Screened November 2, 2008 on Kino DVD in South San Francisco, CA
Intended as the ultimate triumph of what in retrospect was the golden era of Swedish silent cinema, this long and expensive costume drama based on a nationally celebrated novel by Nobel laureate Selma Ottiliana Lovisa Lagerlöf looks today like a prototypical prestige picture. The saga of a defrocked minister’s romantic mishaps within an estate of sexual hypocrites feels antiquated anywhere outside of red state America. The innate sensationalism of the plot is dignified by impeccable production design and stifled by methodical pacing. It’s most lasting value is Greta Garbo making her screen debut, and all the more fascinating in that the film presents “The Immortal” as a work-in-progress.
Those looking for Garbo at her youngest and most radiant may be disappointed to initially find a pudgy, shapeless presence hiding in a loose-fitting gown, the flesh above her jaws overtaking the famous cheekbones. But there are moments when the light catches Garbo’s features in just the right way, bathing her hair in a halo, glinting off her carnivorous smile, finding an otherworldly glimmer in her eyes. Eyes that open into a dual vortex, threatening to pull the viewer into its stare. The first gaze in cinema that gazes back, taking the audience beyond the mere experience of on-screen story or spectacle to a realm of pure desire.
Want to go deeper?
The following citations were counted towards the placement of The Saga of Gosta Berling in the TSPDT 1000:
Alberto Cavalcanti, Cinematheque Belgique (1952)
Charles Frend, Cinematheque Belgique (1952)
Helmut Kautner, Cinematheque Belgique (1952)
Jean-Loup Bourget, Positif (1991)
Ove Brusendorff, Sight & Sound (1952)
Bosley Crowther, The 50 Best Films of All-Time (1967)
Daniel & Susan Cohen, Book – 500 Great Films (1987)
Danny Peary, Guide for the Film Fanatic: Must-See Films (1987)
Gösta Berlings Saga is regarded by many as Sweden’s Gone With the Wind. With an epic sweep, episodic structure, and numerous characters, it evokes 19th-century Swedish life and is imbued with a lyricism and vibrancy which places its director Mauritz Stiller among the masters of silent film. The film represents both the pinnacle and the swan song of the “golden age” of Swedish cinema— 1913–24. With its plot centering on the search for redemption by Gösta Berling, the defrocked priest, and the several women who disastrously fall in love with him, it numbers, along with Griffith’s Intolerance, among the earliest important films of social protest and one of the masterpieces of silent cinema.
Gösta Berlings Saga was a formidable undertaking which encompassed many characters and themes, required elaborate sets and costumes and resulted in a four-hour production shown in two parts on consecutive evenings. Stiller eventually conceded this impracticality and edited the film to 137 minutes. His editing, while judiciously shortening many scenes rather than eliminating them, nonetheless imposed a disjunction which ultimately mars the continuity. Despite this shortcoming, Gösta Berlings Saga remains a remarkable evocation of life among the Swedish aristocracy and mirrors its repression and hypocrisy. The first half of the film is devoted to exposition and the introduction of the many characters while the second half is highlighted by the dramatic fire in Ekeby Hall, a flight from wolves by sleigh across a frozen lake, and the brilliant acting of the venerable Gerda Lundequist-Dahlstrom as the shamed mistress of the manor.
Stiller’s directorial technique was displayed through an expressive visual lyricism, an artistic use of light contrasted with shadowy darker hues and a picturesque depiction of the beauty and variety of the Swedish landscape. These elements are particularly evident in his photographing (with the masterful cinematographer Julius Jaenzon) of the then unknown Greta Garbo, who played Elizabeth. Stiller’s scenes of Garbo picking flowers in the garden, carrying a lamp through the mansion hallways at night, and her first close-up in the sleigh scene capture the luminescence and radiance that made her the most unique female screen image of all time.
The success of Gösta Berlings Saga resulted in both Stiller and Garbo being hired by MGM in 1925. His three years in Hollywood destroyed Stiller and he returned to Sweden to die at the age of 45 in 1928. That same year Gösta Berlings Saga was released in the United States where a number of religious groups denounced it as “a glorified Elmer Gantry.”
