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The Max von Sydow Syllabus

The Swedish actor—who passed away on Sunday at the age of 90—brought unparalleled skill and solemn profundity to each of his characters. These are the nine best performances of his immense career.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“He is a skillful tactician, but I have not yet lost one piece,” the knight Antonius Block declares in The Seventh Seal, taunting the formidable opponent at the opposite end of the chessboard—no less than Death itself. Ingmar Bergman’s existentially inflected 1957 masterpiece is one of the most famous—and parodied—movies of all time, and its metaphysical conceit of a man staring down his own mortality wouldn’t have worked if the actor playing the tragic hero hadn’t been able to sell the idea that he believed that he could outflank the inevitable. Tall and lean beneath close-cropped blond hair that gives him the look of a religious icon, Block looks and speaks like somebody imbued with divine purpose, and yet the flaws pile up beneath the glimmering, armored surface—chief among them a pride that’s at once inspiring and all too human.

In some ways, Max von Sydow never lived down his star-making performance in The Seventh Seal, which made him immortal in spite of the onscreen game’s outcome. “In Hollywood, they usually cast me as villains or priests,” he once joked, acknowledging that the severity and piety of his collaborations with Bergman—which extended into the 1970s and made them one of the great actor-director tandems of all time—kept him in perpetual consideration for a narrow range of roles even as his other gifts (especially as a comedian) were kept mostly hidden. He played Jesus Christ in 1965’s The Greatest Story Ever Told and Satan (maybe) in Needful Things. Your favorite could never, didn’t have the range, etc.

Von Sydow’s evolution from a bright light in the secluded, specific context of Swedish theater (the milieu where he first encountered Bergman in the 1950s) into a kind of international crossover arthouse star—a status clinched when William Friedkin paid homage by casting him in the title role of The Exorcist—was exemplary in a century when filmmaking became an increasingly global proposition. By the 1980s, von Sydow’s fame looped all the way from the niche renown of foreign imports to winking, affectionate supporting turns in Hollywood product—gestures of respect from directors like Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg, and Martin Scorsese, all of whom had grown up in thrall to The Seventh Seal and relished the opportunity to use its star.

Late in The Seventh Seal, after Death inevitably takes the upper hand in the chess game, he asks his stoic opponent whether he believes that he’s accomplished anything meaningful by playing and losing. It’s a devastating question, and the way that von Sydow plays the knight’s response—at once doubtful and defiant, beaten but unbowed—offers an example of the actor’s finely honed technical brilliance as well as the ineffable quality he possessed beyond skill, which dissolved the gap between the person onscreen and the audience watching him until we felt his impulses from the inside out. What followed from there was a host of astounding roles, comprising an altogether unparalleled career. Upon the news of his passing on Sunday at the age of 90, it’s only right to recall some of those roles.

Shame (1968)

Picking between von Sydow’s movies with Bergman—a dozen in all, counting their work for television—is difficult verging on impossible, but he was never more compelling than as a musician caught in the crossfire of (an unnamed) civil war in 1968’s nightmarishly allegorical Shame. As the film opens, von Sydow’s Jan is living on a remote island with his wife Eva (Liv Ullmann), cut off from a civilization that rumor has it is on the verge of collapse; their isolation is self-willed and a source of debate within their quiet, childless household. Gradually, they become involved in a conflict whose vague parameters intersect with the rifts in their relationship, conveying Bergman’s thesis about the personal being political even as the actors’ performances override any sense of intellectual distance. Von Sydow inhabits Jan’s cynicism and cowardice so deeply that the performance is like a photo negative of his noble work in The Seventh Seal; if Bergman’s film feels perched on the verge of apocalypse, von Sydow’s finely shadowed work as a man without real principles obscures the glimmers of hope elsewhere in the frame.

The Exorcist (1973)

In the prologue to The Exorcist, William Friedkin places von Sydow’s Father Lankester Merrin on a windy cliff in Iraq, directly opposite a similarly elevated statue of the demon Pazuzu. It’s a widescreen showdown meant to evoke The Seventh Seal’s game with Death and to anticipate the similarly life-or-you-know-what conflict looking between the aged priest and Pazuzu’s present-day incarnation in the form of a possessed 12-year-old girl. Only 43 years old at the time of shooting, von Sydow gave his performance from inside layers of latex, making him almost as much of a special-effects creation as Linda Blair’s head-spinning Regan, and yet his casting never feels like a mistake or a gimmick. Appearing late in the film, bathed in a white streetlight that makes his entrance fully iconic, Merrin is an avatar of physically frail, spiritually muscular goodness, the latter bound up in a voice so powerful it overwhelms all that bump-in-the-night sound design. In a movie filled with calculated overacting at nearly every level of its ensemble, von Sydow imparts something like divine subtlety—a grace note hovering above the film’s inferno.

