An Actor Capable of Impersonating Life of Intellectual Function – Its Limitations, Errors, Ambitions, Achievements


Erland Josephson (1923 – 2012)

In Bergman’s world I represented a sort of intellectual, skeptical, ironic person, rather cold and frustrated. 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… 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, the artists.
Erland Josephson (1988)

Like character-centered actors portray individuals moved by their personal motivations (that grow out of their emotional equipment, experiences and social influences) intellectual actors represent people who are motivated by their personal ideas and their thinking. Erland Josephson is a rare actor who not only can play array of human characters but is able to impersonate the life of concepts and logics, incarnate entities and energies of intellectual function into the personality and show them as metaphorized by the human emotional behavior. In other words, Josephson can act the thinking as connected with but independent from the person who thinks. Among the directors Josephson worked with are names of Ingmar Bergman, Liliana Cavani, Dushan Makavejev and Andrei Tarkovsky.

In spite of the fact that Josephson is capable of personifying abstractions – dress them in human affects, emotions and feelings, at times his characters are… regular humans. In this case the intellectualism of Josephson’s acting is rather a matter of form (of representation of the character), not that of the content (of depiction of the character’s intellectual life). So, during his creative life Josephson had to handle not only the task of impersonating complicated ideas, but sometimes to make complicated ideas impersonate ordinary human beings. Then he shows the simple as complicated in order to help us understand the complicated nature of psychological simplicity, naiveté and vulgarity, and even cases of emotional primitivism.

In still other type of roles Josephson’s heroes are intellectuals but not at all advanced as human beings – their intellectual function is not in tune with their life. They are advanced in understanding of life but not in living. Josephson is a master of representing the existential ineptitude of the intellect when the intellectual is able to understand but is not able to live according to his understanding.

In Liliana Cavani’s “Beyond Good and Evil” (1977) – a “blasphemous” (according to many) representation of the life of a philosophical genius, Josephson was facing a near impossible task – to show the deficits of existential intelligence in the intellectual champion: Friedrich Nietzsche.


This still based on a real photo, depicts Nietzsche, Paul Ree and Lou Salome’s “frozen” life together designed by their quite common private fantasies.

Josephson’s merciless depiction of a morbid split of intelligence from life in the exceptional philosopher is sobering and very painful to watch.

In Dushan Makavejev’s “Montenegro” (1981) Josephson plays an intelligent person who is scandalously unable to understand and empathize with his wife‘s psychological predicament – her torture of living a meaningless life of a wealthy housewife. Philistinism of Josephson’s character (that reflects pop-ideology of mindless prosperity we know here in US only too well) pushes him farther and farther into delirious behavior.


In this still from “Montenegro”, we see a happy parental couple in a prosperous world that, as it happens today in the 21st century on a “global” scale, has already started to slide away from under people’s feet.

In “The Magician” (1958) where Bergman describes a confrontation between creative powers of art (as a channel of liberation of human spirit) and repressive powers of ideological beliefs, Josephson impersonates the megalomaniacal aspect of power (joined with its intellectual and physical repression aspects) over social life.


Josephson (to the right) plays a rich landlord, who together with the local police chief and an expert in medical criminology presides over life in a small city.

In Bergman’s “Hour of the Wolf” (1968) Josephson plays Baron von Merkins, the owner of the island (where the main character – painter Johann Borg has a little shack) and a giant castle inhabited by personages who are so self-centered that they are doomed to become emotional voyeurs and psychological vampires and then start to victimize other people by their existential greed. Baron is the epitome of a marginal human being – right on the border between a real person and an internal psychological object (living inside the souls of his victims) parasitizing on people’s emotional deadlocks and pushing them to further depersonalization and fragmentation.


Baron von Merkins (on the left) invites the painter Borg to a party in his castle. Take a look at Josephson’s posture, as if, Baron’s body is petrified.

In Bergman’s “The Passion of Anna” (1970) Josephson’s character is a “compensatory intellectual” – a person outside his own existential destiny whose whole life is kidnapped by his dedication to social success and keeping the pose of a master. Like one-percenters in US today, Elis Vergerus feels that he is above the ordinary human beings, but this feeling awakens in him an intense envy for ordinary human condition and, simultaneously, aggressive and even misanthropic desire to control and manipulate people he is involved with.


Elis Vergerus, with all his material and professional success feels himself tormentingly outside of human love, and he is overwhelmed by the desire for simple primitive togetherness and, in spite of his sharp mind, for a humiliating dependence on another person.

In “Cries and Whispers” by Bergman (1972), a film dedicated to the analysis of the psychology of human relationship with mortality, Josephson’s character David – the personification of medical science worldview, is beyond human fears and hopes connected with the awareness of death. It is as if he has already died and resurrected as a scientific instrument.


In this shot we see David analyzing his mistress’s soul as if he is dissecting her body


David is frighteningly objective in his analysis of Maria’s psychological condition, but his knowledge is post-existential and post-human. It is post-life. In the role of David, Josephson impersonates today’s technical science with its humanistic intentions, its fragmentary successes and its deadly influence on the state of human and planetary souls.

“After the Rehearsal” by Bergman (1982) is one of Josephson’s films where his character was successful as an intellectual person, where Henrik Vogler’s subtle intelligence acting in the name of his psychological wholeness made him be on the level of his pedagogical task.


The film shows how art can successfully mediate between people.

In Bergman’s “Scenes from Marriage” (1973) Josephson demonstrates what happens when intellectual function comes to be separated from the person’s psychological wholeness (from human personality) and starts to serve as a technical tool of blind ambition.


When holistic intelligence transforms into its (impulsive) fragments, psychological wholeness disintegrates, and impulsive motivations take control. Through degradation of human intimacy Bergman and Josephson show what happens with people whose obsessive ambitions are not balanced by humility and wisdom, and what will happen with societies which encourage predatory private interests to dominate the psycho-socio-cultural domain.

In “Saraband” by Bergman (2003) we see that the solution to the problem of the necessity to fight for success (here, success in the area of professional music) lies not in the choice between different routes to “victory” but in finding a way out of this fight inside your own area of creativity.


Johan tries to help his granddaughter but his picture of her success as a musician doesn’t correspond to her sublime instinctual grasp of what is better for her musical development.


In spite of all his achievements and successes in life, Johan desperately needs psychotherapeutic consolation from Marianne.