Make the Case lists choices chronologically, rather than in any order of quality. Picks reflect film acting roles only. If the actor in question also directed the movie, that’s purely a coincidence, and it plays no part in the film’s inclusion.
One of the best pieces of movie trivia I ever learned, many, many years after the first time I saw the film, was that Max Von Sydow was the voice of Vigo in Ghostbusters II. Considering the amount of time I’ve spent and/or wasted on all things Ghostbusters through the years, I’m a little embarrassed that I honestly had no idea that the voice belonged to Sydow, until just a couple of years ago. It certainly makes sense that they would call him for the job. Sydow is one of the finest actors in the history of film. However, he is also a powerful, distinctive presence. This was true when in the late 1980s, when he was appearing in films like Hannah and Her Sisters, while also doing voice work for things like Ghostbusters II. It was true decades earlier, when his painfully gaunt features made him a perfect physical candidate to play a weary soldier coming back from the crusades in The Seventh Seal.
It’s true now, as Sydow continues to show up in a variety of different things, including Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Game of Thrones, and the upcoming Thomas Vinterberg film Kursk. We are talking about an extraordinary actor with numerous gifts that he continues to develop and bring to his characters at the age of 89. We are also talking about a voice and face that can captivate instantly. You don’t have to know that Sydow worked with Ingmar Bergman numerous times. You don’t have to know that he has worked extensively in theater. You don’t even have to know that the list of filmmakers he’s worked with, between 1948 and the present, is pretty much a who’s-who that covers more than half of the history of film itself. You just have to see him in a film, or perhaps just hear him. His voice has the steady conviction to make any god on hand nervous. His eyes, even as a young man, were capable of expressing a passion, a spark of humanity that can be understood by virtually anyone. That spark has kept him in demand for the whole of his career. He also has that long, gaunt face. Time has been fairly kind to that face, since he has looked older than his years from roughly young adulthood onwards.
When I was four years old, there were a lot of things in Ghostbusters II that scared me. The voice of Vigo was right near the top of the list. Say what you want about that specific film, but you can’t deny that Sydow, despite being what appears to be a pretty sweet guy, was the perfect candidate to provide the voice of the ghost of a genocidal madman.
Again, there is a power to that voice that puts him alongside any other actor you can think of with one of those iconic ways of speaking and being heard. Like all of the other greats, that voice also stands alone. It is also just one part of a truly exceptional actor.
Five movies doesn’t cover it with a legend like Max Von Sydow. Nonetheless, we are going to try.
The Seventh Seal (1956)
Max Von Sydow’s exhausted, emotionally-blunted knight returns from the crusades, falls into a friendly game of chess with Death, and seeks respite in a world abandoned by God. If not abandoned, then God is certainly being quite the fucking asshole. Madness and plague have left the countryside in a state of self-perpetuating, endless horror. The Seventh Seal is still one of those definitive art films that people discuss, watch, and occasionally mock. You have to make fun of a movie like this a little. The film’s atmosphere, and particularly Sydow’s extraordinarily empathetic performance, is so oppressively bleak, it is hard to imagine anyone watching this more than a few times. Yet many do. The movie’s despair is lyrical and unpredictable. This was one of several collaborations between Sydow and director Ingmar Bergman. It might just be my favorite. This is certainly a haunting film. Sydow’s knight’s gradual acceptance of his fate is the most unforgettable example of that.
Through a Glass Darkly (1961)
Really, we could just stick to Max Von Sydow and Ingmar Begrman films, and call it a day. We won’t do that, but there is still no question that Through a Glass Darkly belongs on any list of the best Max Von Sydow movies. As Martin, the husband of a young, struggling woman named Karin (Harriet Andersson), we bear witness to a man who truly feels powerful. He persists in trying to help his wife, clearly suffering from a condition such as schizophrenia, and he persists in the hope that something will appear to bridge the gap between what he knows, and what he can only stare at mutely, sadly.
If that sounds pretty heavy, fair enough. Through a Glass Darkly is one of Bergman’s richest, strongest ensemble dramas. I’m glad Bergman worked with Sydow so many times. On every occasion, particularly this one, Bergman gave Sydow the chance to play characters who are forced to confront one truth or another. Sometimes, instead, they have to confront the absence of truth, which is one of the stronger themes here. Through a Glass Darkly and other Bergman films dealt with dense, overwhelming issues. Without his attention to casting, and particularly in terms of his relationship with Bergman, I don’t think those themes and issues would have come across quite so perfectly.
The Exorcist (1973)
Once again, I’m forced to make some pretty dramatic cuts to movies that by all rights, should be on this list. We could go to the 10 best Max Von Sydow movies, and we would still have to leave a few behind. If you’re using this column as a primer for his work, I’ll stand by the picks here, including his arguably most iconic role as Father Lankester Merrin in The Exorcist. Still, don’t forget about films like The Magician, Hawaii, or The Emigrants.
You don’t have to be a Catholic, or even religious, to believe in the idea that Father Merrin might just be the only hope for a little girl possessed by the devil. The voice and mere physical presence of Sydow gives him the ability to convey that authority. However, where other actors would have simply relied on that voice and presence, or fallen into overacting, Sydow responds to the crisis his character faces by appealing to his deepest sense of good and evil. If it isn’t his own definition of those things, than his work over his relatively short amount of screen time is all the more impressive.
Pelle the Conqueror (1987)
One of Sydow’s two Oscar-nominated roles, Pelle the Conqueror remains a brutal emotional journey. Watching a Swedish immigrant father care for his son with virtually no luck, limited physical resources, and diminishing emotional assets on the Danish island of Bornholm will take a lot out of you. Sydow makes things a little easier, by effortlessly creating natural sympathy from the audience. His facial expressions and quietly desperate gestures tell us a lot, and they lend unshakable urgency to his pleading, wild words.
Pelle the Conqueror is one of many immigration stories. The performances, most of all Sydow’s, gives the film a resonance in 2018.
Minority Report (2002)
Despite a weird relationship to its source material (a Phillip K. Dick novel), Minority Report is still one of the best movies Spielberg has made in the past 25 years. Even if you don’t give a single giddy fuck for Tom Cruise, he’s nonetheless compelling as a leading figure in a dystopian paradise that uses foreknowledge to catch criminals, before they can actually commit the crime. Some of his best on-screen chemistry comes from his scenes with Max Von Sydow, in the expected role of his aged, guilt-ridden superior.
For most of his career, Sydow has been a convincing authority, regardless of the morals of whichever character he might be playing. One of Minority Report’s best features is giving Sydow the opportunity to make the character more than just a regretful person of interest. Sydow plays Lamar Burgess with the tone of a man whose convictions have been shaken for the first time in a many, many years. Since then, he has continued to play such men without ever repeating his approach twice. When he does pass away, the loss of someone who is still such a vital performer at such a late age will be immense.