A Man There Was (1917)
Victor Sjöström directs and stars in this Swedish melodrama of cruelty and the Sea, based on a poem by Henrik Ibsen. A major production in the history of Swedish film, it established standards that would influence the industry in coming years.
Sjöström plays a man named Terje Vigen (also the Swedish title of the movie). The film opens with him as an old hermit, whose eyes glaze over wildly whenever a storm is abroad. But he wasn’t always this way, and the movie quickly flashes back to his youth, when he was a sturdy sailor, known as a man who’s true home was the sea. We see him climb the mast of a large ship and unlash the mainsail. He returns home to his wife and gets his first glimpse of his newborn child, an event that profoundly moves him. The Intertitles inform us that he has ended his wild days and that his child is now the most important thing in his life. We see him turn down an offer to go drinking with a rowdy gang of his old friends, because he’d rather stay home and play with the baby. Then, in 1809, the Napoleonic Wars come to Sweden, and the English blockade the country. To feed his starving wife and child, he dares to take a skiff and try to smuggle food from Denmark, but his is caught on the way back by a crew from an English Man-O-War. The English captain ignores his tears for his child, scuttles the skiff, and sends Terje off to prison.
Terje spends five years in prison, mostly with Norwegian P.O.W.s, with whom he can’t even communicate. Finally, the war comes to an end and he is released. He returns home to find strangers living in his house. They tell him that after the father “ran away,” the woman and child that used to live there died and were buried in the cemetery. He visits the grave in agony. Now, the movie has moved up to the period we saw at the beginning. Terje becomes a boat pilot and lives among others at the edge of the sea, but keeps away from people and becomes wild whenever there is a storm. During such a storm, he sees a yacht in trouble and braves the waters to go out and help. But, as he struggles to control it against the winds, he discovers that its master is the man who condemned him, and that now his wife and child are at his mercy. He lures them into a skiff, and prepares to sink it to have his revenge, but the sight of the innocent child stays his hand. He rows the damaged skiff to a reef and allows the other pilots to rescue the family. The next day, the family comes to thank him and he tells them it was the child that saved them.
Where “Ingebord Holm” surprised me, this was much more in line with what I expect from Swedish cinema – dark, brooding, and morally ambivalent, with lots of images of the coastline and men with beards. In short, it confirms my expectation that all Swedish movies must relate somehow to Ingmar Bergman, who was born the year after this was released. But, there are still some elements that remind me of D.W. Griffith. For one thing, Griffith also made a movie based on a poem about a sailor who loses his family (“The Unchanging Sea”). For another, this movie makes classically Griffithian use of cross-cutting, particularly in the scenes where Terje tries to run the blockade and is pursued. I found it relied rather heavily on Intertitles to move the plot forward. Sometimes a scene just seemed to be a short illustration between Intertitles, but this is partly a product of Sjöström’s decision to keep as close to the poem as possible, and to use it for the titles. Probably for fans of Ibsen, this would not be a drawback. Historically, I was struck with the thought that the Napoleonic Wars were about as distant for its audience as World War One is for us – just over a century. Sjöström makes use of this not-quite-mythic time to make a statement about humanity that people could easily relate to, and apparently had quite a success, because bigger-budget features became the standard in Sweden after this.
Director: Victor Sjöström
Camera: Julius Jaenzon
Starring: Victor Sjöström
Run Time: 52 Min
You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with dark, brooding music).