Wednesday, February 29, 2012

In Character Special Edition: Erland Josephson

This past Sunday, minutes before the Oscar telecast was set to begin, news broke that Erland Josephson, a Swedish actor of incomparable skill, had passed away from Parkinson’s at the age of 88.

When I heard the news, I was utterly devastated. For fans of Ingmar Bergman (a group I most certainly belong to), Josephson’s work as one of Bergman’s troupe of actors was necessary to the success of every Bergman film he was in. And while I may find myself more enticed by Gunnar Bj√∂rnstrand’s intensity and Max von Sydow’s innocence, there really was no other actor quite like Josephson.

So, for this very special edition of In Character, I’m going to change the format up a bit. Instead of examining Josephson’s entire body of work, I’m highlighting his best roles in Bergman films only. Josephson did incredible work outside of Bergman’s imagination, but it is here that I wish to stay.

Five Essential Roles
Hour of the Wolf (1968)
Baron von Merkens
Josephson made a career out of playing subtle creeps – quiet, stoic men who carry a single facial expression of inviting warmth and ultimate dread.

One of his earliest, and creepiest characters that fit this bill was Baron von Merkens, who, as the rich owner of an island, was privy to many exciting things, including hosting intimate dinners with neighbors, initiating psychosexual fantasies and (possibly) partaking in a little playful murder.

Not too many actors can scare the ever-living shit out of you by simply smiling amicably in a dark corner. But as soon as you see the Baron, you know to be afraid. Very very afraid.

The Passion of Anna (1969)
Elis Vergerus
Again playing the creepy, educated friend to Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann’s characters, Elis Vergerus is one cold, odd ball. Already a successful architect when we met him, Elis fancies himself an amateur photographer, taking pictures of very specific, very random acts of everyday life, like people eating or committing acts of violence.

He’s the type of man who has no hesitation in staring a person down beyond comfort, or who is completely unfazed (if not oddly overjoyed) that his wife cheated on him for roughly a year. Yet another morose, wildly engaging character from a man who often appeared to be doing a lot less than he actually was.

Scenes from a Marriage (1973)
There’s no point in mincing words here: Josephson’s role as Johan, one half of the marriage chronicled in Bergman’s epic masterpiece, is by far the best character the actor ever played.

Johan is a despicable man who holds little repute for his life partner, Marianne (Liv Ullman). He lies, cheats, fights, you name it. A fiercely proud intellectual who has no real idea how arrogant he is (or, possibly, exactly how arrogant he is). But that’s just one side to this deeply complicated man, and because Bergman spends nearly five hours fleshing Johan and Marianne out (five essential hours, mind you), we get to know Johan as well as we know any Bergman character.

I can’t dare continue to go into the trials and tribulations that are presented in the six scenes of this marriage. But know that the film is as honest a depiction of marital life as I’ve ever seen. It’s the (often) good, the (endless) bad, and the (heartbreaking) ugly. It’s the role of a lifetime, and Josephson nails it.

Face to Face (1976)
Dr. Tomas Jacobi
As the kind, loyal doctor who befriends Liv Ullmann’s renowned psychiatrist, Dr. Jenny Isaksson, Josephson does a good job at keeping Face to Face grounded, even when it goes off the rails. Oh hell, who am I kidding: Face to Face is a batshit ass crazy movie with a madass crazy lead character –  a woman who’s as completely fucked up as her very disturbed patients. And while Jacobi uses empathy to keep Jenny from going over the edge, she still manages to do just that a few times over.

To be clear: Face to Face is primarily Ullmann’s show (all due respect to Faye Dunaway’s Oscar-winning Network performance, but to even put her and Ullmann in the same category is a grand miscarriage of awards justice), but Josephson, as always, manages to leave his indelible stamp.

Fanny and Alexander (1982)
Isak Jacobi
Oh how I love Isak Jacobi, the moral center of Bergman’s operatic masterpiece, Fanny and Alexander. Josephson, as mentioned, was known for playing cold, domineering men with little regard to the people in his life, which makes his Isak such a welcome revelation.

