PAGE 11: Max von Sydow: Compelling Power

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By Kavita Masthoff

Many celebrities left us in 2020, leaving behind a legacy of their performances and works of art. One of the personalities, who left a gaping hole in the world of cinema, was Max von Sydow. No other actor can claim to have such a wide repertoire of filmography as him.

Born on 10 April 1929 in Lund, Sweden, von Sydow passed away on 8 March 2020 in France at the ripe old age of 90. His acting career spanned an incredible 70 years, after debuting in Only a Mother (1949).

Who can forget von Sydow as Antonius Block playing a deadly game of chess in Ingmar Berman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), a blue-eyed Jesus Christ in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) by George Stevens, or the faithful Father Merrin in the iconic horror movie The Exorcist (1973)? His presence in a film added gravitas, and by the time von Sydow started acting in well-known and successful franchises such as Star Wars (1977 – 2019) and Game of Thrones (2011-2019) he had already proved his mettle. 

In an interview in 2012 with The Wall Street Journal, von Sydow said that he already knew what he wanted to do by the time he was 15 or 16. So, after serving the compulsory two years in the military in Sweden, he changed his name to Max and attended the Royal Dramatic Theatre for three years. He won the Royal Foundation of Sweden’s Cultural Award, one of the many, for his theatre work before transitioning to films. 

The prolific career of the late von Sydow is peppered with work across many countries and languages. He did not restrict himself to serious and character roles. Any sci-fi lover will remember von Sydow as Ming the Merciless, a flashy space warlord, in the uproarious Flash Gordon (1980), which was based on the comic strip by Alex Raymond. He did not always play a heroic character and didn’t mind stepping into roles that were different and negative. In Minority Report (2002), he plays the character of Lamar Burgess, a corrupt project director. 

His costars were always praises for him. Linda Blair described von Sydow as a cool and unflappable gentleman, who seldom lost his temper while shooting for The Exorcist on an oft-contentious set. 

If you’ve watched The Exorcist (which I’m sure you have multiple times), you should be as amazed as I am with the way von Sydow portrayed Father Merrin’s age. The stooped posture, trembling hands and shuffling gait were so convincing, anyone would believe that the actor was an 80+ man in real life. However, von Sydow was 43, much younger than the character he played. 

Max von Sydow did not shy away from roles in comedies, either. His reprisal of roles in Rush Hour 3 (2007) is also something that film buffs love. For me however, von Sydow’s greatest role is that of Lankester Merrin in The Exorcist. It is, perhaps, the greatest performance by a younger actor playing a character that is decades older than him. While makeup by Dick Smith had a major role to play, it would have fallen flat without von Sydow’s stunning performance by. 

The incredible body of work that von Sydow has left behind speaks volumes of him as a performer. He acted for 70 years and essayed many memorable roles. With his passing, the world of film lovers and movie enthusiasts have lost a fine actor, who could work in any genre. The gaping hole left behind can never be filled. It wouldn’t be wrong to say Max von Sydow may have passed away but his acting and performances compel us to remember him, always. 

Max von Sydow – gone but never forgotten. 

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