That Hurtful Mask – in memory of Erland Josephson (1923-2012)

By Jonathan Rozenkrantz.

As I watch Fanny and Alexander (1982) for the first time since childhood, I am caught not so much in the grip of Ingmar Bergman’s “cinemagic” filmmaking (which, in my opinion, is at its weakest in this particular film). Rather, I find myself in an uneasy clinch as I follow Erland Josephson putting on and taking off the multiple masks of his character Isak Jacobi: antiquarian, money-lender, magician, Jew.

At the moment I am writing this, Sweden is in the middle of an international scandal. A few days ago culture minister Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth was invited to the Stockholm Museum of Modern Art to celebrate “World Art Day” – cake included. To add a formal touch to it all, she was asked to cut the first slice. What she did not expect was that the cake would be designed as a ridiculously racist caricature of an African woman. Made by Swedish artist Makode Linde, the cake’s head – in fact the masked head of the artist himself – reacted to the first cut by screaming in pain, and consequently continued doing so each time someone dug in. (See video below.)

That there is some sort of racism related to the whole situation seems to be beyond doubt; critics, however, differ as to where this racism is located. Some have accused the artist; others want the minister to resign. It is not until I see a photograph from the ceremony that I realize the meaning of it all. One would expect a hesitating, disturbed or at least uncomfortable crowd. Instead we see an exclusively white audience laughing with delight at the cake’s cry. The cultural establishment has unknowingly been invited to perform as a laughing lynch mob.

There is much to say about the reactions that the cake has generated – from the outraged anti-racists who have missed the whole point, to the cheering “politically incorrect” who never miss an opportunity to defend their supposedly God-given right to be racist. My concern, however, is more personal than political. 30-year-old Makode Linde is the son of a Swedish mother and an African father. The racist stereotype that informs much of his work has historically targeted him. I wonder what goes through his head as he lies there in blackface. As he realizes that no one in the crowd understands the pain of wearing his mask. I wonder if I could ever have the same courage: to reenact a Jewish stereotype in order to highlight anti-Semitism. The thought of the loneliness inside the mask fills me with horror.

Incidentally, this episode coincides with my attempts to make sense of my contradictory feelings towards Isak Jacobi. Two facts seem to be at the core of my concern: that the actor playing him was really Jewish and that he recently passed away (whereby his vulnerability in some irrational manner becomes more tangible to me). I find that I am asking the same questions: How did Erland Josephson feel when playing this character? Did it bother him that Jacobi is a “Shylock” (if not in character, then by profession)? Jacobi clearly functions as a hero: he is an honorary member of the protagonist family and he is the one who ultimately saves Fanny and Alexander from their evil stepfather. Nonetheless, he also manifests several anti-Semitic ideas: he is rich, he is a money-lender and he has magical powers somewhere between the demonical and the divine. More unambiguously demonical, of course, is Jacobi’s nephew Ismael; a clearly Luciferian figure who eventually compels Alexander to murder his stepfather. But is Ismael not merely another of Jacobi’s masks, an aspect of Jacobi rather than a character in its own right?

The stereotypical spectacle peaks during the chain of events that lead up to the siblings’ salvation. Fanny and Alexander’s father has died and their widowed mother has now married Vergerus – a bishop who soon turns out to be a terrible tormentor. The children are in danger, and the only one who can save them is the magician Jacobi. Jacobi pays Vergerus a visit under the pretence of a business proposal. Throughout the film, Josephson’s performance has varied depending on location: with the Ekdahls he acts as a kind-hearted old family member; at home with his nephews he takes on a slightly more authoritarian persona. It is as if he “adjusts and accommodates himself to the norms and expectations of the particular circumstances” (Wright 1998: 234). But more than a mere adjustment, a transformation takes place as he visits Vergerus.

Scholar Rochelle Wright’s description is right on spot: Isak’s demeanour becomes “exaggeratedly servile – he bends over from the waist in a sort of permanent bow”. However, “this apparent groveling is contradicted by his quick verbal repartee and his ironic tone of voice” (Wright 1998: 237). Josephson-Jacobi is combining faux humility with arrogance: two essential qualities in anti-Semitic discourse, and more than enough to make Vergerus explode. In an anti-Semitic fit, he calls Jacobi a “damned loathsome hook-nosed Jewish swine” and throws him to the ground. As if charged with power by this very humiliation, the magician now raises his fists to the sky, letting out a roar followed by a flash of white light. The magician has performed; the children are safe.