Flash Gordon (1980)/Strange Brew (1983)

There are two ways for a great actor to deal with being cast as a parody of himself: get crabby or embrace the assignment with good humor. In the early ’80s, von Sydow did plenty of the latter, cashing in—but never phoning it in—on a series of over-the-top roles that didn’t stretch his talents so much as let him exercise them, as if in a vigorous game of pickup. Weirdly beloved by Pauline Kael and nobody else, Flash Gordon represented an attempt by producer Dino De Laurentiis to catch sci-fi-fantasy lightning in a bottle à la Star Wars, with von Sydow splitting the difference between Darth Vader and Adolf Hitler (and anticipating Freddy Krueger’s manicure) as Ming the Merciless, a galactic supervillain carried over from the material’s original comic strip–adventure serial incarnation. He also one-ups his Exorcist entrance, sauntering through rows of color-coded henchmen accompanied by synth strings by Queen, resplendent in a red robe and Fu Manchu mustache. If one of the prerequisites of camp is that an actor is signaling his ironic enjoyment to the audience, von Sydow’s joy at playing dress-up in the midst of a tacky-as-all-hell spectacle is almost too visible: he’s ridiculous, and he wants you to know that he knows it. He’s just as entertaining—and probably more lovably evil—as the villainous Brewmeister Smith in SCTV’s skit-to-film feature Strange Brew, weaponizing the cognitive dissonance generated by his regal presence alongside humble hosers Doug and Bob McKenzie (Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis). As its title suggests, Strange Brew is an odd mix of elements (the script is loosely based on Hamlet), but von Sydow manages to fit right in; after all those years of Bergman and his churning, delicately repressed emotions, it must have felt good to tell another actor that he was going to crush his head like a nut.

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

“If Jesus came back and saw what was going on in his name, he’d never stop throwing up.” That’s Frederick, the bitter, opinionated sculptor played by von Sydow in a brilliantly unflattering performance in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters. While Allen himself appears elsewhere in the film in a palpably autobiographical role, there is a sense in which Frederick, a miserable introvert bemoaning the approaching end of his relationship with his younger lover Lee (Barbara Hershey), is speaking for the director, embodying the depressive arrogance of a man who at once believes himself to be above the rest of the world and at its mercy. Tellingly, Frederick doesn’t really interact with any of the other members of Hannah’s Oscar-winning ensemble, playing his scenes opposite Hershey (who, a year later, would sleep with Willem Dafoe’s distinctly von Sydow–inspired Son of God in The Last Temptation of Christ); it’s a small role, but he uses minimal screen time to sketch a massive, wounded ego. He is also very funny, getting good mileage from Allen’s one-liners without altering his own grave performance style. “Can you imagine the level of a mind that watches wrestling?” he carps at one point, the perfect dinner-party rejoinder in the age of Hulkamania.

Pelle the Conqueror (1987)

Von Sydow was nominated for only two Academy Awards in his career: Best Supporting Actor for his silent, pseudo-sign-language cameo in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011) and Best Actor for 1987’s acclaimed Pelle the Conqueror. Bille August’s epic is a fairly standard-issue period piece about a Swedish father and son emigrating to Denmark at the turn of the century, hitting various coming-of-age tropes on the nose, and letting young star Pelle Hvenegaard carry the story forward. But von Sydow is the movie’s ace in the hole: playing a man whose determination to start over in a new country is informed by equal measures of optimism and stubbornness and whose devotion to his son is never less than total, he cuts the kind of richly ambivalent figure required to make melodrama work. His character Lasse doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve—the weight of the world on his shoulders is enough of a fashion statement. But he does care, and the way von Sydow finesses that emotion from inchoate rage to self-deprecating humor to surpassing paternal tenderness is the mark of a great performer, one with the ability to elevate the movie he’s in without embarrassing it.

Needful Things (1993)

Inevitably, von Sydow was asked to play the Devil in the film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel Needful Things, an insidious allegory about nostalgia and greed in which one Leland Gaunt—the proprietor of a nostalgia shop specializing in hard-to-find antiques—leverages the personal significance of his merchandise against his customers’ morality (or lack thereof). It’s a terrific role—Satan as master tempter—and while the film is a drab, mismanaged mess, von Sydow is ruthlessly charming and quietly hilarious, leaning into malevolence and lechery without breaking a sweat. “You can’t win,” he tells Ed Harris’s skeptical, overmatched sheriff during one rainy confrontation. “I’ve got God on my side.” It was always fun to watch von Sydow have fun.

Shutter Island (2010)

By the 2010s, von Sydow wasn’t so much acting in movies as adorning them: his appearances in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and on Game of Thrones as the Three-Eyed Raven were like victory laps for a national treasure. That’s the vibe of his bit part in Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island as a suspiciously Germanic psychiatrist whose presence at a mental asylum spooks visiting U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio); after mowing down Nazis during the war, Daniels is baffled to encounter the enemy on home turf. Shutter Island is such a cranked-up piece of horror movie hokum that every single member of its cast—Leo included—becomes a suspect in its shaggy-dog conspiracy narrative, but even with so many terrific actors on hand, von Sydow casts the longest shadow, creeping out the audience simply through his spotless white coat and precise, looming physical posture. Even well into his 80s, he towered above the rest.