Movies and Film: Swedish Sweetness
From the opening decade of the twentieth century, this relatively small and sparsely populated Scandinavian nation has made lasting and, in a few cases, even revolutionary contributions to the history of world cinema. It's hard to know why the country's film history has been so illustrious: perhaps its cultural isolation from the rest of Europe at times, perhaps an innate sense of performative artistry of the sort that gave Norway its great dramatists, such as Ibsen. Whatever the case, you're really missing something if you're missing Swedish film!
Scandinavia's first known woman director was Anna Hofman-Uddgren, whose feel for location has few parallels in early Scandinavian cinema. Her particular forte was the adap-tation of Strindberg plays, including Miss Julie and The Father (Fröken Julie and Fadren, both 1912).
Magnusson the Magician
One of the truly towering figures from Sweden's silent era, Charles Magnusson was originally a news cameraman who joined forces with a number of businessmen to launch Svensk Biografteatern, a production and distribution company, in 1909 (the company became Svensk Filmindustri 10 years later). Magnusson's vital contribution to the history of Swedish cinema was his realization that film acting, directing, and mise-en-scène were still too bound up in the practice of the theater. Accordingly, he tried to find ways of divorcing cinematic practice from its theatrical roots, placing enormous confidence in the creative powers of the many directors he discovered and brought to prominence in the early part of the century.
Indeed, Magnusson was single-handedly responsible for launching the careers of many of the silent era's most notable directors, screen writers, and cameramen. A great example of his eye for talent is the career of George af Klercker, whose The Victory of Love (1916) is a true masterpiece of lighting and camerawork. The Prisoner of Karlsten's Fortress (Fången på Karlstens fästning, 1916), a melodramatic thriller, similarly exploits the possibilities of emergent film technology to create the dramatic mood swings that made it a popular exemplar of the genre.
"The thing that brought me to filmmaking was a youthful desire for adventure and a curiosity to try ths new medium of which I then did not have the slightest knowledge."
But the most important figure in Scandinavian film before Bergman was undoubtedly Victor Sjöström, one of a number of world-renowned silent era directors who deserve their own chapters. Already a successful actor when he came to Svensk Bio in 1912, Sjöström immediately became a national star with Ingeborg Holm (Margaret Day, 1913), an early masterpiece that many herald as one of the five or six greatest silent films ever made. The director's unparalleled and, for its time, remarkably unsentimental empathy for the poor comes to the surface in this story of an impoverished widow whose daughter is confiscated by the welfare office after her husband's death.
Sjöström's international breakthrough was Terje Vigen (Man There Was, 1917), an adaptation of an Ibsen play that, like Ingeborg Holm, depicted familial agonies and the harsh demands of poverty upon its victims. The Girl from the Marsh Croft (Tösen från Stormyrtorpet, 1917) came on the heels of this instant classic, and soon Sjöström was being hailed as the world's greatest director, a distinction he would momentarily share with America's D. W. Griffith.
Victor Sjöström's dazzling national and international success still tends to obscure the career of Sweden's second-most important silent-era auteur, Mauritz Stiller—perhaps the world's frst prominent gay male director. Stiller's The Wings Vingarne, (1916) dealt covertly with themes of homoerotic passion, while many of his lighthearted but wonderful comedies—Thomas Graal's First Child (1918) and the popular innuendo-filled Erotikon (1920)—stayed safely focused on heterosexual love, jealousy, and courtship.
Perhaps most important, Stiller's The Legend of Gösta Berling (Gösta Berlings Saga, 1924) introduced the world to Greta Garbo, one of Stiller's greatest legacies to the history of world cinema. Garbo brought Stiller with her to Hollywood, but while her star rose ever higher, things went downhill for him in Tinseltown. Though some of his American films (Hotel Imperial, for example, from 1927) were successes, his health soon failed, and, at 45, he died too young in 1928.
Sjöström's greatest commercial success was The Sons of Ingmar (Ingmarssönerna, 1918), an allegorical and psychological tale of a young man who must climb a ladder to heaven to get advice from his ancestors. In a very different vein, The Soul Shall Bear Witness (Körkarlen, 1921), in which he also starred, was a ghost story that featured a series of flashbacks taking place in a gloomy (and masterfully lit) cemetery. Sjöström's Hollywood phase culminated with his English-language masterpiece The Wind (1928), which was actually a financial failure. Starring Lillian Gish in one of the great performances of her illustrious career, this haunting psychological exploration of geographical displacement and hysteria is strikingly modern, a must-see for all you soon-to-be Sjöström junkies out there.
Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Movies and Film © 2001 by Mark Winokur and Bruce Holsinger. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.