, extra-terrestrials, and mythological creatures. He had an amazing, resonant voice, and a bug-eyed, toothy visage that I venture to call ugly — somewhat repellant, even. He also had one of those physiognomies that seems old before its time. When I first started noticing him in films in the ’70s and ’80s, I would have assumed he was already in his eighties, where he was actually three decades younger than that.Nneedless to say, a large proportion of his roles were villains, at least in American films.

The son of a folklore professor at Sweden’s Lund Univeristy, Von Sydow began his career in the theatre. One of his first films was a 1951 adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie. In The Wolf at the Door (1986) he would later play Strindberg opposite Donald Sutherland’s Paul Gaughin. At the Malmö City Theatre, he began a close artistic relationship with Ingmar Bergman, who starred him in nearly a dozen films, including The Seventh Seal (1957), Wild Strawberries (1957), The Magician (1958), The Virgin Spring (1960) and Through a Glass Darkly (1961).

Von Sydow’s international reputation from these films finally brought him to Hollywood. He got his toes wet here playing Jesus in George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and a missionary in the 1966 adaptation of James Michener’s Hawaii. With William Friedkin’s 1973 smash hit The Exorcist he made his first major mark in the U.S. Other memorable stuff included Three Days of the Condor (1975), Voyage of the Damned (1976), Hurricane (1979), Flash Gordon (1980, as Ming the Merciless!), Victory (1981) Conan the Barbarian (1982), the hilarious comedy Strange Brew (1983), the Bond film Never Say Never Again (1983), Dreamscape (1984), David Lynch’s Dune (1984), Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Pelle the Conqueor (1987), Awakenings (1990), A Kiss Before Dying (1991), Wim Winders’ Until the End of the World (1991), Stephen King’s Needful Things (1993), Judge Dredd (1995), Hamsun (1996), Dario Argento’s Sleepless (2001), Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002), the 2005 version of Heidi, Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010), Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood (2010), Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), as well as TV work like The Tudors (2009) and Game of Thrones (2016),

This is a legacy that transcends nations, genres, and tastes, from the highest art to the lowest comedy. I’ve seen most of what I’ve listed — but of course that leaves about 150 things I haven’t seen. At any rate, Max Von Sydow has finally followed that Cowled Angel of Death to what lies beyond. We who remain have much to remember him by.