Best Max von Sydow Movies, Ranked – MovieWeb

Elevating every production regardless how minor the role, Max von Sydow specialized in brooding men struggling to maintain their wits amid chaos.
With constant roles from his 20s into his 80s, Max von Sydow segued from work in a fly-by-night theater troupe, to small regional films, more mainstream productions, and finally settling into billion-dollar blockbusters before passing away in 2020. In his later years, the Swede would come familiar to yet another generation with performances in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Game of Thrones, and voice work in the video game Skyrim.
For an imposing blond guy with a nondescript accent and the misfortune to have the middle name "Adolf," it's a miracle he wasn't typecast as the Nazi baddie in the 50s and 60s, which might explain his reluctance to go to Hollywood earlier. The Swedish actor is most synonymous with fellow countryman Ingmar Bergman, who launched him into stardom. These early Swedish-language performances are his finest movies, though he would eventually become a fixture in Hollywood and European films, making random art-house films one year and Judge Dredd the next.
Elevating every production regardless how minor the role, von Sydow specialized in brooding men struggling to maintain their wits amid chaos. While it's hard to take some of his films seriously, von Sydow approached everything with the same level of gravitas and pathos whether he was playing Jesus Christ or Vigo the Carpathian. The list here is but a small sample of an overwhelming body of work that deserves your attention. For the sake of clarity, only English titles will be used.
Beware who you persecute. Who or what exactly The Magician is lampooning is up for some debate, director and writer Ingmar Bergman wrapping the fantasy up in several layers of allegory and allusions. As one character neatly sums it up, the "whole enterprise is deception." At the risk of spoiling the fun, Bergman was nice enough to explain in detail what he meant if you really want to know (via YouTube). To put it simply, he did not like critics.
In the titular role, von Sydow plays the cryptic Albert Vogler, a benign huckster hounded by the local authorities, delivering his own form of revenge for their abusive behavior. Mute for large segments of the film, Vogler's actions speak louder than any mere words. As Bergman once admitted to a reporter, "There is something joyous about not talking," (via The Guardian).
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Joining forces with Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise in 2001's Minority Report, von Sydow showed a versatility that ranged from surreal horror, existential comedy, to science fiction. Luckily, this is much better than Flash Gordon. Though not on screen for much of the runtime, his co-star turn offered a highly effective performance in the dystopian sci-fi flick based on a book by legendary science fiction auteur Philip K. Dick. The cautionary tale of technocracy out of control features the innocently named "Precrime" unit. A marvel of science, we soon learn that even the greatest technological breakthrough is still victim to one inescapable flaw: the human element.
Often times, the fun of Bergman films is watching the psychological train wreck unfold. You know it's coming, but it's a matter of what form it will take, not unlike an episode of Jerry Springer. The Passion of Anna doesn't veer from the formula, but disregard the suggestive title. Despite being renamed for American distribution to convince people this was a dirty European film, the term "passion" here is used in biblical sense to imply the character's ordeal and inner struggle. And for once, von Sydow gets to play the "normal one," which doesn't mean much in this village. He's tragically flawed, but self-aware, which is more than can be said for most of these nutcases.
About the only thing that fails is the immersion-breaking interviews with the actors mid-movie. It was 1969, and experimental gimmickry was unfortunately common in European films, ironically a trend which he himself was quick to criticize.
Debuting in 1960 with stunning cinematography by Sven Nykvist, the Swedish-language film, The Virgin Spring, marks a turn from personal stories from writer/director Bergman to that of a fable loosely based on an ancient Scandinavian oral legend. Yup, this one gets dark. In his movies, von Sydow rarely got the girl, and even in the rare cases he was spared that misfortune, there always something else much worse waiting on the horizon for his characters. In his most interesting films he was never cast as the "good guy," nor as a traditional villain. His roles usually placed him in stories where the character experienced the full gamut of emotions and morality, never so clear as in The Virgin Spring, where he plays a grieving father on the warpath. Where there is beauty, there is wretchedness. Where there is found joy, stoicism, and compassion also inevitably there will be dread, outbursts, and brutality. Sometimes all these in the same human.
