Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Swedish Cinema

The Outlaw and His Wife (1918)

Despite the title, this is no Western starring William S. Hart, rather this Swedish feature was directed by Victor Sjöström, so far the only Swedish director to be covered in this blog. Like the others, which include “Ingeborg Holm” and “A Man There Was,” this film has a brooding power that draws on Scandinavian narrative style and the vast open spaces of the countryside.

As the opening intertitle informs us, the movie is set in a community in 18th Century Iceland, although it was filmed at home due to the difficulty of travel during the First World War. Sjöström plays Kári, a man who wanders into an established village looking for work. Although the first locals he meets are suspicious, they nevertheless direct him to the farm of Halla (Edith Erastoff), a recently-widowed woman who is managing a farm on her own. Kári proves to be a hard worker and likeable, and he is taken in.

Matters develop when the local bailiff (played by Nils Ahren), hears a rumor that  Kári was run out of another town for being a thief. The bailiff is the brother of Halla’s deceased husband, and he has designs on her land, hoping to marry her in order to integrate her farm and his own. Halla, meanwhile, has made it very clear she has no respect for the bailiff, and she seems to be falling for Kári. When the bailiff makes his accusation, Halla challenges him to wrestle Kári and he loses. Nevertheless, Kári confesses to Halla – it is true, he stole in order to feed his family, ran away, and now he will be put to death if caught. He decides to leave civilization, to go and hide out in the mountains, and Halla asks to come with him, abandoning everything she has just to be with him.

Living alone in their hideout shack, far up on the mountainside, the two lovers seem to have an idyllic situation. They are able to catch fish and grow a little food, get clean water from a spring, and they live in love with themselves and with nature. They are joined by Arnes (John Ekman), another laborer from Halla’s farm who has gotten into trouble with the law, and by a baby girl after Halla gives birth. But, a problem is brewing beneath the surface, because Arnes, isolated from the company of other women, is beginning to obsess over Halla. One day, when the two of them are hunting together along a ridge, Kári slips and falls, grabbing on to a branch to avoid plummeting to his doom. Arnes gets a rope and throws it to him, then gets out his knife and, for a moment, begins to saw at the rope, then Kári calls to him and brings him to his senses, and he rescues Kári after all.

Accepting that he can never have Halla, Arnes decides to leave the area. As he is walking away, he sees a patrol of men coming up the mountainside in search of the fugitives. He runs back to warn Kári and Halla, but he is too late and the men arrive at just the same moment and a fight ensues. In fear of capture, Halla throws her child off the cliff into the river below. Arnes and Kári are able to beat off the men after all, but now the couple must endure their grief and guilt at the death of the child. Their internal devastation is mirrored by nature, which now throws a hellish snowstorm at them, and they are trapped in their little shack with no food and limited fuel for the fire. They begin snapping at each other, and even seem to be contemplating murder and cannibalism as they go mad with hunger. When Kári goes for firewood, Halla wanders out of the cabin and freezes in the snow. Kári finds her and holds her until he has died frozen by her side.

Being somewhat familiar with Icelandic mythic history in the form of the Sagas, I can confirm that this movie has most of the narrative elements one would expect from such a source. It is set more recently than the traditional Sagas, but the living culture of oral history there would result in newer stories. Among the aspects that struck me as in line with the mythic cycles of Scandinavia were the wrestling match to decide a point of honor, the harsh punishment for criminals, and the inevitable punishment of people who transgress or try to live outside the support of society.

Meanwhile, the film also has a lot in common with other work by Sjöström, especially visually and in terms of the bleakness and moral stringency of its philosophical outlook. I’ve compared Sjöström with Ingmar Bergman more than once as I discuss his work, and I’ve learned since that Sjöström was one of Bergman’s mentors in film making, so the connection is more definite than I had realized. Folks who find Bergman dull will probably feel about the same way about Sjöström, but it’s fair to say that he deals with somewhat simpler moral issues than Bergman takes on. This movie is more rapidly edited than earlier Sjöström work, and also makes good use of close-ups to build sympathy with its characters. Finally, it’s interesting to note that Erastoff is not a traditional youthful beauty, but a solid middle-aged woman who exudes strength and confidence more than sex appeal. This can hardly be because Sweden was lacking in beautiful women (see: Greta Garbo), and was surely a conscious casting decision. It makes the film feel decidedly more realistic – a Hollywood star just doesn’t look like someone who can survive the privations that Halla takes on.

Director: Victor Sjöström

Camera: Julius Jaenzon

Starring: Victor Sjöström, Edith Erastoff, Nils Ahren, John  Ekman

Run Time: 1 hr, 10 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

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.

Yep, this is a Swedish film.

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).

Ingeborg Holm (1913)

Hilda Borgstrom

Actress Hilda Borgström

I suppose that, like most American film buffs, I have a myopic view of Swedish cinema. Or, more accurately, I have a view of Swedish cinema that is dominated by a single name: BERGMAN. Thus, it never occurred to me that a silent movie from Sweden would be anything but an obvious influence on Bergman’s style. This movie, however, seems to have a lot more in common with the work of D.W. Griffith than Ingmar Bergman. Visually, it could take place in any “western” city; only one brief scene in which the protagonist runs through a field to see her child takes advantage of the Swedish landscape, and everyone except the farmer’s wife who fosters the child is in “modern” urban clothing. Having hinted, I suppose I should comment a bit on the plot: It’s a fairly typical (for 1913) morality play about a woman whose husband dies and is forced to enter the workhouse, losing her children along the way. The message was meant to be that services for the needy should be improved, and apparently it contributed to debate about the need for a better social safety net, helping to lead to the current Swedish welfare state. It’s worth noting, however, that the many similar movies in the US didn’t have as much effect, suggesting that cultural differences cause different responses to media.

Director: Victor Sjöström

Camera: Henrik Jaenzon

Starring: Hilda Borgström

Run Time: 1 hr, 12 Min

You can watch it for free: here.