home » cast » max von sydow » the face of the actor

Max von Sydow in an interview with Gordon Gow
Originally published in Films and Filming, 1976

By now, of course, we ought to think of Max von Sydow as a thoroughly international actor. He films often in the United States. He was in England for some of the scenes in Voyage of the Damned (directed by Stuart Rosenberg), in which he plays the non-Nazi captain of the SS St. Louis (circa 1939), transporting Jewish refugees from Germany to Cuba and becoming involved in a notorious diplomatic muddle. No sooner was his work completed on that than von Sydow took plane for Rome where he joined the cast of Il deserto di Tartari (directed by Valerio Zurlini).

Despite so much continent hopping, however, this fine and subtle artist is fixed in most minds not only the archetypal Swedish actor but more specifically as the quintessential Bergman interpreter. A great deal of what von Sydow knows about acting was learned before he ever worked with Ingmar Bergman: he trained at the academy of the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm. But in the cinema his performance as Antonius Block, the knight in The Seventh Seal (1956), served Bergman's purpose so manifestly well that it seemed as if this single player (among a number of exceptionally good performers working fairly regularly with Bergman) was uncannily at one with this director–an impression consolidated by all the subsequent Bergman films in which von Sydow has appeared, including three that were made on the island of Fårö in the Baltic (where Bergman took up residence for much of his time): Through a Glass Darkly (1961), The Shame (1968) and A Passion (1969).

Fårö is sufficiently far from the mainland to make it essential for the actors and the crew to live there for the duration of the filming. It looks a gloomy place as well as a dramatically effective location. And it has been described by some who know it as very depressing. But von Sydow didn't find it so.

'Personally I like that kind of nature–very rough and yet beautiful in its simplicity. It's countrylike and peaceful. There's limestone rock full of fossils, with a lovely gray tone. And there are areas which are absolutely barren, almost like a rock desert. The forests have very low fir trees, and juniper bushes, green against the gray.'

The voice is quiet as he describes the place. He spoke English well long before he ever made his first English-language film, and today he speaks it like the most casual and instinctive of poets, the least flamboyant. The eyes were hooded as he talked of Fårö. The memory engrossed him. And I remarked that, in spite of the overwrought condition of the characters he played there for Bergman, he makes the island sound conducive to utter relaxation.

'So it is, for me. I would relax the moment a shot was finished. I always do that anyway, wherever I am. You have to. All the more when you are continually moving from one place to another, as I was while I was working in Voyage of the Damned. When I started to work in the English-language cinema, it was a total contrast to what I'd been used to in Sweden. Very small crews and very low budgets were suddenly replaced lots of people and equipment. It was very strange to me, but at the same time it was very stimulating. It was literally a new world, working in a foreign language and in areas which geographically I hadn't visited before.'

He would be happy to work again with Bergman from time to time. 'He's very easy to work with. We've had disagreements every now and then, but nothing serious. He isn't the tyrant that people often imagine him to be. Of course, he has a very strong influence on everything. He wants to know what is going on at all levels during the production, and he expects each person to report to him about any change, no matter how small, or any unforeseen development, however minor. But at the same time, he trusts his staff and his actors, and he gives them a lot of freedom. He's very generous with the initiative.

'The way he usually works is that he has an idea for a film, and at a fairly early point, before he has completed his screenplay, he talks to the actors he would like. First of all he asks them if the idea interests them, and if it does he asks whether they can be available when he is ready to go into production. If so, he finishes the screenplay with those specific actors in mind. Not that he writes his script according to the personal characteristics of those actors–what he does is to shape the characters in the film to suit the abilities of the actors, and he knows those abilities well.

'If he chooses me, he knows pretty well, of course, what he can get out of me. And he utilizes that knowledge all the time. So long as we are agreed initially on the attitude to the character, we don't need much discussion on the set. Only a little bit in the beginning, and that is about the lot. We both know from the start exactly what we're after.

Most of von Sydow's films were for Bergman during the 1950s and the first half of the 1960s. During that period The Face (1958: sometimes known as The Magician) is perhaps the most interesting in retrospect, combining as it does Bergman's two major themes of religion and art, and especially the dilemma of the artist whose contribution to life is primarily the maintenance of illusion.

