Victor Sjostrom and Mauritz Stiller, the joined at-the-hip fathers of the Swedish cinema, took similar yet very different paths as their country’s film industry declined in the early 1920s. The flamboyantly homosexual (and hot commodity) Stiller arrived trumpets-blazing in Hollywood in 1925 with his chubby, snaggle-toothed protégé, Greta Garbo on his arm. After the temperamental Swede angered studio bosses with his demands of artistic autonomy, Stiller was swept out of MGM and soon out of town. The genius director returned to Europe and tragically died shortly thereafter.
Sjostrom, on the other hand, arrived in Tinseltown with much less fanfare. A filmmaker of keen psychological insight and an accommodating fellow, he agreed to Americanize his name to Seastrom and didn’t ruffle in-house feathers at MGM. Though nowhere near as prolific as most of his contemporaries, the brooding Sjostrom managed to carve out a niche for himself as a consummate professional by taking on big projects starring MGM’s brightest stars. But not long after Sjostrom completed his most ambitious and best Hollywood film The Wind, he returned to Sweden to sit at the bedside of the gravely ill Stiller.
Sjostrom never returned to the States, instead remaining in Sweden and taking on the role of a grand ambassador of his home nation’s cinema. And seen today, the director’s fantastic, mood-drenched Swedish films stand tall alongside his dark, deterministic American collaborations with the silver screen icons Lillian Gish, Lon Chaney, and Garbo. Sjostrom’s legend will continue to evolve as more of his films become available for evaluation.
Sjostrom had a tumultuous upbringing. His father, a successful Swedish timber man lost all his money once the business went dry and after failing to get back on his feet he immigrated to America with his family. The Sjostroms thrived in Brooklyn but young Victor didn’t cotton to his father’s fire and brimstone passion for religion and when his beloved actress mother died he moved back to Sweden.
Following his mother’s footsteps Victor took to the stage and after an apprenticeship in Finland he returned to Sweden where he became a successful actor and director. Looking to break into movies, Sjostrom accepted a job at the Svenska Bio film company and soon he was acting in his first silent under the helm of Mauritz Stiller. Within a year Sjostrom would be directing his own movies and soon he rode the crest of a critical wave with the rest of a Swedish industry whose sophisticated films were technically and artistically ahead of nearly every other European country during the troubled 1910s.
Most of Sjostrom’s films from this period are lost but with what we find in his first surviving work, Tradgardsmasteren (The Gardener) it is clear we are in the hands of a director who was sensitive to actors and had a flair for the natural—uncommon talents at the dawn of narrative film. This short piece about a young woman (Lili Beck) whose dreams of happiness are shattered by the attentions lustful gardener (played by Sjostrom) is remarkable for its vivid locale shooting and the spontaneity of the players.
Rather than make do with the limitations of a studio Sjostrom was one of the first important filmmakers to take his camera outside to capture people at leisure and the wonders of nature.
By 1913 Sjostrom was turning out films at a steady clip. His first important feature Ingeborg Holm was a simple but powerful tragedy about a housewife (Hilda Borgstrom) who is forced to give up her two children to foster parents after her husband dies and the family business goes sour. While working as a washer woman Ingeborg learns her daughter is in need of an operation to save her life. She leaves her job to rush to the side of her gravely ill daughter but the strain of her sad life finally causes her to snap. Years later, her now-adult son tracks the hopelessly mad Ingeborg to a mental institution but in an exceedingly tender and transcendent scene she comes to recognize the spitting image of her long dead husband in young Eric.
Stark and unsentimental, Ingeborg Holm takes on the callousness of the Swedish middle class and holds up as one of the great films about motherhood.
Havsgamar (The Sea Vultures) is another ambitious location shoot which follows the plight of two smugglers forced to kill a pair of customs agents and bury them at sea. Fifteen years on the men remain haunted by their crime but as fate would have it a son of one of the dead agents arrives in town and promptly falls in love with a smuggler’s daughter. The young man turns out to be a customs officer and he begins an investigation into the rampant smuggling in the area. Fearing they will be exposed the men rush the scene of their crime and begin to destroy the evidence which could convict them.
