March 9, 2020

Death comes for Max von Sydow.



The great Swedish actor was 90. From the NYT obituary:
Carl Adolf von Sydow was born on April 10, 1929, in Lund, in southern Sweden.... He was said to have adopted the name Max from the star performer in a flea circus he saw while serving in the Swedish Quartermaster Corps....

For all his connection to the land of his birth and of Bergman, Sweden became distant to Mr. von Sydow.... "I have nowhere really to call home... I feel I have lost my Swedish roots. It’s funny because I’ve been working in so many places that now I feel at home in many locations. But Sweden is the only place I feel less and less at home."
Did he really name himself after a flea?! From a 2012 interview (in The Guardian):
Is it true he named himself after a flea? "Ha ha ha!" booms Von Sydow, his laugh filling the room. "Yes! Ha ha ha! During my military service, I performed a sketch in which I played a flea called Max. So when critics kept misspelling my name, I decided to change it and thought, 'Ah! Max!'"
Ah, so it was not an actual flea "in a flea circus he saw," as the New York Times put it. He himself was in a show playing a character that happened to be a flea.

A flea circus is a show on a tiny stage that has real fleas performing (or tiny imitation fleas):
The first records of flea performances were from watchmakers who were demonstrating their metalworking skills. In 1578, Mark Scaliot produced a lock and chain that were attached to a flea. The first recorded flea circus dates back to the early 1820s, when an Italian impresario called Louis Bertolotto advertised an “extraordinary exhibition of industrious fleas” on Regent Street, London. Some flea circuses persisted in very small venues in the United States as late as the 1960s....
Here's Charlie Chaplin with his flea circus in one of my all-time favorite movies — "Limelight" (which I'll put up as a meditation on death alongside "The Seventh Seal," so please make that your double feature):

50 comments:

richlb said...

Did any flea circus have actual fleas? I thought "flea circus" meant a display mechanical toys designed small to look as if fleas were actually moving them. I didn't know any actually had real fleas as more than just decoration.

Bill, Republic of Texas said...

So when critics kept misspelling my name,

Critics were misspelling "Carl" and/or "Adolph" after the war? What Carl with a "K"?

Ann Althouse said...

"Did any flea circus have actual fleas?"

Yes. Read the linked Wikipedia article.

It involved gluing things to the flea and the fleas were not actually trained or aware that they were performing. They didn't live long.

tcrosse said...

Does the flea market have actual fleas?

Ken B said...

Only 90? Somehow I had him pegged as older.

After The Seventh Seal watch Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.

rehajm said...

Only 90? Somehow I had him pegged as older.

In film he was always the old man to me...

Most often quoted von Sydow: The reason they can never answer the question "How could it possibly happen?" is that it's the wrong question. Given what people are, the question is "Why doesn't it happen more often?"

Fernandistein said...

My main memory of that movie was that the anguished guy's sidekick looked like my Dad.

Ann Althouse said...

It is at least quite obvious that a theatrical show with a man playing the part of a flea is not a flea circus.

narciso said...

yes he was only six years older then redford, when he played the Alsatian hitman in condor, they picked him for his gravitas as a Kenobi stand in in the force awakens,

Quaestor said...

Does the flea market have actual fleas?

Why else would the flea market be constantly scratching? Hives?

narciso said...

playing off his grave manner

JPS said...

Ken B:

"Only 90? Somehow I had him pegged as older."

I had too. It took a visit to IMDB to realize he was only in his late 20s when The Seventh Seal came out.

narciso said...

I had forgotten how he chewed the scenery, as ming in flash Gordon,

Wince said...

He was only 43 when he played the "old priest" in The Exorcist.

In The Exorcist (1973), he played the 80-year-old Father Merrin ("The power of Christ compels you! The power of Christ compels you!") when he was 43.

mockturtle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
narciso said...

Bergmann, yes I never got the gist, that's why the seventh seal was satirized by will sadler in bill and ted,

mockturtle said...

His [Bergman's] films were about the most depressing I've ever seen but I suppose that was the point. How is it that Kurasawa could make equally depressing films that didn't leave one feeling depressed? I suspect it was the colorful characters and the scope of the cinematography. [edited for clarification]

Francisco D said...

Max had quite a screen presence.

Temujin said...

Loved him as an actor. He did such a wide range of work and he always stood out in any scene in which he appeared. He had that perfect European accent when he spoke English. I probably first saw him in college, studying Bergman films and getting totally immersed in "The Seventh Seal". But my favorite is probably the character he played in Woody Allens, "Hannah and her Sisters".

In regard to 'The Seventh Seal', my favorite take on it came from another European troupe. Mr. Reaper

Roughcoat said...

He was a real cool kat. RIP, Max.

Quaestor said...

The best Bergman parody ever, ever, ever!

And boy howdy did that dreary Dane (well, almost), that nebulous Nordic, that boring Balt, that tedious Teuton ever deserve the treatment.

