Erland Josephson

Few actors have ever lived inside the quiet emotional realities of their characters like Swedish great Erland Josephson, who was born ninety-four years ago today in 1923 and died in 2012 at the age of 88. As a member of Ingmar Bergman’s regular stable of performers, Josephson played a key role in many of Bergman’s films, including The Passion of Anna, To Joy, Hour of the Wolf, Cries and Whispers, Scenes from a Marriage, Fanny and Alexander, and Autumn Sonata, among others. He starred in Bergman’s final film, 2003’s Sarabande, opposite Liv Ullmann. That film was a sequel to 1973’s Scenes from a Marriage, to this day among the most emotionally raw and real films I’ve ever seen.

Josephson and Ullmann in Scenes from a Marriage.

That was what Josephson brought to the screen: reality. Sometimes, as in Scenes, that reality was frightful and feral, showing a character who, along with Ullmann’s (do acting duets get more powerful than those two together on screen?), is emotionally unraveling under the weight of social, marital, and sexual expectations and longings. The scenes of their marital undoing are heartbreaking, and as intense as any action sequence in a thriller. But we sometimes prize emotionally intense acting at the expense of subtlety, and Josephson expresses the quiet moments of daily life as well as anyone. His face is so warm, so open, and yet so capable of inflection with just the subtlest adjustments. In Fanny and Alexander, when he returns from rescuing the children from their cruel stepfather, we feel his physical and emotional exhaustion palpably. Elsewhere in the film, when he is practicing and confessing his improprieties with the maid, he’s like a grown child, simultaneously showing us his low stakes shame and the impish inevitability of his actions. He was never less than wholly, thoroughly real on screen, but the veracity of his performances never called attention to itself in the way the early method actors sold their performances. For me, he is inseparable from his characters. He is lost in them, or he subsumes them, or vice versa. He was a wonder.

If you have a chance this weekend, watch a film with this incredible actor. Better yet, watch a few.

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