Sjostrom continued his hectic work pace which meant taking on a variety of films including the quirky and compelling murder mystery Dodskyssen (Kiss of Death). Told mostly in flashback, the complex story revolves around the murder of a doctor and stars Sjostrom in a dual role (filmed in split-screen) as Weyler, a harried architect, and the doppelganger he hires to fool his boss and wife.
While pursuing a thief who has broken into his studio and made off with important blueprints Weyler encounters a masked man who tries to knock him out with a blast of gas. The trail of the masked man leads to an apartment where the ill-fated doctor is poisoned to death by an innocent kiss from his daughter. Given the bewildering plot Dodskyssen remains an excellent example of Sjostrom’s natural handling of actors which help propels this very strange little thriller.
Nature would play a major force in many of Sjostrom’s films, none more so than Terje Vigen (A Man There Was). Based on a poem by Henrik Ibsen and set during the years of the Napoleonic Wars, this is the sad saga of fisherman Vigen (Sjostrom) who is captured by a British marine ship. The ship’s captain (August Falck) suspects Vigen is a spy and has the innocent man sentenced to prison.
After five long years Vigen is released and returns to his village to find his wife and children have died. Broken in spirit, he sequesters himself away in a shack swearing vengeance towards the ship captain. One day, during a raging storm, Vigen rescues an aristocrat and his young daughter from a shipwreck. After discovering the man is actually the dreaded British officer and Vigen is prepared to kill the daughter but just as he is about to strangle the little girl the fisherman is reminded of his own lost children and the sweet memory quells his murderous hatred.
Based on a play by Johann Sigurjonsson about an Icelandic outlaw who in 1760 escaped the law with his wife to eek out an existence in the country’s barren highlands, Berg-Ejvind och hans hustru (The Outlaw and His Wife) was early evidence of Sjostrom as a filmmaker as at home in nature as he was in the studio. Shot on location in northern Sweden we follow the mostly unfortunate saga of Evyind of the Hills (Sjostrom) who, having been given a harsh sentence for a minor crime, escapes from prison then disappears into the harsh hills surrounding his former community.
Years later, a handsome stranger by the name of Kari strolls into town. He is hired by the widowed landowner Halla (Edith Erastoff) and the couple soon falls in love. Having been rebuffed by Halla her jealous brother in-law exposes Kari as the escapee Ejvind and fearing permanent separation the couple take to the highlands. A hardscrabble life of hunting and gathering takes its toll on the couple over the ensuing years and they end up broken and miserable as a cold blast of winter sets in.
Once again, Sjostrom makes expert use of flashback to tangle narrative threads and add to intrigue to the plodding drama but the film remains most notable for how the players adapt to the rugged mountainous locales. Making the best use of such unwieldy surroundings was a talent Sjostrom would fine tune over the next few years culminating in that masterpiece of inhospitable climes, The Wind.
Based on Jerusalem, a novel by the Nobel Prize winning author Selma Lagerlof (The Saga of Gosta Berling), Ingmarssonema (Dawn of Love) and Karin Ingmarrsdotter (Karin Daughter of Ingmar) was an ambitious film in two parts about the pride and prejudices of an influential family in a provincial Swedish village.
In the first film, the melancholy land owner Lill Ingmar Ingmarsson (Sjostrom) journeys to heaven to get advice from his father. He is in love with Brita (Harriet Bosse), a local woman who kills her out of wedlock child. Lill Ingmar testifies on her behalf in court and she gets off with a light sentence. Although he sticks by Brita until she is released from prison, she isn’t too keen on his patronizing ways and decides to immigrate to a colony in America. Stung by her rejection dull Ingmar vows to turn over a new leaf.
In Karin Ingmarrsdotter, the community goes into an uproar when the disreputable young Halfvor (Tor Weijden) becomes the favored beau of Ingmar’s daughter Karin (Tora Teje). The stubborn young woman finally gets her way in this colorful depiction of rural Swedish life. Surprisingly, this, arguably, superior follow-up film of the Lagerlof saga didn’t strike a chord with audiences, so Sjostrom chose not to finish filming the book.