Lagerlöf disdained Stiller’s interpretation of her novel, claiming he had seen “too many poor serials.” For the most part Gösta Berlings Saga is remembered today as the film which introduced Garbo to the screen. However, it is a major work of the silent screen and as French critic Jean Beranger wrote: “If all but one Swedish silent film were to perish, this, probably, would be the one to save as the best witness of its period. All the charm, intelligence, profound human resonance and technical dexterity, here blend into an indissoluble bloc.”
—Ronald Bowers, Film Reference.com
Swedes hold Gösta Berlings saga in the highest regard; Selma Lagerlöf had been the first writer to break the spell of stern realism cast over Scandinavian literature in the nineteenth century and make her stories a vehicle for a return to romanticism. Gösta Berling , her first and possibly finest work, was a heroic tale that proceeded through folklore, feuds, and fires – gathering up in its rich and sprawling narrative a tale of Värmland, the untamed land on the western perimeter of Sweden, at the end of the Napoleonic era. Finding the right actor to play the troubled hero of Lagerlöf’s novel would be something of a national obsession and could only be equated with the search for Scarlett O’Hara fifteen years later in America .
Production finally began in mid-August. The delays with the film had as much to do with securing Selma Lagerlöf’s approval on the screenplay by Stiller and Ragnar Hyltén-Cavallius as from the complications of casting. After a series of talks between Stiller and Lagerlöf, the writer agreed to Svensk Filmindustri’s production of Gösta Berling – but not before a thorough examination of the screenplay and a written promise from the director that he would remain faithful to the approved adaptation.
Principal photography on Gösta Berlings saga was scheduled for August through October of 1923, with a break in mid-October and November while the company awaited the season’s first snowfall; the winter shoot would continue through the beginning of February. Forty-eight sets would be constructed. With a budget rumoured to be the largest in Svensk Filmindistri’s brief history.
For some time Stiller had dreamed of molding an actress into his feminine ideal. As filming continued, Stiller would note with pride that the young actress was solely his creation and Stiller took a jealous care of Greta. He scarcely permitted anyone else even to speak to her, and would hardly leave her out of his sight for a moment. The pair inevitably earned a nickname: “Beauty” and “the Beast.” Stiller was always teaching and preaching, Greta solemnly listening and learning. According to an observer, however, the film was a tortuous experience for Greta – she was nervous, restless, and “she cried a great deal.” Stiller was, in his own words, merciless with her, pushing her farther and farther along. He fussed over her costumes; he needled her about what she ate until she was inclined not to eat at all; he studied her makeup, her walk, her gestures.
One day, she actually broke down in front of the company and cursed him. It was a scene made all the more memorable because the usually mild-mannered actress wasn’t known to lose her temper. “It was a love-hate affair,” Greta stated, “at times he loved me as much as I hated him.” He pushed her hard because he believed the results would be worth it.
In October, during the film’s hiatus, Stiller asked Greta to think about changing her name. It was not the first time she had considered it – in fact, many women during this period were adopting more distinctive surnames. Stiller had also pondered an appropriate name for her. Scenarist Arthur Nordén related that the director wanted a name that was “modern and elegant and international.” After a long search and many legends how the name was found, Anna Gustafson signed a petition, on November 9, asking the ministry to allow her daughter to legally change her name to Greta Garbo. The petition was formally approved by the Ministry of Justice on the twenty-first of December. By that time, Greta Garbo was back at work on Gösta Berlings saga.
The snow arrived in mid-December and the filming went on. It did not go unnoticed that Stiller had a proprietary interest in Greta. Their relationship would become to talk of the community as the director prepared his film for its March 1924 premiere. There were rumors of a romantic relationship. Some weeks later, filming was completed.
The final version of Gösta Berlings saga was nearly four hours (fourteen reels) long; Part I debuted on March 10, 1924, at the Röda Kvarn Theatre in Stockholm , Part II opened one week later. Stiller escorted his star to both premieres. Critical reaction in Sweden would be polite but restrained; the majority of reviews labeled the film “a beautifully staged failure.” While the director was complimented on his handling of the love scenes, critics still complained about the liberties he had taken in distilling Lagerlöf’s epic down to a more manageable length; Selma Lagerlöf was also displeased. Stiller’s discovery earned scattered praise in the Swedish press. One critic saw Garbo as “a promise for the future,” another as “ a semiplump and unseasoned bun.”
