The Swedish writer-director Ingmar Bergman became one of the most vaunted filmmakers of the last century for movies that explored desire and suffering, sexual and intellectual longing, and spiritual vacancy in a post-nuclear age.
Actor Erland Josephson, who died Feb. 25 at 88, was widely regarded as Bergman’s most frequent surrogate onscreen: a modern man in all his psychological and moral complexity — intelligent, lustful, self-centered, introspective and outwardly self-confident.
Bergman developed a repertory of actors who brought an unparalleled expressiveness and intimacy to his movies. Besides Josephson, they included Liv Ullmann, Max von Sydow, Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin and Harriet Andersson.
Of the men, the tall, blond von Sydow lent an imposing Scandinavian presence to many of Bergman’s films. Josephson “offered a slightly sardonic, world-weary image by comparison with the heroic posturing of Max von Sydow’s characters,” Bergman scholar Peter Cowie wrote in an e-mail.
Josephson’s professional collaboration with Bergman began in a 1940 stage production of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” (with Josephson as Antonio) and continued through Bergman’s final movie, “Saraband” (2003), made four years before the director’s death.
In a career spanning seven decades, Josephson regarded himself more as a stage actor than a movie performer. In 1966, he succeeded Bergman as artistic director of the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm.
An actor of emotional nuance and precision in works by Ibsen and Strindberg, Josephson had supporting roles in Bergman’s “Brink of Life” (1958), “Hour of the Wolf” (1968), “The Passion of Anna (1969), “Cries and Whispers” (1972) and “Face to Face” (1976).
On screen, Josephson’s critical and popular breakthrough was Bergman’s “Scenes from a Marriage” (1973), originally made as a Swedish television series before its shortened, 167-minute cinematic release. In dissecting a marriage between young professionals Marianne (Ullmann) and Johan (Josephson), harrowing scenes of jealousy and rage were tempered by interludes of affection.
Josephson found it hard at times to summon the depths of Johan’s cruelty, as when he suddenly tells Marianne he is leaving her. Worried that the scene would be too overheated, Josephson followed Bergman’s advice to ignore emotion entirely and announce his intentions as he removes a book from a bookcase. The result was simple and anguishing.
“Scenes from a Marriage” achieves great power from the “remarkably detailed” performances, critic Alan M. Kriegsman wrote in The Washington Post.
“The truth of so much of Bergman’s insight is borne out by how often you find yourself reacting or being reacted to as if you were one of the protagonists,” Kriegsman wrote. “Time and again, what appear to be avoidable traps from the vantage point of an ‘outside’ observer of the movie turn out to be inescapable pitfalls of one’s own daily life.”
“Scenes From a Marriage” brought Josephson offers to work with directors outside Sweden. He was a gay man in Franco Brusati’s “To Forget Venice” (1979) and had tormented roles in the celebrated Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s last films, “Nostalgia” (1983) and “The Sacrifice” (1986).
In director Philip Kaufman’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” (1988), based on the Milan Kundera novel, Josephson played a former Czech diplomat reduced to barroom janitor. The same year, he made his U.S. stage debut as the doddering Gaev in Peter Brook’s acclaimed production of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard.”
“In Bergman’s world I represented a sort of intellectual, skeptical, ironic person, rather cold and frustrated,” Josephson told The New York Times in 1988. “When I went abroad and made films in Italy and other places, I was used in different ways. I was rather often cast as crazy people, maniacs.
“It was very good for me and it was fun because it is nice to play crazy people if you are not in reality,” he added. “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.”
Indeed, Bergman cast Josephson as a mystical Jewish antiques dealer in the director’s unusually warm-hearted “Fanny and Alexander” (1982). But then it was back to a run of Bergman alter egos in “After the Rehearsal” (1984) and the Ullmann-directed “Faithless” (2000). He and Ullmann reprised their roles from “Scenes From a Marriage” for “Saraband.”
Erland Josephson was born June 15, 1923, in Stockholm. His family was entrenched in Sweden’s cultural life as writers and artists. His father ran a bookstore that became a mainstay for the city’s intelligentsia, including Bergman.
Josephson acted in theaters in Helsingborg and Gothenburg before joining the Royal Dramatic Theatre in 1956. His death, from Parkinson’s disease, was announced by the royal theater.
Josephson’s marriages to actresses Kristina Adolphson and Barbro Larsson ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife, Ulla Aberg, and five children.
In addition to acting, Josephson wrote plays, poems, novels and a memoir. He co-scripted Bergman’s 1964 comic film “All These Women.”