“This movie is not entertainment,” Max Von Sydow says, casting his eye over the bloody costumes of dozens of Japanese people lying in a church courtyard. “It’s much more of a political statement.”
Von Sydow, who received a best actor Oscar nomination last year for “Pelle the Conqueror,” is talking about NBC’s “Hiroshima: Out of the Ashes,” about the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing. It airs at 9 p.m. on Sunday, the 45th anniversary of the day the United States dropped the first atomic bomb, on Japan.
“The pacifist in me made me interested in this project,” he says, explaining his decision to portray a German Catholic priest working in Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945.
“I think it’s good that we’re sometimes reminded of important events in history. When Pope John Paul II visited Hiroshima recently, he says, ‘We have to look to the past to learn for the future.”’
Von Sydow, who first came to worldwide notice 35 years ago through the films of fellow Swede Ingmar Bergman, explains he’s not just talking about bombs.
“Hiroshima has become a metaphor not just for nuclear war but for war and destruction and violence toward civilians,” he says. “It’s not just the idea we should not use nuclear arms. We should not start another war because it’s madness.”
The scene today in Valencia, which is standing in for Hiroshima, occurs the day after the bomb fell. With two wind machines at work blowing smoke and dust in the actors’ faces, the scene is eerily reminiscent of photographs taken of the destruction.
Wearing a black cassock, Von Sydow busily attends the wounded.
The bomb on Hiroshima, which flattened 90% of the city, resulted in nearly 130,000 casualties. A second bomb dropped on Nagasaki three days later prompted the Japanese to accept unconditional surrender, bringing an end to World War II.
Unlike other movies that have examined America’s decision to bomb Japan, the focus of “Hiroshima: Out of the Ashes” follows the survivors. In the ensemble film, Von Sydow shares billing with Judd Nelson (an American POW interned in a Hiroshima jail), Pat Morita (a Hiroshima postman), Tamlyn Tomito (a Japanese-American whose husband is in the Japanese Army) and Kim Miyori (a mother of a missing child).
Von Sydow is reluctant to address the moral issues surrounding Hiroshima. “We don’t know what would have happened if America hadn’t dropped the bombs,” he said. “It’s easy to say that no bombs should have been dropped. But this was a war situation, and dropping them was an attempt to end the war.”
Although Von Sydow, 61, was too young to have fought in World War II, he did see its effects first-hand. In 1945 he was a high school student in Sweden, a country that remained neutral during the war. “That spring,” he recalls, “the concentration camps were opened, and members of the Red Cross went in and brought a large number of prisoners to southern Sweden.
“I belonged to a folk dance group that visited these poor, miserable people and performed for them. We were asked to learn a number of national anthems, and we sang them. It was an extremely emotional experience. Many of these people were in terrible shape. They looked like walking skeletons, but they were beaming with joy as we entertained them.”
Encouraged by such a reception, Von Sydow ignored his parents’ plan for him to enter college and instead pursued an acting career. “I was in such a hurry to be an actor,” he remembers. “Now I’m sometimes mad at myself that I didn’t stop and study for a couple of years.”
Instead, he attended Stockholm’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, began a stage career and then had the good fortune to meet Bergman. His work in the director’s “The Seventh Seal,” “The Magician” and “The Virgin Spring” brought him to the attention of Hollywood. In 1965, Von Sydow came to America to play Christ in “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” and he has come back periodically ever since.
Apart from the title role in “The Exorcist” and a small part in “Hannah and Her Sisters,” as Barbara Hershey’s intellectual lover, most of Von Sydow’s work in Hollywood films has been villainous. “It’s because I’m foreign,” he explains in his ever-so-lightly accented English, Rand foreigners are very often villains.” Since the success of “Pelle the Conqueror,” an Oscar-winner in 1989 for best foreign film, Von Sydow thinks he has a new image in the United States. “Now I’m getting less villain offers and more normal people offers,” he says.
Even as his Hollywood career prospers, Von Sydow, who has lived in Rome and Paris for more than a decade, intends to move back to Sweden to pursue stage work. “If they want me, I’ll do one limited theater engagement there every year and films the rest of the time,” he says. “It’s a daydream, but I hope it will work.”