The Swedish Great Will Crush Your Head
He’s played both Christ and the Devil. (The Greatest Story Ever Told; Needful Things) He’s exorciesed evil and has been the scourge of worlds. (The Exorcist; Flash Gordon) Most notably, he launched his career as the cinematic surrogate for Ingmar Bergman, appearing in eleven of the director’s films. In 2012, he was nominated for an Academy Award for his work as the single best thing about the 9/11 drama Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. He’s worked with James Bond, Woody Allen, and Steven Spielberg.
Von Sydow’s reputation as a Lofty Actor of Distinction preceeds him, frontloading World Cinema gravitas anywhere he goes. But as we’ll see from several of the entries below, he clearly must have a sense of humor about himself. The Swedish-born von Sydow’s filmography is one of healthy diversity, filled with boldly challenging fare, cherished curios, and odd detours. Although he fares wonderfully in ensembles and supporting roles, von Sydow could always hold his own in the lead.
Settle in now for this particularly diverse installment of our regular “Film Admissions” column, in which ZekeFilm website contributors make a point of seeing and analyzing an essential heretofore unseen film by a certain actor or actress. We open with some initial takes on some of Max von Sydow’s venerable Bergman work. From there, we go in several amusing and interesting directions.
The Seventh Seal
(1957, AB Svensk Filmindustri, Dir. Ingmar Bergman)
by Krystal Lyon
Antonius Block, a Swedish knight, returns from the Crusades only to find his homeland ravaged by the Plague. He cries out during confession, “I want knowledge. Not belief. Not surmise. But knowledge. I want God to put out His hand, show His face, speak to me. I cry to Him in the dark, but there seems to be no one there.” The response he receives from the hooded figure is, “Perhaps there is no one there.” Writer, director Ingmar Bergman is asking, “Where is God?” in the 1957 classic The Seventh Seal. I’ve never watched a film that deals with faith and eternity in such a bold way. Bergman doesn’t hold back his doubts, instead he puts them center stage along with Death and one profound game of chess.
Block, played by the mesmerizing Max von Sydow, challenges Death, Bengt Ekerot, to a game of chess to win back his soul. And throughout the film you see this game being played between the two as the knight slowly makes his way back to his home. But Block’s conversations about life’s meaning aren’t just reserved for Death. Block is encouraged in his faith when he crosses paths with travelling actors Jof, Nils Poppe, and Mia, Bibi Andersson. Jof has visions of the Virgin Mary, and he can also see Death. He believes in God because he can see Him in everything. Block rests from his journey with the actors and he tells Mia, “To believe is to suffer. It is like loving someone in the dark who never answers.” She responds by offering him milk, wild strawberries and kindness. With this simple act the knight’s hopes return and he wants to treasure this moment.
On the other hand his squire Jons, Gunnar Bjornstrand, challenges his faith in God throughout their journey. Jons believes in what he sees and that is it. As Death arrives at Block’s castle, Antonius prays, “Out of the darkness we call to thee, O Lord! Oh, God, have mercy on us! We are small and afraid and without knowledge!” Jons replies to his master’s plea with, “In the darkness where you say you are, there is none to listen to your lament. You are reflected in your own indifference.” Block is truly tortured by all these questions and thoughts. He concludes that best way to spend the remainder of his days is to accomplish one last “meaningful deed”. And he does just that before he dances off with death.
So can you relate to this knight? I can. Having total faith in God is no easy task and believing in something that you can’t see, hear or touch is easier said than done. Who hasn’t wondered, “Where is God?” I appreciate Bergman’s boldness to ask these questions in front of us and in doing so he begs us to ask ourselves, “What do we believe?” In the film, Death says, “Perhaps there is no one there.” And Block responds back with, “Then life is a senseless terror. No man can live with Death and know that everything is nothing.” Bergman leaves us with Death, nothingness, dancing away with the majority of the cast but the final shot is of the little acting family, Jof, Mia and their son Mikael walking towards the sun. Each of us must make a choice between hope and nothingness; in the end we all put our faith in something.