Not only did this film seem to make exceedingly great demands upon von Sydow–demands to which he responded magnificently–but it can be viewed now as an affirmation of something that Jörn Donner (director of To Love, Black on White etc.) wrote in an article published in 1965: 'Swedish films have been–and still are–films d'auteurs; they are also to a great extent films d'acteurs. Without those unforgettable faces, from Garbo to Max von Sydow, from Lars Hanson to Eva Dahlbeck, the Swedish cinema would never have achieved its present position. This is also part of the tradition: the actor who can transform imagination into matter.'

Certainly, even in a film so utterly Bergmanian as The Face, von Sydow's acting was virtually a creative element. His face itself assumed when necessary the quality that made credible this character's identification with Christ:, an implicit and haunting factor of this powerful work. Von Sydow's own description of the enigma at the centre of the film is a neat one: "The faith-healer I played became a metaphor of the charismatic artist who inspires people who don't know him but who dream up things about him which are not real. All their visions of him are false.'

Set in the vicinity of Stockholm in the middle of the nineteenth century, The Face contrasted the silent dignity of the mesmerist-magician Vogler under brutal interrogation with the same man's towering anger when he takes an opportunity to revenge himself upon his chief opponent, the medical officer Dr. Vergerus (played by Gunnar Björnstrand, another versatile Bergman 'regular'). At a customs post, Vogler and his entourage are halted for questioning, and then obliged to stay at a consul's house, where Vergerus and others take pleasure in discerning the simple secrets of a few of Vogler's less ambitious feats of magic. But then Vogler applies his considerable powers of hypnotism to startling and rather witty effect, but one subject comes out of a trance and seemingly kills the magician. This, however, is a dark ruse on Vogler's part. He substitutes the disguised corpse of a recently dead actor for his own 'lifeless' body. Vergerus begins an autopsy, only to be interrupted by maddening visions of the apparently resurrected Vogler.

The revenge sequence itself is horror of the most elegant kind: a passage to be mentioned in the same breath as the climactic bathroom shocks of Henri-Georges Clouzot's Les diaboliques (1954). Bergman's showmanship, usually discreet, was at its most polished in this film; and pictorially in monochromatic cinematography by Gunnar Fischer was most distinguished, whether evoking a romantic mystery as Vogler's coach moved through a wood, or confronting us abruptly with the memorable frisson of an eyeball floating in an inkwell.

The film that came next, though, The Virgin Spring (1959), is arguably the best of von Sydow's work in that pre-Hollywood phase of his career. And the film as a whole, while dramatically more simple than The Face, is nevertheless a potent work and one that was much under-estimated in its day, partly because of the sensational impact at the time of the rape sequence. Again, vengeance was of the essence. But whereas Vogler in The Face has triumphed over his arch opponent and made a flourishing exit to give a command performance for the king, Töre (von Sydow's character in The Virgin Spring) discovers at the last that revenge is bitter.

Based on a Swedish legend from the fourteenth century, it is a tale of violence breeding more violence. Töre's daughter (Birgitta Pettersson) is animalistically pack-raped in a forest. The occasion lends itself to symbolism in the close-up of a bloated toad by way of prelude, and then to forthright realism for the deed itself, reaching its most notable extreme not in the copulative areas of anatomy but in a long and concentrated study of the girl's face as pain gave place to acquiescence.

The morning after The Virgin Spring was screened at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival, von Sydow and Birgitta Pettersson bravely faced up to a crowded press conference, in the course of which one male voice of what seemed at the time to be equal bravery, or perhaps a boldness ahead of its era, enquired if Miss Pettersson believed that most women who were raped must ultimately enjoy the experience–to which both she and von Sydow conceded gravely that such might well be the case.

For both of them it was an unnerving occasion. She was very young, and he was only thirty-one, although he looked older. He told me at the time, 'Ever since I was a boy in my early twenties everybody thought I was much older. I have a big face. Perhaps it's that.'

Cannes in 1960 was the first of three times I have interviewed von Sydow. At our most recent meeting I remarked that he smiles a good deal nowadays, whereas then, despite his surprisingly youngish aspect off-screen, his expression was almost constantly solemn.

