In Memory of Max von Sydow

An ode to one of the greatest actors to ever grace the silver screen.

Max von Sydow was a Swedish actor with an extensive career in both European and American cinema. During his acting years, he was famous for not only the roles in "The Seventh Seal," "The Exorcist" and "Flash Gordon." (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Two nights ago, I watched “The Seventh Seal.” In it, Max von Sydow faces Death and finds himself in a constant battle of wits with the ominous entity only to be gracefully carried away by him in a joyous dance right before the credits roll. 

Three nights ago, Max von Sydow passed away. 

Even early in his career, Ingmar Bergman remarked that “Max is wonderful. You’ll see that posterity will consider him as one of the greatest actors of our time.” Whether you remember him as Emperor Ming from “Flash Gordon,” Lor San Tekka from “Star Wars” or Karl Oskar from “The Emigrants,” his towering presence and fragile face will always be a synonym for cinematic grandiosity. 

Looking back on his filmography yesterday, his versatility became ever so pronounced before my eyes. Max von Sydow did it all: Oscar pictures, mainstream fantasy tales, historical epics and arthouse gems, all the while remaining the same unpretentious and lovable Swede he first introduced himself as when he started working with Bergman decades ago. The legacy Sydow and Bergman built together is unparalleled in cinema history and shall remain etched in the annals of artistry as one of the most sacred budding of minds ever to grace the silver screen. 

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That said, Sydow’s talents weren’t solely harnessed by Bergman. His works with the likes of Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, William Friedkin and David Lynch signify just how artful Sydow was at his craft all the while magnifying the tremendous effects of his loss. 

To witness Max von Sydow wrestle a tree in “The Virgin Spring” reifies the pain of futility and to experience him stand up to Kylo Ren embodies resistance. Sydow did not simply act; he incarnated the directions of masters, yielding the films he acted in pregnant with meaning. It’s for this very reason that it pains me to write about his passing, as his absence suggests his ability to inject moments with immense doses of meaning will become a mere memory. 

This is why his legacy must be kept alive and his memory treasured. The sanctity of his imprint on cinema history is now in our hands and it is our duty to help him transcend the putrid physicality of death. So long as we remember what it was that made him so valuable and take care of his memory by watching, rewatching and diffusing his art, I’m sure we’ll be doing good by Sydow.

Now, it’s all a matter of remembrance. In the same way I have recollected and pondered about those moments that made Max von Sydow so much more than a mere actor, I invite you to take a breath and recollect on what it was that made him such a graciously unique cinematic presence. Here’s to a long-lived man who gave it his all, who offered his mind, body and soul to the silver-screen, a man who exemplified the term friendly giant with his very existence, a gentle soul that shall be missed forevermore.

Goodnight, Max von Sydow. 

Email Nicolas Pedrero-Setzer at [email protected]

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