Erland Josephson: Actor who flourished during his 60 years working with Ingmar Bergman
Monday 12 March 2012
The ursine Erland Josephson appeared in numerous Ingmar Bergman stage productions and, between 1946 and 2006, 14 films.
In later years he became a Bergman alter-ego, perfectly matching the director's melancholic side (against the more mythic and Gothic manifestations of Max von Sydow).
The son of a book dealer, Josephson described himself as "of the international upper class, the Swedish petit bourgeoisie of Jewish extraction with poor language skills, a conveyor of a few expressions and faces, with some intonation that combines ancient human experience with timely coquetry." Though untrained, Josephson had a small role in Bergman's 1941 staging of The Merchant of Venice and continued to appear on stage throughout his career. In 1966 he succeeded Bergman as artistic director of the Royal Dramatic Theatre, Stockholm.
After three films, starting with an uncredited role in Bergman's It Rains on Our Love (1946), Josephson returned to the theatre until 1956, when he wrote, narrated and appeared in Sceningang ("Stage Door"). Back with Bergman, 1958 saw him as a man awaiting the birth of his child in So Close to Life and an embittered cuckold in the tragicomic The Face (aka The Magician).
He returned once more to the theatre, although he wrote two screenplays with Bergman (using the joint pseudonym Buntel Eriksson): Alf Kjellin's The Pleasure Garden (1961) and Bergman's All These Women (1964). In Bergman's Hour of the Wolf (1968) he played a sinister aristocrat to Von Sydow's artist, while in A Passion (1969) he was a husband, affecting not to care about his wife's infidelities. Bergman's deconstructions included interviews, actually semi-scripted, with the actors.
Josephson now began to take over as the director's alter-ego. In the TV play The Lie (1970), Josephson was the lover of an unhappily married woman. Bergman wrote it quickly and Jan Molander directed, but it was a dry run for Bergman's own The Touch (1971), though he did not cast Josephson.
Josephson was not interested in film acting until Cries and Whispers (1972). "I suddenly felt this is art, and the camera is a co-operative living person," he said. "After that I was extremely happy to act in films." Inspired by his role in Bergman's 1963 staging of The Legend, Josephson played a doctor treating a woman dying of cancer. "When Bergman saw Liv Ullmann and I work together in that, he saw that we gave something to each other and he started to write Scenes from a Marriage."
The six-part TV miniseries, later edited to three hours for a cinema release, dissects a marriage rocked by a manipulative husband's infidelity. It was one of Bergman's happiest directing experiences, as the actors honed the script and grew into the characters, so that eventually virtually no rehearsal was necessary. "Any director who gets to work with such actors," said Bergman, "is a lucky man." Josephson and Ullmann were doctor and patient again in the dream-filled Face to Face (1976) as he treats her for a nervous breakdown.
In 1977 Josephson began to work outside Sweden. "In Bergman's world, I represented a sort of intellectual, sceptical, ironic person, rather cold and frustrated. When I went abroad, I was used in different ways. I was rather often cast as crazy people, maniacs. And I think perhaps that changed how Ingmar saw me. Suddenly I was on the more magical side of his world, playing the people with fantasies, variety, the artists."
These included Nietzsche in the ludicrous Beyond Good and Evil, a gay operaphile (To Forget Venice, 1980), and a dodgy former ambassador in Philip Kaufman's The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988). Josephson also worked with Istvan Szabo (Hanussen, 1988, and the operatic Euro-pudding Meeting Venus, 1991) and Peter Greenaway (Gonzalo in Prospero's Books, 1991). In 1981 he made four films in the Balkans, including Montenegro by the arch-provocateur Dusan Makaveyev. In Theodoros Angelopoulos's Ulysses' Gaze (1996), he replaced Gian Maria Volonté, who died mid-shoot, as a film archivist in war-torn Sarajevo. His best-known non-Swedish roles were for Andrei Tarkovsky; the painfully mournful study of exile Nostalgia (1983) and, unsurprisingly, the Bergmanesque The Sacrifice (1986), about an atheist's deal with God to prevent the end of the world
Bergman's Autumn Sonata (1978) studies a mother-daughter feud, but in the nostalgic Fanny and Alexander (1982), Josephson is a sympathetic Jewish merchant. The multi-levelled After the Rehearsal (1984) sees Josephson and Lena Olin as director and actress discussing Strindberg's A Dream Play. The TV movie In the Presence of a Clown (1997) is set in the early days of cinema, while Saraband (2003), Bergman's last film, caught up with the Scenes from a Marriage couple, 30 years later, as mutually destructive as ever. The Bergman-scripted Faithless (2006), directed by Ullmann, is frankly autobiographical.
Endlessly active, Josephson wrote novels, plays, screenplays and poems and directed three films. But his first love was the stage. "If I go too long without acting on the stage I don't feel well. Acting has a strong sensual quality that I get such a... you say 'kick' in America? The feeling is not as strong in a film studio – there's something magical about the space in the theatre. You know you will be in it and that real things will happen there."
Erland Josephson, actor, director and writer: born Stockholm 15 June 1923; married three times (five children); died Stockholm 25 February 2012.
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