- From Garbo Forever.com
Stiller cast the 17-year-old Greta Garbo in The Atonement of Gösta Berling. Intended as the apotheosis of Swedish cinema up to that time, it became instead its swansong. The economic data alone demonstrate its failure: Erotikon had been bought by 45 territories outside Sweden, and yet in spite of a massive sales campaign, The Atonement of Gösta Berling found release in only 28 countries. The pace of this long, elaborate film was too slow by comparison with the French and American film that were now asserting their dominance over world markets. Garbo’s luminous beauty as the Italian girl who dotes on the handsome, defrocked parson, Gösta Berling, certainly distinguished many scenes. Elsewhere the film was handicapped by a lack of zest and narrative flexibility quite astonishing in a director of such energy as Stiller. The acting still looks theatrical, and scenes shot in the studios contrast embarrassingly with those out of doors (particularly in the long chase across the ice, as Lars Hanson and Greta Garbo, aboard a large sled, try to outpace a pack of pursuing wolves).
Even the discovery of Garbo, usually credited to Stiller, belonged to Gustaf Molander. As head of the Royal Dramatic Theatre’s academy, he had selected her as one of the most talented of his pupils. Garbo’s first appearance on film, in a publicity short for fashion-wear, shows her as unrecognisably plump and exuberant. Stiller’s achievement was to isolate — and then magnify — the innate control and coolness of her expression.
- Peter Cowie, Scandinavian Cinema, London: The Tantivy Press, 1992.
Excerpt from interview conducted by TCM with Peter Cowie on the occasion of Kino’s DVD release of The Saga of Gosta Berling:
TCM: It appears that many natural locations were used in GOSTA BERLING and not a heavy reliance on studio sets. Was this unusual for 1924?
Cowie: No, the greatest single achievement of Swedish silent film was to demonstrate how films could be shot on location, with a minimum of work being done in the studio. This, in turn, led to greater power for directors, who, far removed from the central office/studio, could shoot as they liked.
The Saga of Gosta Berling, Mauritz Stiller’s epic adaptation of Selma Lagerlof’s hugely popular novel, ran well over three hours when it was originally released in Sweden. Like Gone With the Wind, it was such a well-known book that Stiller felt the need to include most of its characters and incidents. In America, Gosta Berling has been seen in many shortened versions which have run from an hour to just under three hours, and this 184-minute Kino version is likely the longest and most complete print of Gosta Berling available, though it still feels disjointed. The film has long been overshadowed by the appearance of Stiller’s protegee Greta Garbo in her first substantial role on screen. She turns up about 40 minutes into the film, disappears for most of the second hour, then steals the movie completely in the last 15 minutes. As an Italian Countess in love with Lars Hanson’s sexy defrocked priest, Garbo is a bit tentative physically and seems scared when asked to interact with others, but she has several close-ups that stop the movie cold (she asked for champagne before her big scenes, and the resulting tipsiness in her eyes reads as voluptuous sensual abandon). In the movie’s most famous sequence, a sleigh ride chase across icy tundra, Hanson and Garbo create a real erotic excitement based on the contrast between his assurance and her tingly, nervous submission. Aside from Garbo’s scenes, Gosta Berling is basically just a long soap opera about despair, superstition, and redemption. Stiller’s direction is only adequate most of the time, and there are a lot of mismatched eyelines and shots that feel off-balance and uncertain. Its theme of a hypocritical society dealing harshly with those who transgress against its rules is sketchy at best, so that a modern audience spends a lot of time just waiting for Garbo to reappear.
- Dan Callahan, Slant Magazine
About the Kino DVD
Image Transfer Review: The full frame picture is rather soft, and is lacking in clarity and detail. This could be a reflection of the state of the source materials, or it’s possible that this is an older video transfer. In any event, whites in some sequences have a tendency to be blown out and greyscale is somewhat reduced. There is no PAL/NTSC ghosting, however, so that’s positive. The source materials do appear to be in fine shape, with only the odd bit of dust or damage affecting it here and there. It’s quite watchable, though not quite up to the standards of many recent silent film transfers.
