It seems hard to believe Max von Sydow could die at this point. But he has, he passed away at the age of 90 yesterday. The man who was so vital in some of Ingmar Bergman’s greatest films of the 50s and 60s, who contributed an awesome presence to fantasy films and video games for decades.
Sometimes, when you’re young, you take movie stars for granted. Like many things in life, you might not recognise how extraordinary they are until you’re older. Much as the fortunate child accepts as a natural fact he or she has food and shelter, you might accept there’s a Harrison Ford handy to play Indiana Jones or that Ripley sprang out of the ether fully formed as Sigourney Weaver. One of the first times I really appreciated what a great star is and does was that moment in The Seventh Seal where the knight played by Max von Sydow, standing in the confessional, proclaims to himself in wonder that he, a mortal man, is engaged in a game of chess with Death himself.
More even than the mood conjured by Bergman’s compositions or the eerie performance from Bengt Ekerot as Death, Max von Sydow in that moment sells the concept. In the middle of this grim, sometimes funny, film, we’re let into the fundamentally wondrous nature of the circumstance. Which is, of course, in part the exhilaration of surviving by one’s own efforts. He was a great actor but with his deep voice, gaunt face, and large eyes, von Sydow had presence that went beyond skill or talent.
For any one of the leading roles he played for Bergman, and several of the supporting ones, Max von Sydow might have justly considered himself possessed of a lifetime’s worth of accomplishment. His complex role in The Magician uniquely conveys the life of an artist in a world that takes art for granted. His raw, terrified performance in Hour of the Wolf is a big part of what make that film an extraordinary nightmare.
And after that, he went to Hollywood. Not shrinking from bit parts in B movies, he was a king in Conan the Barbarian and Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon. He was also a priest in The Exorcist, showing up later in the film, that incredible presence of his enough to convey the fact that a powerful force contrary to the Devil’s had arrived.
His presence was so reliable for so long. A couple years ago, he had a bit of a renaissance thanks to, of all things, a video game, one of the best ever made, as it happens. Skyrim is a great game and it had what not every great game gets—great trailers. Like many great trailers, the voice is key and in this case the voice belonged to Max von Sydow. When you hear him say, “They’re already here,” you get a chill and everyone knew in their hearts the game was guaranteed to sell millions of copies.
It was little wonder, after Skyrim, he would show up in Star Wars and Game of Thrones. Not as a favour or a gesture of respect to a veteran actor but because he clearly had the goods. Everyone could see he would make their projects better, even if the kids watching had no idea who he was. Fortunately, kids and adults for generations will have the opportunity to discover him in so many ways.