Through a Glass Darkly
(1961, Svensk Filmindustri, dir. Ingmar Bergman)
by Randall Yelverton
Part of Ingmar Bergman’s faith trilogy, Through a Glass Darkly is a disturbing journey into schizophrenia and an examination of the parasitic nature of the artist. Throughout this story of a young woman’s psychic deterioration, the four characters in this dark chamber drama also debate the nature of God and whether faith is a burden or a buoy.
Harriet Andersson is phenomenal as Karen, the young woman who is trapped by madness and tormented by a sinister, persistent vision of the heavenly host. Her schizophrenia takes the form of a communication with heavenly voices compelling her to act in destructive ways as she, and the voices, await the arrival of their god. For Karen, faith is madness.
Her father David, an author who has been guiltily mining his daughter’s psychological difficulties for a novel, is sustained by a faith based on the love he feels for his family. His confession of faith is complicated by the fact that he has used his daughter’s illness for his own gain. His son Minus is a sexually frustrated teenager with artistic aspirations. He is reeling, trying to help his unpredictable sister and gain the attention of his distant father. Karen’s husband Martin, played by Max von Sydow, is the film’s conscience—a man who loves Karen and tries to compel David toward repentance and better care of his daughter. Von Sydow is playing the straight man here, but he anchors the movie in reality and keeps it from being a phantasmagoric trip into one character’s dementia.
The film’s cinematographer Sven Nykvist is a master of light and shadow. When a shadow is cast or light fills a room, the way it appears on film is intentionally crafted by Nykvist. Those who want to understand the significance of manipulating light in filmmaking should examine Bergman’s faith trilogy. The lighting choices in so much filmmaking can feel purely functional and devoid of creative choice-making, but Bergman and Nykvist, with relatively small budgets, make haunting magic.
The Virgin Spring
(1960, Svensk Filmindustri, dir. Ingmar Bergman)
by Jim Tudor
Although I count Ingmar Bergman’s filmography among the most achingly rich cinema that the world has to offer, more of his films linger on my yet-to-be-watched list than I care to admit. The Virgin Spring, his 1960 Middle Ages tale of a culture awkwardly shifting from paganism to Christianity, is one I’ve particularly avoided.
I blame Wes Craven, who’s notorious down-and-dirty queaze-horror Last House on the Left is said to be a remake of Virgin Spring. (No, I‘ve not yet subjected myself to Last House.) Finally, the time arrived for Bergman’s original.
There are moments in The Virgin Spring when all the oxygen is sucked out of its world. Like its more famous, more approachable older sibling, The Seventh Seal, master filmmaker Bergman is pitting deep-seated questions of faith in God against the deathly realities of the world. Only, in The Virgin Spring, everything’s somehow leaner; more pushed. Pain and loss are palpable.
Max von Sydow plays a fresh-to-faith family man, tasking his radiantly prissy teenage duaghter with the task of taking the candles to church, something only a virgin can do. The journey does not go well. After it’s downright harrowing and abrupt end, von Sydow goes on a tree-bending rampage of equal parts bereavement and rage. He is the lead in The Virgin Spring, more fresh-faced and youthful than I often think of him, but also relatably glassy-eyed and unhinged.
Capturing the whole warped affair is still new-to-Bergman cinematographer, Sven Nykvist. Nykvist’s work with Bergman is the stuff of film geek legend, and The Virgin Spring is Nykvist perhaps at his Nykvist-iyist. It’s sumptuously penetrating black and white photography you want to live in, if not for the scenarios playing out within his carefully established atmosphere.
Although it could be said that paganism is the only way shown to have any possible power in this world, Christianity more or less “wins out” in the end, leaving us with the kind of head-scratching miracle and subsequent holy pronouncements and promises not unlike something out of the Old Testement. I know enough about Bergman to know that this is noteworthy. Maybe it’s because this a rare case when he didn’t write the film.
Upon finishing the film, I posited whether The Virgin Spring is the ultimate art house revenge movie. Almost. If anything, it’s a vengeance film, as opposed to a revenge movie. And in The Virgin Spring, vengeance does not belong to The Lord. It belongs to Max von Sydow.