These two stolid depictions of moral redemption probably came as a revolution to a generation of young Swedes grappling with old world religion in the jazz age but contrary to claims by many Sjostrom scholars neither film should be considered amongst his best.
Sjostrom’s range is much evident in two of his lighter films, Hans Nads Testamente (His Grace’s Last Testament) and Masterman (A Lover in Pawn). In the first film the cranky old Lord (Karl Mantzius) alarms his family when he decides to sign over his large estate to his fetching, illegitimate daughter (Greta Almroth), provided she marries the beau of his choice. But, the young woman has ideas of her own, proving to be a chip off the old block. Mantzius gives a bravura performance as the feisty head of the family who thinks nothing of outraging his greedy clan and the local community.
Masterman follows the plight of the selfish and unpopular pawnbroker Sammel Eneman (Sjostrom) who thinks his attractive young housekeeper Tora (Greta Almroth) wants to marry him. But she only wants to win Eneman’s favor in the hopes he will cancel a debt owed to him by her handsome fiancé. But when the pawnbroker insists Tora marry him the locals make mockery of the foolish groom until he finally relinquishes and tries to make amends.
Sjostrom’s stature as a filmmaker of local and International renown made great leaps and bounds in the 1920s when he embarked upon a series of complex, psychological films rivaling those made by the exciting, new Berlin directors Murnau, Lang and Joe May.
Set in the 17th century The Monastery of Sendomir is a horrific tale of marital infidelity told through the haunted eyes of Count Starshensky (Tore Svennberg). The Count married the pretty Elga (Tora Teje) who he has installed in his palatial home. He remains blissfully unaware she has entered into a love affair with her cousin and former beau Oginsky (Richard Lund) until an informant delivers the devastating news.
In a chilling climax, the Count takes his terrible revenge chaining Oginsky to their bed and demanding Elga say she is an adulteress. Oginsky’s admission to their carnality only hastens his own death and after the Count leaves Elga helplessly trapped in her room he has the building set on fire. But the Count lives into a tormented old age doling out his tale of woe to travelers and doing daily penance in front of a chorus of grim-faced monks.
The Phantom Carriage was likely a very personal film for the director who broke early with his sermonizing father and Sjostrom’s performance in the role of an unrepentant sinner is as dark-hearted as anything in the cinema.
Strapping David Holm leads the simple life as a happy family man until he is led down the long path of avarice and self-destruction by a worldly, old friend who shockingly reappears on New Year’s Eve in the guise of the Grim Reaper. Through multi-layered uses of flashback, The Reaper spins David’s sordid tale where we see him turn his brother into a drunkard, abuse his wife (Hilda Borgstrom) and children, and cruelly mistreat the kindly social worker Edit (Astrid Holm) who loves him.
The consumptive and ragged bum breathes and coughs in their faces, happy to spread his disease, and when informed Edit is dying he can’t be bothered to give up his bottle to grant her last wish to see him. Finally, faced with a fate worse than death, David finally breaks down to repent concluding this sinister and fascinating morality tale.
At the height of his Swedish career, Sjostrom began to get bigger budgets to shoot projects in the studio—on a much grander scale. Such was the case with Vem domer (Love’s Crucible), a tragic love story set during the not-so enlightened period of the Renaissance. Having been forced to marry a man she does not love, Ursula (Jenny Hasselqvist) enters into an affair with Bertram (Gosta Ekman), the son of the town’s mayor. Nauseated by the mere touch of her husband Anton (Ivan Hedqvist), an aged sculptor who truly loves her, she schemes to poison the old man. Her plan succeeds but she is soon caught and accused of murder.
The unrepentant Ursula is sentenced to burn at the stake but in a grand gesture of love Bertram confesses to the crime and offers to die for her sins. The townspeople are appalled but Ursula refuses to confess. At Bertram’s execution guilt finally overcomes the selfish young woman prompting her to follow her lover into the fire in a truly transcendent scene of love and redemption.
