Before he became a cinematic legend in the films of Ingmar Bergman and as Father Merrin in “The Exorcist,” Max von Sydow engaged in far more intense performances for survivors of Nazi death camps in his native Lund, Sweden.
After greeting a visitor with a courtly bow in Beverly Hills recently, the regal, 82-year-old actor recalled how the Jews had been invited to Lund to heal in refugee camps. The townspeople, including von Sydow’s parents, showered the survivors with clothing and food, and the 16-year-old Max did his part by performing for the visitors with the local youth folk dance troupe.
“These poor people came and were staying at whatever was available, in the schools, and in the big bathhouse, and we spent our weekends touring and dancing for them — something I will never forget, because it was very emotional,” von Sydow said in a hushed, accented baritone. “Some were carried in on stretchers to watch the shows; for many, it was their first entertainment after the hell of the camps.”
Von Sydow and his colleagues made sure to sing the national anthems of the survivors’ countries of origin: “I’ve never had an audience like that,” he said. “These were people, many of whom were gravely ill, who came and spent perhaps a couple of weeks in our town before they died. We were just trying to do as much as was possible for them at the time. Many of them are still in Lund, in a huge graveyard with foreign names.”
Von Sydow was in high school during the war: “What can I say? I was naïve, and of course I did not understand the profundity of the tragedy,” he said. “But that spring, when these people were sent to us, to hopefully survive, made a very deep impression on me.”
Today, the thespian is up for a supporting actor Oscar for playing a survivor of a different kind, in Stephen Daldry’s “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer. The story tells of a boy named Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), who has lost his father (Tom Hanks) in the Sept. 11 attacks and embarks upon an unusual quest to connect with his late parent. Von Sydow plays a mysterious, mute tenant who moves in with Schell’s grandmother and eventually accompanies Oskar on his journey across New York City. Known simply as The Renter, he communicates only by writing notes or holding up a hand to signify “yes” or “no.” He has not spoken a word, we learn, since losing his entire family during the Allied bombing of the German city of Dresden during World War II.
“When that happened, he was destroyed,” von Sydow said. “He felt a profound guilt that he did not die with the others. Everyone he knew just disappeared, and so he decides he will never say anything again — not a word — and he hasn’t. I wouldn’t call it an intellectual decision; it was a profound emotional shock that leaves him mute for the rest of his life.
“The film is a great way of treating the Sept. 11 disaster, but I don’t see it as a film about 9/11,” von Sydow continued. “It’s a film about finding a way to heal yourself after a terrible loss. It’s a way of talking about survivor’s guilt across all kinds of tragedies.”
Along with villains and priests, von Sydow’s more than 120 film roles have included their share of German, Jewish or Nazi characters, a typecasting he acknowledges with an ironic laugh. “It’s because I’m a foreigner — and also because I probably look German and my name is German,” he said. “Many casting directors go for the easy thing: It’s ‘Ah, we need somebody to play a Nazi officer — von Sydow has done it, so let’s ask him.’ And it’s boring.”
The actor, nevertheless, has accepted what he has perceived as the best of these roles: He won awards for portraying the Norwegian Nazi sympathizer Knut Hamsun in Jan Troell’s 1996 biopic “Hamsun”; he was a psychiatrist who may or may not have been a Nazi in Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island,” and he has played various Jewish survivors in films such as the 2001 Spanish thriller “Intacto” and the TV movie “Emotional Arithmetic,” opposite Susan Sarandon.
Von Sydow’s acting career actually began around the time the Jewish survivors came to Lund, when, despite the disapproval of his traditional Lutheran parents, he formed a theater troupe and attended performances at the municipal theater where Bergman was making a splash. “I suspect I was not very happy with myself,” he said of his being drawn to the profession. “I felt awkward and probably had inferiority complexes right and left, and it was very exciting suddenly to be very important and to say very intelligent or witty things, and resolve critical situations, which all these actors were doing on the stage.”
Von Sydow eventually made some 15 films with Bergman, becoming an international star for his turns in “Wild Strawberries,” “The Virgin Spring” and “The Seventh Seal,” in which his character famously plays chess with Death on the beach. Although Bergman’s films tend to be angst-ridden, von Sydow remembers the late director as “a very charming man with a great sense of humor, a wonderful laugh and a great imagination.”
He credits Bergman with the approach he has used to create characters during his more than six decades on stage and screen. “Even when playing famous parts in classic plays, he told us not to take the characters so seriously,” von Sydow said. “They got hungry and tired and had to go to the bathroom. They may have had special intelligences, but apart from that, they were totally human beings all of the time.”
The actor, however, is surprisingly critical of what many people consider to be his best performances. Every time he sees that sequence of himself playing chess with Death, he said, “I’m shocked by the way I am saying the lines, as if I am in the theater and trying to reach the balcony. Even though Death is right there, our conversations are like this,” he said, raising his voice to a thunderous volume. “It’s not intimate, which is the way it should be. Marlon Brando wouldn’t have done it like that, you see.”
Next comes a critique of his first Hollywood role, playing Jesus in George Stevens’ “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” “I happened to watch that not long ago and I was very, very disappointed,” he said. “I found it very stiff, just kind of cardboard characters, including mine.”
He is happier with his turn as The Renter in “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” explaining that he approached the role in the same way as any other. “It’s a matter of finding out, what does this man want in life — and in a particular scene? Why does he treat other characters this way? Why does he ask the questions he asks? It’s a matter of why, why, why, and the emotions should arrive on the way,” he said.
Von Sydow’s work in the film has earned him his second Academy Award nomination — his first was for playing an immigrant farmer in “Pelle the Conqueror” in 1987 — and he responded to the news by sharing a glass of champagne with his wife, Catherine Brelet. “To me, the nomination is very moving because it’s from your colleagues, who obviously know something about your profession,” he said. “It’s wonderful, and I’m very happy about it.”