Staring Down Death: The Singular Career of Max von Sydow

Imagine Julia Roberts being asked to charm without her smile. Or Paul Newman bereft of those baby blues. That's the kind of handicap given to Max von Sydow in last year's Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Playing a mute, he never had recourse to his most distinctive asset: his stentorian voice. No matter. Not only did the 83-year-old von Sydow deliver a shattering, justly Oscar-nominated performance (he's exquisitely understated in an overheated film), but he also reminded us of the other varied and singular gifts he has brought to world cinema for nearly six decades: his downslope grin, hunched-giant's grace, impish azure eyes. He also demonstrated ease in collaboration, in building scenes in tandem with a fellow actor. Surely, it's no coincidence von Sydow's only two Oscar nominations (Pelle the Conqueror is the other) were for performances in which his generosity couldn't be taken for granted, being that his co-stars were young amateurs.

There has never been a film career quite like von Sydow's, which BAMcinématek's frisky 22-film retrospective (playing through December 14) ably represents. He has been in nearly 150 films since 1949—since the Truman administration—in productions for a dozen different countries in nearly as many languages. He has been a headlining international star as well as a card-punching Hollywood character actor. He has been typecast as both a tweedy effete and a glowering giant, and has played Jesus, a serial killer, and a Bond villain. The BAM retro incorporates it all, from his breakthrough performance opposite Death in the 1957 classic The Seventh Seal to his beer-battered electrocution at the hands of a couple of hosers in 1983's Strange Brew. (That film's best prank, better than the incongruity of the performance itself, is its opening-credit punchline: "And Max von Sydow as Brewmeister Smith.")

Actor-director collaborations don't come any richer or more storied than the one between fellow Swedes von Sydow and Ingmar Bergman (four of their 11 films will screen in the series). Just 28 when they made The Seventh Seal, von Sydow was already a literal embodiment of Bergman's art. His medieval knight Antonius Block is as mannered and restrained as Bergman's proscenium-based compositions, but his lantern-like face also flickers with unbound rage, terror, and joy. Although captured in black-and-white, von Sydow has never looked blonder, nor has his pronounced underbite ever been more defiantly exploited. In The Virgin Spring, Bergman's luminously shot, Kurosawa-like morality tale from just three years later, he's an aging, entitled patriarch who has awoken in the last act to vengeance and spiritual anguish, articulated as he's faced away from us in long shot, all angled back, craned neck, and barking, bruised baritone. Yet it's in a film by another Swedish auteur—Jan Troell's exhaustive epic The Emigrants—that von Sydow becomes no less than the father of Scandinavian migration, carrying his farmhand family on strapping shoulders across sea, land, and lake before staking his claim on American soil.

Once stateside for real, the six-foot-four actor was often treated less like a leading man than a better-bred heir to Boris Karloff. After his impassioned portrait of Christ was lost amid George Stevens's all-star ensemble in 1965's The Greatest Story Ever Told, it wasn't until 1973's The Exorcist—as another charismatic—that von Sydow was granted a meaty turn in Hollywood. Buried under mounds of aging prosthetics that blanch in the harsh spotlighting, his Father Merrin is a doomed icon of the Old World, his thundering of "the power of Christ compels you" feeble against William Friedkin's pop-horror deviltry. By contrast, he's the dark heart of Sydney Pollack's deft amorality tale Three Days of the Condor, offering his immaculately appointed assassin's services to the highest bidder—much like the paycheck collector the actor was himself becoming, appearing in 18 films from 1982 to 1985 alone. (He's still undaunted in his eighties, earning seven screen credits in the past three years.)

He's worked with John Huston (The Kremlin Letter), Steven Spielberg (Minority Report), Martin Scorsese (Shutter Island), and Bertrand Tavernier (whose dystopian drama Death Watch was a revelation to this writer). But after Bergman, his most loyal employer might well have been embattled Italian mogul Dino de Laurentiis, who recruited him for three straight early '80s fantasies: Mike Hodges's Flash Gordon, John Milius's Conan the Barbarian, and David Lynch's Dune. While his turns in the latter two are glorified cameos, he goes all out in Hodges's trashily visionary valentine to the quaintly futuristic prewar comic and serials. From beneath a rubbery bald pate, a stick-on Fu Manchu, and ample eye shadow, he plays the race-baiting caricature Ming the Merciless as an inexplicably Euro-accented megalomaniacal creepazoid for the ages, presaging not only his own cat-stroking Bond baddie in the bloated (and just plain bad) Never Say Never Again, but also Anthony Hopkins's entire Hollywood career.

But von Sydow's powers might never have been better exploited than in his three scenes in Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters. As Frederick, an aging artist enamored of the younger, less cultured Lee (Barbara Hershey), he's a walking matryoshka doll of authority, desire, dependence, and desperation. First he awkwardly embraces Lee as if caught between playing her lover, father, and child, and then, in a devastating four-minute swan song to their affair, goes from condescending intellectual ("Can you imagine the level of a mind that watches wrestling?") to defeated and abandoned ("I told you one day you'd leave me for a younger man"). He bellows with that von Sydow voice and glowers with that von Sydow visage, but it's his full-bodied frailty that really registers here, most apparent, as it was in The Virgin Spring nearly three decades prior, when he's faced away from us, his back curved toward his co-star, his reddened neck seizing with every registered offense. "It's a question of acting the part of a broken man, not of being him," Bergman said of von Sydow in 1968, and by that measure, it's hard to fathom any man acting the part any better.

 
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