Max von Sydow: An incomparable presence in arthouse cinema and noisy blockbusters

The Swedish actor, who has died aged 90, leaves a rich legacy of work with Ingmar Bergman

Max von Sydow, who died in Paris on Sunday at the age of 90, carved out an incomparable career across arthouse cinema, noisy blockbusters and high theatre. Few obituaries will dwell much on the fact that he appears in the highest grossing film ever at the US box office – Star Wars: The Force Awakens – but that is nonetheless the case. Four decades earlier he played the title role in William Friedkin's enormously successful The Exorcist.

Von Sydow's greatest legacy will, however, be the work he did with Ingmar Bergman from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s. Few European films from the post-war era had quite the impact of The Seventh Seal. The image of von Sydow, a knight returned from the crusades, playing chess with Death is as resonant now as it was in 1957. The thumping allegory explains part of that indestructibility, but the impact of von Sydow's chiselled face – often austere, often split by a crooked smile – was at least as significant. Over the succeeding decades, the two men worked to define a school of philosophical cinema whose impact is hard to now credit.

Collaborations such as The Virgin Spring, Through a Glass Darkly and Shame were as much at the centre of cultural discourse as were the latest novels by Iris Murdoch, Saul Bellow or Vladimir Nabokov. Von Sydow is often caricatured as a gloomy presence, but his sly wit added lighter colours to each of those films.

Talking to The Irish Times in 2012, he rejected the idea that Bergman was a forbidding character. "No, no, no. That is not right at all," he said. "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."

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Von Sydow was born to intellectuals in the southern Swedish city of Lund. (Interestingly, his dad, a lecturer at that city’s university, was one of the nation’s leading experts on Irish mythology.) Neither parent was ecstatic when he rejected the respectable life and went to train at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, but he set their minds at rest by finding good roles shortly after graduation. As early as 1949, he was working for the great Alf Sjöberg in Only a Mother. He first worked with Bergman in the theatre before landing that era-defining role in The Seventh Seal.

“We had no idea it would have that impact,” he told me in 2012. “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.”

Like so many Scandinavian actors, he had immaculate English and was, thus, offered plenty of supporting roles in American films. He wryly acknowledged in later years that – as is still the case – the sole European in the movie often found himself the villain, but, casting against that lazy type, George Stevens did allow him to be Jesus Christ in The Greatest Story Ever Told. He kept the information that he was “not really” a believer to himself.

He remained amused by the fact that generations of film fans, disturbed by The Exorcist, quivered at the mention of his name. After all, he was the manifestation of Christian charity, the man who saved young Regan from possession. “Hang on. I was the good guy. I wasn’t there to scare anybody,” he said. That film was a genuine sensation in 1973. Newspapers revelled in stories about ambulances carting traumatised punters away from screeching auditoriums.

The archetypal Swedish actor of his generation – the very embodiment of the nation – moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1960s and then to Paris in the 1990s. He was one of those rare performers who, somehow always old, barely altered his persona over a long, long career. One half feels he could, in the last decade, have played the parts he played for Bergman in the 1960s. Woody Allen (a massive Bergman enthusiast) made excellent use of him in Hannah and Her Sisters during the 1980s. Just four years ago, he played Three-Eyed Raven in three episodes of Game of Thrones.

Von Sydow never received an Oscar – not even an honorary award – but he was nominated on two occasions: fairly for Pelle the Conqueror in 1988 and, less creditably, for Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close in 2012. He could, however, congratulate himself on remaining part of the cinematic conversation for over 60 years. Few other actors have managed that. The furrowed intelligence of his face and the sharp melodies of that voice will be with us forever. He told me he would never retire and he seems to have been true to his word.

“Oh, I have retired a few times, but it just didn’t work, “ he said. “Something interesting came along. There are just too many interesting things.”

He is survived by his second wife, Catherine Brelet, and by four children.