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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on DVDs. Pick of the Week: Classics. The Phantom Carriage, The Outlaw and His Wife, A Man There Was, Ingeborg Holm

The Phantom Carriage (Four Stars)

Sweden: Victor Sjostrom, 1921 (Criterion Collection)

 

I. The Swedes

Victor Sjostrom, a Viking of a 20th century Swedish artist, a great actor-director with sad, somber eyes, infallible instincts and a granite chin, is best known for his masterful performance, at 78, as the dying, memory-tormented professor Isak Borg in Ingmar Bergman’s  1957 classic Wild Strawberries. But Bergman picked Sjostrom not just for his genius as an actor but out of reverence for his Svensk Filmindustri mentor’s massive screen achievements in the 1910s and ’20s as one of the greatest silent filmmakers.

Sjostrom had a face that catches your memory: big dark eyes that sear their way into your soul and an intense, fatherly mien that could convey both gentleness and brutality — with those conflicting emotions sometimes coming right on top of each other, streams pouring from the same well of Scandinavian loneliness, love and sorrow.

We know Sjostrom best of course for his lead role in Wild Strawberries: for his part as irascible old Dr. Isak Borg, the elderly professor haunted by dark memories of his past as he travels to Stockholm by car with his embittered daughter-in-law (Ingrid Thulin) to be celebrated and to accept an honorary degree. But, as critic/screenwriter Paul Mayersberg reminds us in his excellent notes for the new Criterion Collection edition of Sjostrom’s 1921 masterpiece The Phantom Carriage — for which Sjostrom starred, directed and wrote the screenplay — Sjostrom was a far more considerable figure in film history than simply an actor with one great, unforgettable performance. And he was more than just a mentor to the young Bergman, in Bergman’s early years at Svensk Filmindustri.

Sjostrom was also truly one of the great masters of silent film. He was a uniquely creative director ranked at the time (deservedly) with D. W. Griffith and the top German expressionists. He was the maker of the early Swedish masterpieces Ingeborg Holm (1913), A Man There Was (1917) and The Outlaw and His Wife (1918), and the American classics (made after Sjostrom‘s 1923 emigration to Hollywood), He Who Gets Slapped (1924) and The Wind (1928).

And he was the writer/director/star of The Phantom Carriage (1921), which was regarded at the time as Sjostrom’s best film and one of the greatest films ever made.

I love the movie, as did the young Bergman. (The older Bergman discusses his admiration for Sjostrom’s film work in one of the documentary interviews in the Criterion package.) The Phantom Carriage — also known as Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness or The Stroke of Midnight — is a film of extraordinary visual beauty, emotional power and piercing cinematic poetry.

 

 

II. The Coachman

Phantom Carriage is based on a novel called “Korkarlen” (“The Coachman“) by the Swedish Nobel Prize winning novelist, and Sjostrom’s frequent collaborator, Selma Lagerlof. The film’s story weaves around a supposed Swedish legend that claims that each year, the person who died at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, will be condemned for the next year, to be the coachman for the souls of the dead, carrying them, like Charon in his mythological boat, in their travels to the worlds beyond. The coachman for the previous year, his time almost up, was a one-time drunken wastrel and fallen intellectual named Georges (Tore Svennberg). Georges’ successor this year, one of his old drinking companions during his wasted sodden life, is a man named David Holm (Sjostrom).

David is another heavy drinker and an indigent, but he also has a vicious temper, and he has long since abandoned his family and his livelihood due to temperament and addictions. David has been summoned that night to the deathbed of Sister Edit (Astrid Holm), an angelic-tempered Salvation Army worker who loved him at first sight (from the time he showed up at the Salvation Army home the previous New Year‘s Eve), and has tried repeatedly to reform him, to no avail. Now, as David and his low companions drink and carouse in a graveyard, Georges arrives to pick him up for his last stop.

But first — as in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” an obvious influence on Lagerlof’s story — Georges takes David on a tour of his life and of the circumstances that brought him to his final hour and disgrace, and Sister Edit to her deathbed. What follows is both spookily supernatural, and grimly real — a tale of moral reckoning and possible redemption, shot through with love and pain.