'Maybe it's maturity or experience or something,' he said. 'But in any case I would hardly have smiled at Cannes that year. It was such a terrible feeling–my very first confrontation with the international motion picture industry of the large scale: my first international shock treatment. I'd never been to any film festival. We arrived two nights before The Virgin Spring was due to be shown. And the following afternoon we were supposed to go to see another film that was on just so that we would know what the Palais was like and what to expect when they screened The Virgin Spring. Well, it turned out that on that afternoon the film was L'avventura by Antonioni.'

The Cannes reception of L'avventura is notorious. The screening was punctuated by vociferous shouts of hostility and derision. Monica Vitti was led from the auditorium in tears.

'The people in the audience were behaving brutally,' von Sydow recalls, 'laughing and commenting and booing and whistling. And I remember that Birgitta and I were sitting there holding hands tight, thinking "Is this what's going to happen to us tomorrow?" It was like being in the dentist's chair. And the next day, every time during The Virgin Spring when something was coming up that I thought might be a bit touchy, I braced myself. As it happened, I think around the rape scene there was an attempt to make some kind of demonstration but they were sushed down.'

Either there were two festival showings that day, or else he has forgotten, but what stays in my mind from attending a Cannes showing of The Virgin Spring was the virtual contest in the audience between the booers and the applauders during the brilliantly realistic and violent sequence when von Sydow as Töre revenged himself upon the rapists. If ever violence were applied in a film with an anti-violent purpose, it was here. Brilliantly prefigured by the dawn landscape wherein Töre bent a birch tree to the ground, an image of controlled but persistent strength. Slashing off its branches, he used them in the process of his ritual cleansing. But only his body is clean. His thoughts are corrupt. And he bides his time with a reined-in anticipation that looks, in this masterly portrayal, a self-righteous equivalent of the sexual lust for which he is about to exact a primitive retribution. His own violence is more degrading to himself than was the rape to his daughter.

The religious connotation was strong. Töre in the closing scene vows to build a church in compensation to God for his own sin. And in a final touch that many a realist finds hard to take, God does not preserve his well-known 'silence' of certain other Bergman films: instead he causes a spring to flow spontaneously from the ground in token of forgiveness.

Perhaps no one should have been too surprised, all things considered, that the first Hollywood role played by von Sydow was Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). More interesting, but more elusive because it was not regarded as a box office proposition, was his second film in the States, The Reward, made the same year by the brilliant French stylist Serge Bourguignon, who three years previously on home ground had directed the beautiful if controversial Les dimanches de Ville d'Avray (UK and US title, Sundays and Cybele).

The Reward was filmed in Death Valley. At that time, of course, von Sydow had been in only one of Bergman's Fårö films, but nevertheless he recognized a certain affinity between this uncommon American atmosphere and that of the island he has described as a desert of rock. 'Death Valley was another kind of desert. And in a way it was an enjoyable production, but I became unhappy because we never really knew what was going to happen. I liked the screenplay originally very much when I read it. But then it was changed. The director took out almost all the dialogue. There was a fight going on, too, between him and the producer, Aaron Rosenberg, almost right throughout the shooting of the picture, about what kind of an ending it should have. Rosenberg wanted a happy ending and Bourguignon wanted a not-quite-as-happy ending. I think we ended up with two endings: one for Europe and the other for America.'

Among the tales of distress attached to The Reward was a possibly apocryphal but diverting one about a very important Hollywood executive viewing the film privately in San Francisco, and then taking the cans of film away with him by car and asking his chauffeur to stop on the Golden Gate Bridge, where he threw the whole lot into the water.

Those of us who were lucky enough to catch The Reward in the UK, where it had an ending I'd describe as moderately happy, might well have felt it a shade eccentric and at the same time endearing on account of its visual splendour (cinematographer: Joe MacDonald). The story had von Sydow as a crop-dusting pilot who crashes with an airborne somersault into a water tower, and is obliged to try to pay for the damage. By a stroke of luck he happens to see a car heading for the desert, and in it a man of his acquaintance (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.), who is wanted for kidnapping and murder and upon whose dead-or-alive head there is a reward in excess of the sum von Sydow needs. So he sets out with a group of greedy companions in a desert quest that might not be in the same class narrative-wise as Treasure of the Sierra Madre but is nevertheless, while indubitably speechless for much of its length, stunning to behold. In a desert cloudburst, sheets of lightning illuminate eroded earth, and the actors stand in a geometrical group to be sculpturally drenched. Horses leave white hoof-prints in the blackened ground. And forever the desert, in its harsh grandeur, seems to rebuke the wishful humans who venture upon its vast and forbidding territory.

