Sunday, February 26, 2012

Erland Josephson (1923-2012)

"Life is too serious to be taken seriously."
- Erland Josephson in his book Föreställningar (1991) [the title means both "Conceptions" and "Performances"]

Erland Josephson, author, poet, playwright, film director, theatre director, leader of the Royal Dramatic Theatre, and actor, has died today. He belonged to an old and prominent Swedish family of poets, painters, and Jewish leaders.

I called him in 2007 having read in Geoffrey Macnab's article in Sight and Sound about Ingmar Bergman and the Nazis (Bergman had died that summer). I wanted to ask Josephson whether Bergman's self-accusations about his "Nazi past" were accurate. Bergman and Josephson were lifelong friends. In 1940 Bergman directed a school theatre production of The Merchant of Venice where Josephson got to play the title role of Antonio, a decisive inspiration for Josephson's theatrical career. In April 1940 Nazi Germany had occupied Denmark and Norway, but Jews in Sweden and Finland were safe.

To my surprise Josephson answered the telephone himself. He told that he had Parkinson's disease and could not write anymore, but his speech was perfect and beautiful. He debunked pretty much everything Bergman had told about those days. I also asked, thinking about Fanny and Alexander, Bergman's cinematic testament, whether the Jewish tradition had a special meaning for Bergman. There was a moment of silence. Then Josephson said that nobody had ever asked him that question, and that he and Bergman had never discussed it, either, but that he thought that the answer was yes.

Two years later in Judisk Krönika [Jewish Chronicle] 2/2009, the journal of the Swedish Jewish community, there was an interview titled "Jag vill veta vem jag är" ["I Want to Know Who I Am"] by Michaela Lundell with Erland Josephson. A motto is from Josephson's book Självporträtt [Self Portrait]: "Det är stimulerande krångligt att vara jude" ["It is stimulatingly complicated to be a Jew"].

Josephson portrayed Goldberg for Bergman in his production of George Tabori's The Goldberg Variations for the Royal Dramatic Theatre in 1993. In the issue 2/2009 of Judisk Krönika there is also a translation of Katharina Schmidt-Hirschfelder's interview with Morton Narrowe, chief rabbi of Stockholm in 1993. Narrowe tells that he instructed Bergman in Judaism for the production of The Goldberg Variations. Narrowe reports that Bergman's last question in their discussion was whether it would be possible to make him "a honour Jew". To Bergman's obvious disappointment Narrowe said that there is no such thing.

There is a touching article on the Dagens Nyheter website on Erland Josephson's final moments at Stockholms sjukhem.

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