The Phantom Carriage, according to Mayersberg, became famous and widely admired at the time of its release for its ingenious technical effects, in which the spectral stunts and non-corporeality of the ghosts are conveyed by a virtuosic use of superimpositions and multiple images, thanks to Sjostrom‘s brilliant cinematographer (a master of both naturalism and supernaturalism) Julius Jaenzon. It was that mix of fantastic and dramatic in Phantom Carriage that obviously conquered the young Bergman: a mix we also see in Bergman’s own films The Seventh Seal (which contains another protagonist who faces Death), Hour of the Wolf, The Magic Flute, Fanny and Alexander and, of course, the reverie-strewn Wild Strawberries.

The Phantom Carriage, like the films above, is an astonishing blend of psychological realism and supernatural fantasy. It is a horror movie of intelligence and real human sympathy, a film that, like the later low budget RKO films of producer Val Lewton, takes us deep into the souls of its characters. And it is more beautiful than any of the best Lewtons, more poetic.

III. Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness

David, as Sjostrom writes and plays him, is a once good man who has led an evil, irresponsible life and damaged or destroyed those who loved him — especially his wife (Hilda Borgstrom) and children — and Sister Edit, who is now dying of tuberculosis. (When David first meets Sister Edit, she gives him a bed at the Salvation Army house and tenderly mends and sews his tattered coat while he sleeps. When he awakens, he sneers and tears the coat to rags again — because, he says, that’s how he likes it.)

Sjostrom was a master actor who pioneered a more restrained and subtle and unexaggerated style than most other theatre-bred actors of his day, and he makes David a memorable and commanding figure: a handsome, tall and dissipated bully, his face breaking into a devilish smile in his worst moments, a callous grin that is chillingly real. David‘s temperament, like that of Sjostrom’s later Isak Borg, is a mixture of kindness and cruelty, of selfishness and a barely glimpsed compassion.

In The Phantom Carriage, David’s seeming heartlessness in the film‘s “present day,” contrasts strikingly with the gentle, loving young husband we see in the first flashbacks, happily with his children and wife — not the raging, malevolent drunk we see later, tormenting his loved ones and himself. (Mayersberg aptly compares Sjostrom’s David to Jack Nicholson’s raging husband Jack Torrance in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and there’s even a scene in Phantom Carriage where David, like Jack, takes an axe to a door to get at his wife and children.)

The film’s psychological realism is a large part of what moves us in Sjostrom and Lagerlof‘s ghost story, as it also is in Kubrick’s The Shining. (The movie of The Shining, in fact, could use much more of the sympathetic human detail Stephen King showed in painting Jack’s psychological collapse.) Another factor: the sheer beauty, poetry and lyricism of Sjostrom’s visuals. In the scenically majestic The Outlaw and His Wife, and in most of his other early classics, Sjostrom had filmed mostly on location, surrounding his elemental but very human characters with an elemental and very real world. In Phantom Carriage, he shoots in the studio, in a land of movie make-believe, surrounding his characters with a fantasy world built on real emotions.

IV. Sjostrom

The Phantom Carriage is a masterpiece; Sjostrom made more of them. His stage career started in 1895, when he was 16, and, after acting in movies for his director friend Mauritz Stiller (who made The Saga of Gosta Berling and others), Sjostrom began his own film directorial career in 1912. His first classic, Ingeborg Holm (another favorite of Bergman’s) was shot in 1913. And, very rapidly, Sjostrom shot to the forefront of world cinema makers, despite working in a small film industry in a small country, Sweden.

Later, after emigrating to America and Hollywood (along with Stiller and Stiller’s beautiful young protégée Greta Garbo), Sjostrom soon became one of the best (and most serious) 1920s Hollywood studio directors. He helmed, superbly, the macabre and poignant  Lon Chaney backstage drama He Who Gets Slapped (based on the Russian play by Leonid Andreyev), and he also made the annihilating Western drama (about another psychological disintegration),  The Wind, starring Lillian Gish — as well as Gish’s adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Then, with the advent of sound, after only a few more films, and though not yet 60, he frustratingly stopped directing — after returning to Sweden. Luckily for us, and for Bergman, he didn’t stop acting.

Sjostrom remains one of the all-time cinema greats, not just for his acting work as that nonpareil old wanderer in time Isak Borg (one of the greatest performances in the entire history of cinema), but for the expressiveness and power and poetry of his greatest silent work as a director — films that rank with the best contemporaneous pictures of Griffith and von Stroheim, Lang and Murnau, Gance and Eisenstein.

