The Max factor
His roles in The Seventh Seal, The Exorcistand many more earned Max Von Sydow a place in cinema history, and at 82, he has no intention of retiring, he tells DONALD CLARKE
WHAT A STRANGE business it is to stand before Max Von Sydow. It’s not just that one is in the presence of a walking legend: the knight from The Seventh Seal,Father Merrin from The Exorcist, the vengeful parent in The Virgin Spring. What’s really peculiar is that the Swedish actor, now 82, seems almost entirely unchanged by the passing decades. The archetypal Ingmar Bergman protagonist does not have much in common with the recently mourned David Kelly. But both men – exact contemporaries – seem to have played oldish men throughout their careers.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying he looks pretty much as you’d expect. The brow is high. The grey hair is thick. Dressed in a tweed jacket and neat slacks, he rests slightly uncomfortably into a straight-backed chair and issues a rare complaint.
“I was hit by the back of a lift door and broke three ribs,” he says. He still looks very trim. “Oh I am terribly trim. Ha, ha, ha! But I can’t laugh, cough or sneeze.
“Getting into of bed is painful. Getting out of bed is really painful. And those things are hard to avoid.”
It hardly needs to be said that Max Von Sydow is not at home to recreational slapstick. But he’s definitely a funny guy. A wry smile is never too far away from his lips. He very much enjoys a touch of self-deprecation. One can thus understand why he was drawn by the part of “the renter” in Stephen Daldry’s current adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. The character never speaks and communicates by writing hurriedly on scraps of paper. He is damaged, but defiantly mischievous. “It’s more interesting that he doesn’t speak,” he says.
“I didn’t know anything about the story. I got the script and was moved. I read the book and got more information. It’s a real windfall to get a character who has such mystique. You gradually learn things about him. But gradually.” The performance has earned Von Sydow only his second Oscar nomination. This seems faintly astonishing. No, he did not get a supporting nod for The Exorcist.
None of his 11 collaborations with Ingmar Bergman gained Von Sydow a mention. His only previous short-listing was as best actor for Bille August’s Pelle the Conquerorin 1987. He and Christopher Plummer (the hot favourite) are, this year, competing to become the oldest actors ever to take an Oscar.
“I know,” he says. “I have worked with him quite a few times and have been trying to contact him for the last few weeks. He is a wonderful man.”
Von Sydow has done all right for himself. But, like a lot of actors from middle-class families, he had to fight against parental resistance. His father was a distinguished lecturer at the University of Lund in the south of Sweden (an expert on Irish folklore, interestingly). Both parents were from solid Lutheran backgrounds and hoped their son would do something respectable with his life. Following national service, however, he elected to study at the Royal Dramatic Theatre.
“This thing with theatre was not their thing,” he says with a mordant laugh.
“I remember when I discussed this with my mother. ‘Do you really need to become an actor?’ she said. ‘It’s all very wild and there might be many . . .’ She paused. She didn’t go into details.”
Was she referring to the acting profession’s friendliness towards, ahem, alternative lifestyles? “Oh, probably, probably.” At any rate, Von Sydow quickly found a place for himself in the Swedish theatre and soon began knocking on Ingmar Bergman’s door. At that point, the great man was best known as a director of plays. Eventually, Bergman warmed to the young fellow and cast him as the troubled Knight in his 1957 medieval allegory The Seventh Seal. We think of Bergman as an austere figure. Is that how Von Sydow remembers him? “No, no, no. That is not right at all,” he says. “In reality he was a great enthusiast with a head full of imagination. He was always going against the traditions. But he was a wonderful teacher and a great leader of actors. And he worked all the time. He’d work in the Municipal Theatre, then write a script in the winter and then shoot it in the summer. He was always working.”
Now that highbrow cinema has retreated to its ghetto, it is difficult to imagine the impact of Bergman’s early films. Harshly beautiful, echoing with those gentle, worried voices, films such as The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberriesand Through a Glass Darkly(all of which featured Von Sydow) became as essential to the well-cultured individual as was the latest Samuel Beckett play or Albert Camus novel. The most unshakable image remains Max playing chess with death at the beginning of The Seventh Seal.
“We had no idea it would have that impact,” he says. “But I knew it was something very special. We never thought it would have that effect on movie history. It was a very small production. It cost 40,000 Swedish Crowns when there were five to the dollar. The producers hated it: ‘Nobody wants to see this!’ Then Bergman had great success with Smiles of a Summer Nightand they said: ‘Okay, do your strange little film.’”
It is said that Bergman didn’t speak much to the actors. How on earth did he manage to impress his singular voice on so many films? “That is absolutely true. But what was wonderful with Bergman was that he was very present all the time, standing by the camera constantly.