Since The Reward was said to be a study in alienation, among other things, it certainly didn't give von Sydow or any of his fellow actors in the cast much opportunity to do more than register a mask-like fatalism. And one can see why he preferred the less interesting but more popular Hawaii made in 1966 under the direction of George Roy Hill, whose only really notable directorial effort up to that time had been the screen version of Lillian Hellman's play Toys in the Attic (1963), but who would subsequently become a top-notcher with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Slaughterhouse Five (1972), The Sting (1973) and The Great Waldo Pepper (1975).

Hawaii gave von Sydow the scarcely sympathetic role of an exceedingly hidebound missionary among the pagan Polynesians in the nineteenth century. And yet he managed to bring some measure of sympathy to it: a feat he would be inclined, no doubt, to attribute largely to the sensible screenplay by Dalton Trumbo and Daniel Taradash (based on a James A. Michener novel) and more especially to the direction: 'I enjoyed very much working with George Roy Hill, although Hawaii didn't really turn out to be a good film. There was a good feeling to making it–because he is a good director for actors. He was an actor himself to begin with–and he knows.'

A British film, The Quiller Memorandum (1966: directed by Michael Anderson), afforded von Sydow his fair share, among a starry cast, of pithy Harold Pinter dialogue (in a screenplay adapted from Adam Hall's novel The Berlin Memorandum). It also indicated the Swede's aptitude for useful impressions of what might be termed instant villainy. He played a neo-Nazi 'German gentleman,' marshalling his forces from a crumblingly romantic headquarters–a mansion of lost grandeur with a nevertheless stimulating painting of a nude above the fireplace. Von Sydow's creepy line in the interrogation of an adversary was echoed later in his portrayal of a Russian colonel in The Kremlin Letter (1969: directed by John Huston).

But the actor's personal favourite among such menace roles in thrillers would seem to be Joubert, the icy mercenary in Three Days of the Condor (1975: directed by Sydney Pollack). 'Another villain, certainly–but not of the traditional kind. That's why I enjoyed it.'

Meanwhile, of course, there had been some journeys back to Sweden, and to the cinema of Bergman; and there was a distinct whiff of thriller tactics, along with a refinement of fantasy, to Hour of the Wolf (1968). 'That was a tricky movie to do, but I liked it because it struck me as being a very sophisticated way of making a horror movie. A lot of things were suggested but never explained–which I also like.'

Set on an island (but not Fårö in this case), the film gave von Sydow the role of a painter, one of Bergman's portraits of an artist in anguish, conscience-stricken by the belief that in a world geared to facts there is only a secondary place for a man who deals in ideas. Hints of hallucination proliferate, especially in the elaborate climax when the painter's hand moves sensuously upon the flesh of a body presumed dead, whereupon life and seductive powers are restored to the former corpse. Bergman was virtually a step or two beyond the most sinister areas of Hitchcock's domain: ravens fluttered fearsomely at castle windows, other birds gathered ominously within. A race through woods became a bewildering fusion of the imagined and the actual.

Such fantasies as Bergman sets up are not by any means easy for an actor. One assumes that the 'real' is more difficult to portray than the 'unreal,' but von Sydow says that in such a film as Hour of the Wolf this is certainly not so. 'That's because in his fantasies Bergman tries also to be very realistic. It's important for the characters really to stay in character, so to speak–even when you pass a borderline, which is what happens in Hour of the Wolf.'

The painter he played was given an interesting psychological background, including the memory of a classic and traumatic punishment during childhood–being locked in a dark cupboard. We can glean, from an interview Bergman gave to Jörn Donner, that the writer-director had experienced just such a punishment in his own tender years.