A suggestion to Criterion: Why not devote one of your upcoming Eclipse sets to the other Swedish or American silent classics of the great Victor Sjostrom? Or what about a Sjostrom box set from Kino, which, in cooperation with Svensk Filmindustri, has already released on DVD The Outlaw and His Wife, Ingeborg Holm and A Man There Was (as well as some prime Mauritz Stiller movies) and could easily box them with more. (See reviews of the Kino Sjostrom films below.)

I suggest this partly because my maternal grandparents were Swedish, from Stockholm, and I’m proud of that little country and its wonderful films. But I also say it because Sjostrom’s work speaks the universal language of cinema clearly and beautifully to all of us, from whatever country or bckground. If Ingmar Bergman treasured Sjostrom and his films, so should we. (Silent, with music score and English intertitles.)

Extras: Two complete accompanying scores, one by composer Matti Bye, and one by the experimental musical duo KTL; Commentary by film historian Caspar Tybjerg; Interview with Ingmar Bergman, from Gosta Werner‘s 1981 documentary Victor Sjostrom: A Portrait; Visual essay The Bergman Connection (2011), by critic and Bergman expert Peter Cowie; Film footage of the construction of the Rasunda film studio, where The Phantom Carriage was shot; Booklet with Paul Mayersberg essay.

Victor Sjostrom on Kino

 Three of Sjostrom’s early classics, two starring Sjostrom, were released on Kino, on two separate discs, along with a fine 1981 documentary, Victor Sjostrom, produced by Bengt Forslund (The Emigrants and The New Land). All three Sjostrom films are silent, with original musical scores and English intertitles. Taken together, they reveal an artistic/cinematic sensibility of the highest order.

The Outlaw and His Wife (Four Stars)
Sweden; Victor Sjostrom, 1918 (Kino)

A grim yet rapturously beautiful saga of love on the run, set in Iceland’s mountains and based on the play by Johann Sigurjonsson. Outlaw’s story is reminiscent of Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables,” but it’s far sadder and more tragic — with Sjostrom in one of his best brooding performances as Kari/Ejvind, the Jean Valjean-ish giant of a man who, like Jean, is unfairly imprisoned for years for stealing food for his family; then escapes, wins the heart of a rich widow (played by Edith Erastoff, who later married Sjostrom) and, after being exposed, is forced to flee with her into the mountains where they are pursued by an evil bailiff. Shot in Lapland by Sjostrom’s great cinematographer Julius Jaenzon, the towering snowy landscapes are rugged and stunning. The story is full of ecstasy and anguish, danger and heartbreak. This is a great, historically important film that even the cognoscenti among you may have missed — in a fine restored print. With an original score composed and conducted by Torbjorn Iwan Lundquist.
Extras: Documentary: Victor Sjostrom (Sweden; Gosta Werner, 1981) (Three Stars) A good, sympathetic tribute to a master filmmaker.

 A Man There Was (Terje Vigen) (Four Stars) 

Sweden: Victor Sjostrom, 1917) (Kino)

This splendid film stars Sjostrom again, as another wronged hero in a powerful adaptation of an epic poem by Henrik Ibsen. Here, Sjostrom plays a man who loses his family when he‘s caught up in the crossfire of war and imprisoned as he tries to bring food — then years later is faced with the option of saving, from an ocean storm, the family of the officer who captured him. The brilliant snowscapes of Outlaw are replaced here by equally striking shores and seascapes, shot on location (by Jaenzon) with a dark poetry that summons up Turner or Winslow Homer. With an original musical score composed and performed by Donald Sosin

With: Ingeborg Holm (Four Stars)
Sweden; Victor Sjostrom, 1913

     Ingeborg Holm, another big favorite of Ingmar Bergman’s, is an annihilating tearjerker, acted with tremendous, Griffith-level emotional power — especially by Hilda Borgstrom, of The Phantom Carriage, in the title role. It’s about another widow whose three children are torn from her by the cruel policies of the local workhouse and its heartless bureaucrats. This Dickensian heartbreaker has an elemental force that avoids the obvious sentimental pitfalls and becomes wrenchingly affecting. With an original musical score composed and performed by David Drazin.   

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