As Isak, the nothing-but-kind Jewish art dealer who is a great friend to the expansive Ekdahl family, Josephson is affable, persistent and wholly essential. Without him, Fanny and Alexander would be void of its best, most magical scene, which involves Josephson kneeling in front of a large trunk, screaming at the ceiling, inexplicably making the impossible happen.

Fanny and Alexander is a remarkable film, full of more brilliantly grandiose sequences than any five films combined. And everytime I watch it, I find myself more drawn to Isak’s sympathetic sentiment than ever before. It’s no coincidence that once the film shifts primarily to the Jacobi residence, we’re witness to the film’s most magical moments. With Josephson at the helm, you see, there’s very little that can’t happen.

Best of the Best
Saraband (2003)
I avoided Saraband the same way I avoid reading the final chapter of a flawless book. Not only was it Bergman’s final film, but it was the last “well known” film of his (i.e., post-Smiles of a Summer Night) that I had left to see. I avoided it to the point that I had virtually no idea what was it about. A few months ago, I finally relented and, much to my surprise, came to find out that Saraband was a sequel to Scenes from a Marriage. It did not come as a surprise, however, that not only was the film remarkable, but that its two leads hadn’t lost an ounce of their edge.

Thirty years after we last left them, Johan and Marianne have been long divorced, leading very separate lives with very separate life philosophies. Marianne has grown into a kind, nostalgic woman, while Johan has evolved into a bitter, remorseless man who is loathed by his grown son, Henrik. And while the reemergence of Marianne into Johan’s life doesn’t hinder the tumultuous relationship Johan has with Henrik, it doesn’t help Johan become any more likable, either.

When I first drafted this edition of In Character, I instinctively placed Scenes from a Marriage in this slot. But then I sat and reflected. I remembered Josephson’s pained, weathered face in Saraband. The grumpy old man who sees no point in carrying on, but does so anyway with pointless bile. I remembered the scene in which Johan, after receiving a shocking bit of tragic news, furiously strips down naked in front of Marianne, only to climb into bed with her, resting gently into a fetal position, silently begging to be consoled. It’s as moving an image as anything found in Josephson’s impeccable career; one hell of a swan song from one of cinema’s finest actors.

Other Notable Roles (Bergman or otherwise)
In The Magician
The Magician (1958)
Cries and Whispers (1972)
Beyond Good and Evil (1977)
Autumn Sonata (1978)
Nostalghia (1983)
The Sacrifice (1986)
The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988)
Faithless (2000)

Previous installments of In Character include:
Richard Jenkins
William Fichtner
Guy Pearce
Shea Whigham
Viola Davis
Gary Oldman
David Morse
Michael Shannon
Emily Mortimer
John Hawkes
Jeffrey Wright
Elias Koteas
David Strathairn


  1. Josephson was undeniably one of the most talented actors of all time. While I have yet to see SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE or SARABAND (I know!) it is his performance in FANNY AND ALEXANDER that really emphasises, for me, his power and brilliance as an actor. I also thought he was stunning in the two Tarkovsky films, NOSTALGHIA and particularly THE SACRIFICE, which is not in itself a great film, but soars due to Josephson's remarkable role.

  2. Having seen some Bergman films. Erland Josephson is an actor I'm not entirely familiar with other than his association with Bergman having only seen Cries & Whispers and Fanny & Alexander that he's been in. Next weekend, I'm going to watch the theatrical cut of Scenes from a Marriage while the only other film I've seen that Josephson is in is The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I heard about the news last night. I'm kind of sad though I'm more bummed out about the death of Davy Jones of the Monkees. 2 cool dudes. They will be missed.

  3. @Tyler I've never seen Nostalghia, but yes, he is remarkable in The Sacrifice. You'll love his performance as Johan in both SCENES and SARABAND. So heartbreaking.

  4. @thevoid99 Man, if you can get ahold of the 281 minute TV version of SCENES, I'd highly recommend that over the shorter cinema version, but either way, something is better than nothing. Ah, and Davy Jones... real bummer too.

  5. I cannot get enough of that scene in Cries & Whispers where he exposes the flaws of her character through the traits of her face. Fucking love it man.

    I was going to ask if you had got around to seeing Nostalghia, but then I remembered the under-praised long takes post :p

    1. Oh man, that scene in Cries and Whispers... wow.