Sjostrom’s final Swedish silent Eld ombord (The Hell Ship) is a blood and thunder seafaring drama featuring the director as a ne’er-do-well who signs up to work on a cargo ship captained by the husband of a former lover. Down on his luck Dick (Sjostrom) returns to his hometown and tries to light a flame under his old girlfriend Ann-Britt (Jenny Hasselqvist) while her husband Jan (Matheson Lang) is away at sea. The sailor returns home and immediately suspects his wife is carrying on with her old beau and throws him out of the house.
In need of a job, Dick takes the advice of a dodgy shipping agent and signs on with a band of smugglers. Once aboard he is none too pleased to find Dick is the captain and Ann-Britt is in tow with her little daughter. Fueled by a jealous rage Jan takes his anger out on Dick and his shipmates. After a quarrel, Jan nearly kills Ann-Britt, prompting the men to mutiny. After the ship is burnt and sent to its watery grave, Dick, Jan and Ann-Britt make-up in a most improbable happy ending.
Eld ombord wasn’t really first-rate Sjostrom but tackling new genres such as this would bode well for his future in a more commercial film industry. As impressive and accomplished as these films were the end of WWI quelled the international demand for Swedish product. With production screeching to a halt all over the country Sjostrom and his rival Stiller would turn to Hollywood to find the sort of financial means to suit their considerable talents and ambition.
Sjostrom’s first major film for MGM, He Who Gets Slapped, based on a popular Russian play, starred the studio’s biggest icon Lon Chaney as the brilliant scientist Paul Beaumont. Beaumont’s idyllic world is shattered when his sponsor Baron Regnard (Marc MacDermott) steals his wife (Ruth King), assumes credit for his groundbreaking invention, and slaps him in public when he doth protest. In a bizarre fit of self-loathing Beaumont gives up the scientific world for the life of a circus clown whose popular gimmick is to be slapped at will by his Big Top compatriots.
Though a man of science Beaumont has the soul of a poet, which explains the torch he carries for Consuelo (Norma Shearer) a pretty equestrian. But, when he finds her father is about to dump the girl into the waiting lap of Baron Regnard, the dark clown takes matters into his own hands.
Nowadays Chaney is mostly remembered for his fruitful and harrowing collaboration with the cinema’s master of the Grand Guignol, Todd Browning. But Sjostrom also proved to be very much in tune with the complicated and tormented Man of 1000 faces and He Who Gets Slapped remains as grotesque and haunting anything in the Browning-Chaney canon.
While many of Sjostrom’s major European films survived the onslaught of time much of his American work is either completely lost or, in the case of Confessions of a Queen, missing important reels. What remains is fairly tantalizing. Cult star Alice Terry plays a naïve princess who marries the King of Illyris (Lewis Stone), a dissolute wastrel who has a mistress on the side. Meanwhile, the angry citizens of the small country are ready to overthrow the Royals but the young queen offers her own brand of resistance.
Shot in the lush MGM style, Confessions of a Queen looks like it could have sprung from the imagination of a Stroheim or Sternberg but unless the final two reels are ever unearthed it will remain a fascinating fragment.
Based on the Nathaniel Hawthorne classic on pious old New England, The Scarlet Letter would have seemed to be a project right up Sjostrom’s alley. Taking into consideration his rocky relationship with his father it’s no surprise Sjostrom wouldn’t have much use for the reactionary Puritans who condemn free-spirited adulteress Hester Prynne to a life of penance. And the twisted romance between passionate Hester (Lillian Gish) and masochistic Rev. Dimmesdale (Lars Hanson) calls to mind any number of doomed lovers in the Sjostrom oeuvre.
But in this case it seems Sjostrom was wary of taking liberties with an American masterpiece. Hanson’s Dimmesdale is a well-meaning clod, but the frosty actor’s lack of inner fire makes for lackluster love scenes with the steadfast Gish and his self-martyrdom at the town’s scaffold at films’ end remains curiously unmoving.
Hanson would return as Garbo’s lover in the director’s lost silent melodrama The Divine Woman. For much of Garbo’s reign at MGM she would be burdened with hack directors and often ridiculous scenarios. She combated her shyness and insecurity by overacting and these exaggerated performances only help make her pre-Queen Christina films look all the worse. Garbo lobbied hard to work with her fellow Swede Sjostorm and the atmospheric nine minute reel which is currently available is a tantalizing tease at what might have been an extraordinary collaboration. But there is hope, apparently a restoration of a good part of the film in progress.