Three Days of the Condor
(1975, Dino De Laurentiis Company, dir. Sydney Pollack)
by Erik Yates
In search of a Max Von Sydow film that I haven’t seen, I came across a Sydney Pollack directed film that I hadn’t seen. Three Days of the Condor has an all-star cast with Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, and Cliff Robertson joining von Sydow in a spy thriller based on the novel “Six Days of the Condor”.
In the film Redford plays a CIA analyst who comes back from lunch to find his entire office murdered. With everyone he trusts betraying him, he must use cunning to stay one step ahead of his pursuers and figure out what tangled web he is actually caught up in. Max von Sydow has a small but effective presence in the film playing a character named G. Joubert who is an assassin for hire. In each scene, Sydow maintains a quiet, yet menacing presence as he methodically goes about his business. And for Joubert, it is business, and nothing more. As he explains to Redford, being freelance means never having to know the “why” of his job, but rather the “when”. He doesn’t have to pick any side of any conflict other than his own, and that is what helps him live with what he does.
Codenamed “Lucifer” by his CIA handlers, this may indicate more familiar terrority for Max von Sydow who not only took on the devil in The Exorcist, but who actually played him in Needful Things. Playing dark characters seems to be his wheelhouse, even in lighter, and more fun fare such as Flash Gordon and Strange Brew. Even in his 80’s, he shows no signs of slowing down, as he will be appearing in the upcoming Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Until then, Three Days of the Condor is a worthy film to see in order to experience the quiet force of a great character actor.
(2001, Medusa Film, dir. Dario Argento)
by Paul Hibbard
Max Von Sydow may have made his name in other genres than horror and with much more intellectual directors than Dario Argento, however he has had his foot in the horror genre off and on throughout his whole career. With his iconic role in The Exorcist to his creepy performance in the otherwise forgettable Stephen King adaptation Needful Things, he has never shied away from the genre.
Sleepless, one of the stronger later-career efforts from Argento, is also an opportunity for von Sydow to regain some respect in the horror world that Needful Things seemed to have cost him. Von Sydow plays Detective Ulisse Moretti, who shows up at the scene of a murder where a young boy’s mother had a flute violently and repeatedly shoved in her mouth. He is about to be pulled out of retirement and into a mystery surrounding a grueling series of murders with the client of a prostitute committing the murder spree. The identity of the murderer is concealed, though could be the infamous dwarf murderer Vincenzo de Fabritiis (yeah, I know, it’s Argento).
Argento has always been known as a visual and visceral director, never an actor’s director. Yet von Sydow does a superb job of rising above the occasion and fleshing out more than he’s given. In the aforementioned horror films he has starred in, von Sydow has maintained an eerie performance that, if he chose horror as his genre of choice, could have placed him alongside legends like Vincent Price and Christopher Lee.
Sleepless is recommended. Very reminiscent of older work from Argento, a fantastic score by Goblin, but most importantly, a triumphant return to horror from Max von Sydow.
(1980, Starling Films, dir. Mike Hodges)
by Justin Mory
So, yes: Antonius Block, Jonas Persson, Karl Oskar, Father Lankester Merrin, Jesus Christ… and Ming the Merciless?? Indeed!! The 1980 Dino De Laurentiis-produced, Mike Hodges-directed space opera, based on the 1930s science fiction adventure comic strip by Alex Raymond, and set to a pulse-pounding score by the rock group Queen, features the internationally-acclaimed Swedish actor Max von Sydow, muse of master directors Ingmar Bergman and Jan Troell, as the embodiment of Depression-era Yellow Peril: the merciless ruler of the universe, Emperor Ming.
“This Ming is a psycho!” So says fair-haired beefcake Sam J. Jones as the “savior of the universe”, New York Jets quarterback Flash Gordon. From spies, hitmen, and neo-Nazis, von Sydow had established himself with his towering, lean figure, sharp, autocratic facial features, and deep Scandinavian accent as an imposing presence in numerous Hollywood features from the mid-1960s through the 70s. A much in-demand screen villain outside of his arthouse Europeon roles, it was perhaps inevitable that producers should have immediately thought of the actor with a shaved head, arched eyebrows, pointed goatee, and flowing crimson robes when it came time to cast the ultimate in evil Asiatic stereotypes.