Filmed around the same time as The Passion of Anna, Shame is no less harrowing. However, it looked outward to contemporary issues rather than lingering on inner psychology. It chronicles the plight of an ordinary couple (played by von Sydow and Liv Ullmann) lost amid a nameless country, hopelessly watching television for updates as a guerilla war battles an unknown invasion. The couple's marriage, like the fabric of society, fraying to shreds during an unspecified conflict. Landing in theaters in 1968, precisely as the Vietnam War escalated and the same month the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia, it attracted attention for its timely and controversial themes. In an absurd twist, despite being clearly anti-war, the political shitstorm of the era was so caustic, that the most vitriolic criticism aimed at Shame was for refusing to publiclly take the "correct" side. No wonder Bergman hated critics.
Von Sydow doesn't disappoint as the enigmatic Alsatian assassin who stalks Robert Redford's character across Manhattan in Sydney Pollack's action flick, Three Days of the Condor. Released during the Watergate scandal, the 1975 film marks the sweet spot of the seventies spy genre, brilliantly invoking the byzantine web of allegiances, hidden power structures, and paranoia associated with an unscrupulous CIA run amok. Faye Dunaway and Cliff Robertson bolster the cast in a slightly preposterous but enjoyable political thriller about a desk jockey who accidentally bumbles into the crosshair of the US government.
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Riddled with guilt, torn by memories of his past and various temptations and what is insinuated as hallucinations, protagonist Johan Borg was a proxy for Bergman, who was tormented by his own regular nightmares. Von Sydow naturally landed the role, standing in for the writer/director as usual. The boundaries of sanity and the dreamworld are blurred as the nightmarish scenarios spiral out of control. We are never fully aware if what we are witnessing is actually happening in reality or in Borg's sleep-deprived head. One of the best examples of the deranged-artist trope in all of cinema, Hour of the Wolf doesn't pull any punches, depicting the misanthropic painter and codependent wife dragging each other deeper into insanity like quicksand, shackled together by their unbreakable emotional bond. Consider this Bergman's perverse idea of a love story.
There's not much to be said for William Friedkin's 1973 Exorcist adaptation that hasn't already been stated. Perhaps by coincidence, the Swedish actor was cast in a role that prominently features questions of faith, madness, and suffering, which were key elements of many of his earlier films. Yeah, that's von Sydow playing Father Lankester Merrin, just in case you could not tell it is him under the two pounds of appliances and makeup to age him thirty-plus years, the spry actor disappearing into the role of a feeble old man dodging pea soup from Linda Blair.
Now in full swing of the Hollywood stage of his career, the Swede provides a framing narrative in the demonic-themed horror classic, playing a priest scholar who has devoted his entire life to investigating and battling evil alongside his flaky protégé. Father Damien, played by Jason Miller, steals the movie, it should be noted. It's not really as scary as it's reputation promises, but remains a compelling thriller and fantastic character study.
His best work and the film that lifted von Sydow into international stardom, the world has Ingmar Bergman's overactive imagination to thank for The Seventh Seal, developing the idea daydreaming while staring blankly at a church window instead of paying attention to the sermon. Bergman's historical drama is his way of exploring existential themes through the prism of a supposedly "simpler" medieval life.
Heading the cast is von Sydow. It's hard to imagine a different actor matching wits with the devil in that chess game, the young von Sydow possessing the solemn, cold stare befitting a traumatized knight fighting an endless war of faith. Because this is Bergman, it's ultimately a losing battle, but von Sydow's depiction of Antonius Bloch provides him one last chance to do good on earth as he contemplates the meaning of life amid his failure on earth. Later films from these two collaborators would touch on similar themes, The Seventh Seal acting as the ideal introduction to von Sydow's career as well as Bergman's.


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