The final move in the endgame

Max von Sydow says he just can't get the parts any more. And that his old friend Ingmar Bergman has finished with cinema. Gloomy? Who, Max?
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The Independent Culture

Time, time, time. The years are nagging away at Max von Sydow. More than once during our interview, he frets about how little time he has left. He won't do any more theatre because "it takes too much time"; he'd like to direct another movie after his success with the Herman Bang adaptation, Katinka, "but there isn't enough time for that".

The irony is obvious. The image that most readily springs to mind when audiences thinks of the Swedish actor is of the knight in The Seventh Seal (1957) playing chess on the beach with the grim reaper. It's a horrible cliché, but the more Von Sydow complains about the sands running out, the more he begins to sound like the saturnine, haunted figure Bergman's movies so often portrayed.

It's a shock how ravaged and worn he looks in his new film, Snow Falling On Cedars (see Anthony Quinn's review opposite). His character, Nels Gudmundsson, is a defence lawyer: an ancient, tweed-jacketed, bow tie-wearing Clarence Darrow type, wrinkled, rickety on his feet, forever coughing and dabbing at his leaky nose. Von Sydow milks the pathos. It's the kind of performance that invariably gets nominated for Best Supporting Actor awards. This is the decent old sage, coming towards the end of his life, who wants to see justice done. Nels appeals to the jury, which he fears is going to convict the wrong man, by telling them that humanity itself is on trial. When he says "you are giving a report card for the human race", there is a hint of moistness in his eyes and a very slight waver in his voice. It's cornball stuff, but Von Sydow knows how to put it over.

"He was a character I felt I had met somewhere," he says in that sonorous, slightly accented English that Nils uses when I ask why he took the role. "He represents commonsense. He has lived a lot - he understands." Von Sydow hadn't read the David Guterson novel on which the movie is based, he was just happy to be offered a part in a film "that dealt with ordinary human beings", had no special effects, and ended on a positive note. "Everybody makes the right choice." The script, he adds, was "a miracle".

Snow Falling On Cedars is one of the few films that Von Sydow has made in recent years. The last big Hollywood production he starred in was the dire What Dreams May Come, and he doesn't want to talk about that. At present, he admits, there are no new offers. "The moment is not too good," he says. "I am growing away from all the good parts..."

We're used to the idea of Von Sydow as the tormented loner, but he's more versatile than his image suggests. In the course of a film career which now stretches to 51 years (he made his screen début in Alf Sjöberg's Bara En More in 1949), he has played assassins, Nazis, artists, priests, magicians and therapists. In his American movies, he was often the villain. His features were almost too strong; that brooding, angular face was not what casting directors wanted in light, romantic leads.

He's wry about his time in Hollywood, and his first American role in particular. In 1965 he starred as Christ in George Stevens' The Greatest Story Ever Told. "Playing Jesus was in a way an impossible task," he suggests, deadpan. "It was my first part in a non-Swedish film and it didn't turn out at all how I expected." He chuckles at the memory of wading into the Colorado River to be baptised by John The Baptist (a very hairy Charlton Heston). The extras were all true believers, seeing the movie as a celluloid pilgrimage. "They did it because it was supposed to be the definitive life of Jesus on film." He was treated very strangely. "They expected me to be very dedicated on every level which, of course, I wasn't. I was professionally dedicated, but that was all."

Von Sydow had been brought up as a Lutheran, but was not especially religious. (Luther, he reckons, was misunderstood: "he was a cheerful man, a nice man - I'm sure he had his reasons for protesting.") After his many films with Bergman, Von Sydow was also a little thrown by Stevens' style of all-star filmmaking. This was the movie in which John Wayne, in centurion outfit and tinpot helmet, yells out the words "Truly this man was the son of a God!" as the unfortunate Von Sydow hangs from the crucifix. Telly Savalas, Sidney Poitier, Claude Rains, Donald Pleasence, Pat Boone, Shelley Winters - every time you blink, there is another cameo. "Oh... look... there's him and him and him!" Von Sydow waves his finger around. "It must have been a very disorientating experience for audiences."

He only took the part because he was intrigued by the original screenplay, which was by poet Carl Sandberg. Even so, playing Jesus changed Von Sydow's life. From being a respected member of the Bergman repertory company, he was transformed into an international actor. Like Peter Lorre or Conrad Veidt a generation before, he has been too often used in Hollywood as the exotic European, cultured, villainous or pious as the parts demanded. "They've seen me in Bergman films. They believe that's the only thing I can do - be a Bergman actor," he says of the audiences, critics and casting directors. "Bergman's films are rather dark and they think that's the way I am too."

Bergman, he notes, is currently rehearsing a new production of a Strindberg play in Stockholm. "I understand he's tired... every time he does anything, people expect a miracle." He doubts Bergman will make more movies. "The pressure was too high. Fanny And Alexander was very difficult for him. In many ways, it was a summing up, a final word. He can't stand the pressure because he's a perfectionist. He wants everything to be just the way he asked for it. Too often, there are unpleasant surprises and he just can't take it."

Sadly, thanks to the vagaries of foreign-language distribution in the UK, British audiences have yet to see Von Sydow in what he considers to be one of his greatest screen performances - as the Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun (Pan, Hunger) in Jan Troell's biopic, Hamsun. "It's a complex story about a very strange and complex man," he reflects on the controversial 1996 film which he talks about every bit as passionately as Snow Falling On Cedars. To rehearse the history - Hamsun was a Nobel Prize winner, but in his own homeland he has never been forgiven for meeting Hitler and for encouraging young Norwegians to welcome the Nazis. "He was deaf, he couldn't hear anything. He was 80 years old when the war started," Von Sydow explains. "You had to holler at him, but he didn't get the right information. The newspapers he read were censored. He thought that everything was fine."

It didn't help that Hamsun loathed the British. "He'd seen what had happened in their colonies in the late-19th century. Furthermore, he felt Britain threatened Norway as a seafaring nation." Hamsun was tried for treason after the war. He defended himself, making a strange, rambling speech, "very pathetic and very moving... and during this humiliating period, when they tried to declare him senile, he wrote a wonderful, youthful book."

Given that he refuses to work on stage, Von Sydow's Hamsun is as close as we're likely to come to his Lear. For all his carping, though, the 71-year-old actor sounds content enough. He now lives in the countryside in France, spending much of his time gardening. "Being Swedish, I have a close relationship with nature." He goes to Paris a lot, finding "thousands of things to do". You don't quite believe him when he says that the roles have dried up and there is nothing on the horizon. One of these days he'll win an Oscar. When he does, you can bet he'll once again be resurrected as Hollywood's favourite Swede.