The complexity of this scene stems from the fact that Bergman/Josephson simultaneously reconstruct and deconstruct anti-Semitic stereotypes which both of them are necessarily familiar with. 1930s Swedish cinema tended to reinforce “Swedishness” in relation to negative Others, and the most frequent Other during this period was the caricatured Jew. One of ten films contained some anti-Semitic element and the “Shylock” (fake hook-nose and all) was far from being a rarity (Wright 1998: 3). Even an assimilated Jew like Erland Josephson, whose ancestors arrived in the late 1700s, would later comment on the ‘30s of his youth as “a decade stained with anti-Semitic initiatives” (Hallberg & Josephson 2010: 103). Jacobi’s wealth, his money-lending activity and his semi-demonical powers must therefore be understood in a historical context of Swedish anti-Semitic narratives.

But Jacobi must also be understood in the context of the cinematic world of Bergman, in which the borders between reality and illusion, person and persona, face and mask are in permanent crisis. The truth is that we never get to know the real Jacobi. Although the mask he puts on for Vergerus is the most overtly anti-Semitic one, it also offers an explicit comment on the performative nature of the stereotype – of the stereotypes that inform Jacobi’s character throughout the whole film. For it is only in the context of Jacobi’s permanent bow (and how telling that position is; as if the burden of the mask had finally become unbearable) that we can start to se that the whole thing is an act. Jacobi the kind-hearted family member; Jacobi the authoritarian magician; Jacobi the money-lender; Jacobi the Jew. All of them masks worn to satisfy the imagination of the audience. And during it all: the loneliness inside the mask.

I have never been an actor in the aesthetic sense of the word. I have never acted in a play or a film. Any reflection of mine concerning what an actor goes through comes from a strictly speculative point-of-view. As a spectator I identify with several characters in Fanny and Alexander, but as a Jew I identify with Erland Josephson. This sudden inability to distinguish between person and persona – however fitting in a Bergmanian context – probably say less about Bergman than about myself.

An incident, however, suggests that my reading is not wholly projective. For the theatrical release of Fanny and Alexander a central scene with Jacobi was cut. The children have just arrived after their escape from Vergerus, and Jacobi begins reciting a text translating it from Hebrew. Beginning with the words “This despair, this hope, this dream of deliverance”, it creates a bond between the concrete refugees that make Fanny and Alexander, and the cultural refugee that is Jacobi. Wright interprets this Jacobi as a Moses figure, a benevolent authority whose function is to assure the children “that they are not alone and that comfort, solace, and relief are possible”. She forgets that the comfort is equally Jacobi’s. When Josephson learned that the scene had been cut, he was both angered and upset. For him, the scene was to be the counterweight to all those stereotypical masks that Bergman had invited him to wear. Robbed of this relief, the only thing he was left with was the weight of caricature. Had he known that the scene would be cut, he would have played the whole role differently (Wright 1998: 243).

The mask as metaphor pervades through Bergman’s filmmaking. As Maaret Koskinen has concluded:

“The Bergmanian mask metaphor thus contains contradictions. Here we find both poles at once, mutually interchangeable: the mask stands for a Bachtinian joyful relativity, the principle of play and the denial of identity and unambiguity – the very condition for artistic practice as such. But at the same time the mask stands for the shadow image and the opposite: it hurts to wear; it hurts to take off.” (Koskinen 2001: 91)

Those last words strike me deeply, as I think of the masks of Makode Linde and Erland Josephson, and perhaps not only theirs.

Jonathan Rozenkrantz is the cinema editor of LOFT the Scandinavian Bookazine, in which he also writes about art, media and culture. He has an MA in film studies and his writings have appeared in Film International, among others.


Hallberg, Ulf Peter & Josephson, Erland (2010), Livets mening och andra bekymmer: konstroman, Stockholm: Atlantis.
Koskinen, Maaret (2001), Ingmar Bergman: “Allting föreställer, ingenting är”: filmen och teatern – en tvärestetisk studie, Nora: Nya Doxa.
Wright, Rochelle (1998),  Wright, Rochelle (1998), The Visible Wall: Jews and Other Ethnic Outsiders in Swedish Film, Carbondale and Uppsala: Southern Illinois University Press.

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