Von Sydow, having emphasized that Bergman on the set is no tyrant, concedes that at the same time this powerful director 'is not a very harmonious person. He has his happy times, undoubtedly. And his more depressed times as well. And this influences his work, naturally. Yet there are no real problems of any consequence, as long as the technical side functions the way he intends.

'He knows the work so well, from many aspects. He is personally a very good cameraman. He has definite ideas on how a scene should be lit and how it should be photographed. He makes very tough demands on his staff.'

Presumably, this toughness has not daunted Sven Nykvist, cinematographer of so many Bergman films, who has shown when he works for other directors that his talent remains potent. But the rigours that formed his skill were evidently plentiful, and von Sydow recalls one of them, a series of pans during a dinner party in Hour of the Wolf.

'Bergman wanted to have the whole dinner table conversation, or as much of it as possible, without cuts–all in one take. His idea was to give the actors something near to the kind of continuity in performance that you get in the live theatre. Sven Nykvist usually operates his camera himself. And he was seated in front of us, and the table at which we sat was partly surrounding him, a bit like a semi-circle around him, or two-thirds of a round table. I remember Nykvist's total precision in his panning technique–because when you pan from one face to another as fast as he had to do, it's very difficult to stop each pan at a moment when you have an ideal composition on each person. In the long run I don't think he did get a lot of it. And his compositions were remarkably good–the more so when you consider the very demanding conditions of his work in that scene.

'For myself, what I especially liked about Hour of the Wolf was that you never could be sure what was real and what wasn't. The imagination of that paranoiac artist I played would take off from the existing reality and continue into his visions. I was fascinated by that scene on the beach where a strange little boy appeared and annoyed me, and finally he kind of jumped at me and bit me. You never know whether that child is really there, or if he's just a figment of the artist's imagination. You never knew if the other people on that island really existed at all, or even if their castle existed.'

The artist's dilemma, heightened by the state of the world he inhabits, was further explored in Bergman's The Shame, Fårö represented an island where a musician could hopefully retreat, existing on a separate level from those who inhabit the mainland–where there is war, a sign of the uncivilized; and yet the artist in his seclusion feels demeaned by his own non-violence, and his inability to kill a chicken properly seems to him now a token of his lack of manliness.

Von Sydow's point of identification is still keenest, it would seem, in relation to the artist-magician of The Face. All the distressed Bergman artists he has been called upon to play have been utterly convincing; but that one, Vogler, exciting too much expectation from those who observe his art, is akin to the charismatic figure von Sydow has become.

'An actor is not allowed to be his private self. This is something that must happen to every actor, particularly movie actors who have huge audiences, and more particularly if they appear in Bergman films or in a very popular film like The Exorcist. People expect the person behind the character to be like the part he is playing. And the moment when people finally discover that there is something else to the actor as an individual, they are likely to be disappointed.

'So many people who meet me for the first time are either quite obviously scared of me, or else they treat me with tremendous respect. Some of them expect me to be a deeply religious man, and I get all kinds of strange letters with questions I can't possibly answer–and even with demands, which I can't possibly live up to.'

Von Sydow, in fact, has relinquished his Lutheran faith and become an agnostic. But no doubt his upbringing, while Protestant, imbued him with something of the religious aura that he emanated so persuasively as the elder Roman Catholic priest in even the most hilarious extremities of The Exorcist. It is curious that for mass audiences the most lasting image of von Sydow to date is very possibly that moment from The Exorcist which appeared on all the posters: the challenged old priest, viewed from the back, full-length, silhouetted, facing the house he must enter to fight his battle against the possessive devil.

For a good many of us, though, it is the face of the actor that stays in mind: a face not always mobile, but constantly evocative, because whatever goes on in his mind is reflected unmistakably in the eyes. On such a face, the close-up thrives. And the actor gains, too, from the intimacy of the medium.

'In very close shots I can use means expression which nobody would be able to see if I used them on a stage. Thoughts register very well in close-up. Of course, you have to think the right thoughts.' The smile was quick to follow these words; and then came the sort of remark you would expect from only the most practical of artists. 'You have to breathe correctly, too. Breathing well and thinking right–that's what a close-up needs.'

1976 Films and Filming