Max Von Birthday Boy: Five Powerful Von Sydow Roles in Bergman Films

Art house titan Max Von Sydow turns 82 today. During the art house explosion in America in the 50’s and 60’s, Von Sydow became a memorable face for fans of foreign cinema. Later in his career after more than two decades working with longtime collaborator Ingmar Bergman, Von Sydow made the jump across the pond to the United States. It was here that he’s forged his mid-to-late career, often appearing as science fiction or horror villains. The man simply does not give a bad performance, regardless of what type of costume he’s wearing; the genre he’s performing in; or what language he’s required to speak. Without the Bergman era, though, his career might have stalled in Swedish theaters. And so on his birthday today, let’s honor Von Sydow’s Bergman era films. Here are five powerful Von Sydow roles in Ingmar Bergman films.

1. Andreas Winkelman, The Passion of Anna (1969)
Though the film revolves around several sexually mismatched characters, Von Sydow’s turn as the grief-stricken Andreas is the glue that holds the film together. Without Von Sydow’s superb performance of Andreas’ wild character arc, the interlocking stories would have crumbled and burned.

2. Albert Vogler, The Magician (1958)
The role of Vogler required a special brand of mysteriousness, silence, and creepiness. Von Sydow delivered it with aplomb, bringing to life the powerful juxtaposition between Vogler’s supernatural highjinx and the cold, calculated rationality of Dr. Vergerus (Gunnar Björnstrand).

3. Johan Borg, Hour of the Wolf (1968)
Von Sydow had a bit of an impossible task here- he had to channel Ingmar Bergman, the artist, and fight all of Bergman’s demons. Getting sucked into another person’s life and battling all of their demons may sound like the premise for a video game, but it was the premise for an underappreciated masterpiece in 1968. The character arc: new island resident; then plagued by his own various issues; finally ends up psychologically self-tortured and in drag, ultimately missing in action from his wife. It’s as close to horror as Bergman ever came and Von Sydow’s performance made it happen.

4. Töre, The Virgin Spring (1960)
What would a father do when presented with the chance to exact revenge upon the people who raped and murdered his virginal daughter? Von Sydow effectively displayed first a deep love of his teenage daughter, and then the fierce rage upon avenging the awful deeds that befell her.

5. Antonius Block, The Seventh Seal (1957)
This is the film that launched Von Sydow to international fame, and with good reason. The depth of emotion and theological self-searching provided as Antonius Block is one of my favorite performances in any film ever made. It’s an enduring role that’s accompanied by numerous legendary images (see the article header for just one of them, minus the birthday festive attire).


Filed under Foreign Film, Ingmar Bergman, Movies, Swedish Film

11 responses to “Max Von Birthday Boy: Five Powerful Von Sydow Roles in Bergman Films

  1. Phil

    What would you pick for 5 great non-Bergman roles?

    • That’s a tough one because I haven’t seen all that much from his non-Bergman films. For instance, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a hole in my viewing experience, and it’s supposed to be one of his best. The best of the few that I’ve seen would include:
      -The Exorcist
      -Shutter Island
      -Needful Things (campy, not-so-good movie, but I loved Von Sydow as the Devil)
      -Flash Gordon (Ming the Merciless is so funny and so cheesy)
      And I guess Conan the Barbarian? I’d like to see someone who’s seen most of his non-Bergman stuff take a stab at that one.

  2. I guess I never warmed to Max Von Sydow until I saw The Seventh Seal. I’d seen him tons of times in American movies before that, but… Antonius Block blew my mind. And as you’ve skilfully observed, it was only the beginning for Max Von Sydow. I’ve only seen two of the five movies, but I’m going to try and watch them all.

  3. I keep hearing a lot about The Seventh Seal, I’m going to have to bump that higher up on my watch list, both for actors and Bergman, the latter of which I’m trying to get more into just in general. Diving Bell is another supposed great I have not seen, but on the flip side of that I actually wasn’t the biggest fan of Shutter Island. Great review of who is no doubt a great actor, though.

  4. I am learning so much these days. I knew nothing of Von Sydow, but reaing your post made me want to know more.
    Then when you commented on his NON Bergman work I knew exactly who he is. Great actor, Ming the Merciless was a fave baddie from my childhood.

    Great read, as always


  5. @da_Rhettster

    WHAT?!?! No “Strange Brew?” How dare you sir? If I had a glove, I would strike you roundly about the head and shoulders with it.

    Good day to you sir.


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