“There was no monitor then. Now you don’t see the director. He’s off in the back in the dark. You can’t even talk to him. There’s just this distant voice over the horizon.”
Mainstream directors took notice and began casting Von Sydow in significant supporting roles. You will find him in Hawaii, The Kremlin Letterand Three Days of the Condor. Of course, Hollywood being what it is, the Nordic gentleman was invariably cast as a villain. “Yes, some casting directors have imagination and, well, some don’t,” he says.
But somehow or other he ended up playing Jesus Christ in George Stephens’s 1965 biblical epic The Greatest Story Ever Told.Von Sydow explains that Stephens saw something vaguely religious in the character of the knight from The Seventh Seal. Was Max even a believer at that point? “No. Not really, not really,” he says. “I think, at that stage, you would have called me a revolutionist. But I kept that quiet.”
For two generations of film-goers, he will, however, still be best known as Father Merrin in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Released in 1973, that horror film was more than a phenomenon. If the contemporaneous press reports are to be believed, punters were being carried screaming into ambulances. The film was said to have sent more than a few sensitive souls stark raving crazy.
“We had no idea that would happen. But Billy was brilliant. He had just done French Connectionbefore that. He could be very violent at times. I remember in one scene he wasn’t happy and wanted me to act more violent. ‘What would Bergman have told you?’ he said. He hinted that I wanted him to hit me. ‘Bergman would never have done that,’ I said. So Friedkin never hit me.” Yes indeed. There are reliable reports of Friedkin letting off handguns and thumping amateur actors. It all sounds like a bit of a nightmare. Stories even emerged suggesting the film was cursed.
“Friedkin was clever. I read an interview with him after the film was released. And he was talking about all the ‘strange things’ that happened during production. Nothing particularly strange happened – nothing any more strange than would normally happen on such a long shoot He somehow even managed to say that they didn’t use any special effects. Well, I was there.”
To this day, fans still think of Merrin as a sinister figure. But he was the Exorcist. He saved poor, possessed Linda Blair.
“Yes, people still say: ‘You scared the shit out of me!’ But hang on. I was the good guy. I wasn’t there to scare anybody.”
It has been a long time since Von Sydow lived in Sweden. He spent a spell in Los Angeles during the mid-1960s, but, though exciting, the lifestyle wasn’t entirely to his taste. In the 1990s he met his second wife, French film-maker Catherine Brelet, and settled down in Paris. He likes to garden, read history and savour “fine food”. Eventually, feeling slightly guilty about enjoying the nation so much, he decided to take out French citizenship. But he remains one of Sweden’s most prized exports.
“It is a country with a very special character,” he says slightly wistfully.
“It has a richness of nature. What I miss most is my native language. I know I will never be able to speak another language as well. But, having paid my taxes in France, I felt it was right to become a French citizen.” Despite those cracked ribs, he still looks in spiffing good health. He surely can’t be the retiring type. The world couldn’t cope without that long face and those laconic vowels.
“Ha ha! Oh, I have retired a few times, but it just didn’t work.” What went wrong? “Something interesting came along. There are just too many interesting things.”
5 Max Von Sydow performances
THE SEVENTH SEAL(1957) Ingmar Bergman’s allegorical drama begins with one of the most durable images in world cinema. A knight, recently returned from the Crusades, plays chess with a human incarnation of death. He is then propelled through plague lands. Once the quintessential art film, The Seventh Sealis now less fashionable than Bergman’s domestic pieces. This is a shame.
THE VIRGIN SPRING(1960) Arguably the best of Bergman’s folk dramas, this stunningly creepy film follows the parents of a murdered child as they take hideous revenge on the perpetrators. Von Sydow’s quiet torment is something to behold. Famously remade by Wes Craven as the gruesome Last House on the Left.
THE EXORCIST(1973) Once again, as with The Seventh Seal, Von Sydow found himself taking on a role that ingrained itself in cinema history like a watermark. Playing the titular exorcist, Von Sydow represented a calm, but forceful, class of Christian virtue. “The power of Christ compels you!” That was his catchphrase.
HANNAH AND HER SISTERS(1986) There are few more obsessive devotees of Ingmar Bergman than Woody Allen. It was, thus, inevitable that the New Yorker would eventually find a part for Max Von Sydow. Inspired by Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander,the picture finds Max playing a gloomy artist attached to an unsatisfied Barbara Hershey. A vital supporting performance.
PELLE THE CONQUEROR(1987) Winner of both the Palme d’Or at Cannes and the Academy Award for best foreign language picture, Bille August’s historical drama follows a middle-aged man and his young son as they emigrate from Sweden to Denmark.The picture also earned Von Sydow his first Oscar nomination.