Sjostrom’s last great film The Wind reunites Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson as a mismatched man and wife living in a blustery East Texan hellhole. Letty (Gish) is a poor young Virginian woman who moves out west to live with her cousin Beverly (Edward Earle), his wife Cora (Dorothy Cumming), and their children in a dilapidated home on the Texas range. An unwitting Letty wins Beverly and the children over to the dismay of jealous Cora who schemes to get the pretty woman married to any one of her three suitors. Letty’s first choice, the big-talking out of towner Roddy Wirt (Montagu Love) turns out to be a bigamist, so Letty reluctantly accepts the hand of the rough cowhand Lige (Lars Hanson).
It proves to be a loveless marriage but Lige tells Letty that once he makes enough money he will send her back home. One day while Lige is out, Roddy reappears and forces himself on whom he thinks to be a defenseless woman. Letty shoots Roddy and, in a panic, buries him in the front yard, but the ferocious wind uncovers the dead man whose unblinking eyes stare up at the haunted woman. The original finale had Letty going mad and wandering out into the deserted plain, but the compromised ending of Lige and Letty making up proved more audience-friendly.
Shot in the gloomy Mojave Desert and chalk full of lonely and obsessed characters, The Wind is a riveting and often profound throwback to Sjostrom’s psychologically disturbing Swedish films. The director’s artistic triumph would be short-lived. The looming inevitability of talking films went a long way in breaking up the already fragile Swedish and German communities in Hollywood. This, along with the grim news of the alarming deterioration of his compatriot Stiller, put Sjostrom on a boat back home.
Thus began an unlikely and unfortunate semi-retirement that lasted until he was lured to England to direct Under the Red Robe, a swashbuckler set during the notorious reign of France’s Cardinal Richelieu. The politically embattled Richelieu (Raymond Massey) cuts a deal with the condemned aristocrat Gil de Berault (Conrad Veidt) to capture a Duke (Wyndham Goldie) sympathetic with the rebellious Huguenot cause in return for a full pardon. But little does the cynical de Berault suspect he will fall victim to the virtuous charms of the Duke’s sister Lady Marguerite (Annabella). While not without merits Red Robe takes a disastrous turn during the highly unbelievable romance between the reptilian Veidt and the pretty but virtually inarticulate Annabella.
After this last gasp Sjostrom shut his directing career down for good. He would still occasionally appear as an actor in important films like Dreyer’s Ordet and the early Ingmar Bergman effort To Joy. But Sjostrom saved his most memorable acting role for last as the crusty Professor Isak Borg who ponders a life not well-lived in Bergman’s tough love masterpiece Wild Strawberries. Like so many other tortured Sjostrom characters, Isak makes bad life choices then finds redemption just in time to pass into a more hospitable world.
Films by Sjostrom:
1912 Tradgardsmasteren (The Gardener) ***1/2
1913 Ingeborg Holm ****
1915 Havsgamar (The Sea Vultures) ***1/2
1916 Dodskyssen (Kiss of Death) ***1/2
1917 Terje Vigen (A Man There Was) ***1/2
1918 Berg-Ejvind och hans hustru (The Outlaw and His Wife) ***1/2
1919 Ingmarssonema (Dawn of Love) ***1/2
1919 Hans Nads Testamente (His Grace’s Last Testament) ***1/2
1920 The Monastery of Sendomir ****
1920 Karin Ingmarsdotter (Karin Daughter of Ingmar) ***1/2
1920 Masterman (A Lover in Pawn) ***1/2
1921 The Phantom Carriage ****
1922 Vem domer (Love’s Crucible) ****
1923 Eld ombord (The Hell Ship) ***1/2
1924 He Who Gets Slapped ****
1925 Confessions of a Queen *** (fragment)
1926 The Scarlet Letter ***1/2
1928 The Divine Woman *** (fragment)
1928 The Wind ****
1936 Under the Red Robe ***