And it’s a role von Sydow, of course, pulls off with aplomb. From his King Kong in 1976 through his later adaptation of Dune in 1984, Italian mega-producer De Laurentiis had thrown scandalous amounts of money at numerous big-screen fantasies explicitly designed to overwhelm audiences with the scale and immensity of their production. Flash Gordon is undoubtedly the most successful of these (often disastrous) spectacles precisely because, I believe, the sheer mind-boggling unreality of it all – from the tongue-in-cheek script by Lorenzo Semple, Jr., the hallucinatory sets and costumes from illustrious production designer Danilo Donati, and a cast of distinguished international actors like Topol, Brian Blessed, and Timothy Dalton outfitted in wings, masks, and Robin Hood outfits(!) – is so over-the-top that it goes beyond mere “camp” and actually recreates screen “reality” as a Saturday Morning Matinee of screen legend. Von Sydow’s Ming, then, provides the perfect villainous counter-balance to the heightened fantasy.
Von Sydow may have yet another opportunity to essay space opera screen villainy in his 85th year in an as-yet undisclosed role for the upcoming Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens, but I have reservations that his performance will have nearly the same impact un-backed by the ethereal, high-pitched harmonies of Freddie Mercury & Queen!
(1983, MGM, dir. Rick Moranis, Dave Thomas)
by Robert Hornak
Strange Brew is SCTV’s low-fi answer to SNL’s shiny Hollywood kickstart The Blues Brothers, graduating a popular recurring team from the show into a bigger frame and bigger adventure, and further connecting the buddy-comedy dots that stretch from Laurel & Hardy and Martin & Lewis, through to Wayne’s World, Bill & Ted, Dumb & Dumber, and Dude, Where’s My Car? – all of which trade on simple minds, silly plots and lots of heart.
But whereas The Blues Brothers enjoys director John Landis’ big budget sheen, Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis’ Strange Brew embraces its low budget by being unapologetically home-made: obvious model work and other bargain basement special effects are neither called attention to nor made to feel out of place, especially prepped as we are by the movie’s great opening meta film-within-the-film, wherein angry moviegoers riot at a screening of Bob & Doug’s z-grade alien invasion flick. From there we go to the movie proper, where fart jokes fly, everyone’s a hoser, and the sweetly beer-addled brothers wind their way through a poorly lit, awkwardly edited, but smartly self-aware quest for free suds.
As for the otherwise venerable Max von Sydow, I don’t know how or why he was talked into being in the movie. Part of me assumes it was a gambit to capitalize on his newfound comfort appearing in uncharacteristic efforts like Flash Gordon and Conan the Barbarian (the latter also just viewed for the first time by me – Milius can make a movie!). But looking at von Sydow’s expression through most of this intentionally throw-away, snarky-genius of a movie, my gut was sinking – he seems so lost, unsure where to look, or worse, where to look inside for why he’s doing what he’s doing. I kept thinking, this guy played chess with Death… now he’s sharing screen time with a flying dog named Hosehead! (I can’t forego mentioning that we come full circle in the Death/dumb guy department with Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.)
Then, at last, another part of me lightened up and declared old Max forgiven for giving in to the understandable temptation to play a guy named Brewmeister Smith. Despite his lack of direction, and true to his Zeus-like gravitas, he’s still formidable in this movie – his museum-worthy Easter Island brow balanced atop a mighty Scandinavian oak of a frame, he can’t help but ebb intensity, whether bugling existential angst up toward Bergman’s silent heavens, or here, schlepping poisoned beer in hopes of conquering the world. His monolithic presence is used as a cheap shortcut to evil, never meant to be taken seriously – which is clear from his grand entrance… just zipping up from a flushing toilet. Ultimately a fun and funny movie, but film history may be hard-pressed to reconcile von Sydow’s brand of greatness with the equal-but-alternate greatness of lines like “I’m getting whiplash from my burps.”