Nichevo said...

No more Liet-Kynes either.

Quaestor said...

No more Liet-Kynes either.

Did the man have any standards? Any at all? He must have had a ginormous coke habit to have not returned his check and had his name removed from that barnyard beast.

tcrosse said...

Von Sydow looked a lot like my Scots-Irish grandfather, who was one scarey dude.

narciso said...

Im a fan of dune, and most big sand film.

rcocean said...

What a great actor, sorry to hear he died. But he was 90, so not unexpected. Great films:

Wild Strawberries
Winter Light
Seventh Seal
Virgin Spring

and of course he's greatest role: Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon.

rcocean said...

Carl Adolph. Yeah, I can see why he switched to "Max". Probably the only role I didn't like was the Reverend in "Hawaii". Terribly written part.

rcocean said...

His greatest "old man Role" was probably Hamsun. He played the cranky old bastard to perfection.

Stu Grimshaw said...

Klytus, I’m boooorrred!


Rest In Peace Ming!

Yancey Ward said...

Von Sydow always looked to be about 70 years old ever since he was 40.

Bay Area Guy said...

From Robert Redford (3 Days of the Condor) to Woody Allen (Hannah & Her Sisters), he will be missed.

RIP, Max

DimWhit said...

The Seventh Seal was one of the movies that turned me on to movies, when I moved from the
rural sticks to big-city Cleveland for college. Double feature w/ Darling, I think, at local art house cinema. Always enjoyed Max ever since....

Andrew said...

Max will be missed.

Anthony said...

Too bad. He was not 'proud' which I say in the sense that he seems to have just loved working. cf., Ming, Liet-Kynes, King Osric (Conan the Barbarian), and, of course, his greatest role as Brewmeister Smith in the greatest movie of all time, Strange Brew.

Bay Area Guy said...

Can't forget The Exorcist, either. That flick freaked out the entire nation. At the time, it was an epic phenomenon.

Tina Trent said...

Who will play chess with death now?

Lazarus said...

So when critics kept misspelling my name, I decided to change it and thought, 'Ah! Max!'"

A wise move. Adolf von Anything wouldn't have had much of a career in movies.

narciso said...

now the senior judge in judge dredd, that was slumming a bit,

Jim at said...

of course, his greatest role as Brewmeister Smith in the greatest movie of all time, Strange Brew.

Thank you. I was waiting for someone to make that reference.

Howard said...

Go easy, Max

Nichevo said...


Quaestor said...
No more Liet-Kynes either.

Did the man have any standards? Any at all? He must have had a ginormous coke habit to have not returned his check and had his name removed from that barnyard beast.



Wait, what? Somebody on the internet didn't love David Lynch's Dune? Now I have a sadz.

Lewis said...

Oh, I liked him - like one likes an 'actor' - people who have hollowed out themselves in order to be 'other' - hence their superficiality - so I didn't like 'him', for there was no 'him' to like, but the films he made with others. Of course, Bergman but, then, was it the Ipcress File, with Michael Cane? Or am I confusing two films - the other one with Voigt? No that's it - with neither of them but deffinately in Berlin - starring the guy who became a director or, atleast rhymed with someone who became a director. George Segal, that's it. He get's interrorgated by Max Von Sidow's charachter - he could always 'play' a Nazi, in this case a communist, which was extremely unfair to him, being Swedish (I think!) and not a quisling.

Lewis said...

It reminds me of that other 'character', Woody Allen, though, in that case, but profound, grunded ( my take on a German word ). Wasn't Max in one of his films or did I just imagine that? Perhaps in 'A Mid Summers Sex Commedy' or did I imagine that?!

Lewis said...

I know that Allen smiled at him and will miss him ( his 'Europeaness' )

Lewis said...

Of course, Bergman, Max Vo Sidow, Woody Allen - what's there not to connect? We all remember the joke even if it was not precisely said in that way!

Kai Akker said...

his gravitas

Yes, it made The Seventh Seal work when it could have been just a historico-quirky number. When a teacher in the summer session I was attending showed it as our Saturday night entertainment, another student and I managed to borrow the print and watched it twice more the next day before it had to be packed up and returned. As impressionable teens, we were dazzled by this picture that was so much the antithesis of a Hollywood movie. Max and his tender gravitas transformed its pretentious qualities into the real and human.

I agree with rcocean, that Wild Strawberries was the best of his Bergman-movie performances. While The Seventh Seal and the other cult-favorite Persona show their flaws more readily at this distance, Wild Strawberries still seems perfectly-pitched, humane, and even humorous.

Earnest Prole said...

It’s a Mr Death or something . . . he’s come about the reaping?

Zach said...

There's a charming scene in Jurassic Park where John Hammond reminisces about his first attraction -- a flea circus:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SLGeFfxdEkA

Zach said...

Fun parody of the Death scene:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PA5ryowAyLk

Unknown said...

I liked him best in Heidi.