Image Transfer Grade: B
Audio Transfer Review: Composer Matti Bye contributes a score for piano quintet (playing piano himself) that is an intriguing mix of folk-tinged material and 1920s era experimental sounds. It’s an intriguing assemblage that works surprisingly well, given the subject matter. There’s plenty of atmosphere to the recording, which has fine range and good bass extension. Harmonics on the violin come across quite well. There’s a fair amount of surround activity, making it a quite immersive piece of accompaniment. Bye always keeps the onscreen action clearly in mind, on occasion using the small group to humorous effect to comment on the story.
Audio Transfer Grade: A-
Extras Review: The same Stiller bio and filmography found on the DVDs of his Sir Arne’s Treasure and Erotikon are repeated here. The same featurette on Stiller, narrated by Peter Cowie, found on those DVDs, reappears on this disc, with the option to play it together with a 5m:40s segment devoted specifically to Gosta Berling. It’s quite solid, as one would expect from Cowie, though he does tend to spend more time talking about Garbo than the movie itself.
Garbo probably is the main attraction for most folks here, and there are several items that the Garbo devotee should cherish. The first is a 3m:55s set of 1920-21 advertising films starring a barely recognizable Garbo, which apparently constitutes her very first film footage. Second is a 9m:48s excerpt from Luffarpetter, which finds a slightly chubby but still recognizable Garbo (under the name Gustafsson) in bathing suit, frolicking with two other young women. If there’s a plot, it’s not discernable from this fragment; a short text summary of the story would have been most welcome. The final piece of film is newsreel footage from 1929, as Garbo, now a major Hollywood star, emotionally departs back to the United States. She’s clearly not acting here, and the sense of loss and unhappiness is palpable during its short (1m:35s) running time.
Chaptering is a shade thin for such a long motion picture. This DVD is a rarity in that it uses dual layer technology, switching layers and moving the laser back to the center of the disc at the intermission, instead of utilizing the more standard RSDL method. As a result, a few more bits are available for the feature and the significant extras. But since it’s at the intermission, the layer shift is hardly noticeable. Very thoughtfully done.
Extras Grade: B+
- Mark Hanson, Digitally Obsessed.com
About Greta Garbo
Official Website, with trailers of several of her Hollywood features
An unforgettable face…
perfect bone structure…
an impenetrable gaze…
a face capable of registering everything
and yet… nothing
Greta Garbo was the ultimate Hollywood star, envied by millions of fans and co-workers.
She was a woman who set her own standards and became a
legend in her own time…
- Introduction by Phillip Oliver, administrator of Greta Garbo: The Ultimate Star
Another fan site with dozens of links to other Garbo resources
It was all in the face. Garbo’s face made her body irrelevant. Men lusted for her. Women lusted for her. But mostly from the neck up.
Her beauty was a function of the screen. Garbo in casual snapshots and unretouched portraits looks like a robust Scandinavian girl. In formal studio portraits, she is striking, but no more so than a half-dozen other women of the era. It’s only in motion that she becomes Garbo, a fact that disproves the notion that her onscreen power was an accident of looks. On screen, no one had what she had.
Since the 1980s, video has made Garbo’s image accessible, around the clock, to anyone who owns a video recorder. But before the days of video, seeing a Garbo film in a theater was a singular and rather tense experience. With each close-up, a quiet panic would seize the audience. A whole theater would, all at once, stop breathing and watch, trying to take in as much of that face as it could. It was a face with a riddle to it. It was a face you could never fully know your way around. Garbo’s face was, in a real sense, a special effect, something to be appreciated in and of itself, apart from whatever function it served in the story. Like morphing, fast-moving fireballs, and other special effects, its impact is diminished on television. Garbo needs the big screen.
- Mick LaSalle, Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood. Published by Macmillan, 2001. Page 37
September 18 2005 marks the centenary of the birth of Greta Garbo, an icon both resonant and remote to us. It feels a perilous centenary. In 20 years’ time, no one will need to make an argument for the centenary of Marilyn Monroe, with her hourglass silhouette, her voluptuous blondness. It is different with Garbo: you have to make a case for Garbo. She resonates because hers was ultimately a career of photographs, and this we recognise. She is remote because the great photographs of Garbo are abstractions; they are not of a woman, they are of a face. Garbo’s body was an irrelevance. From our 21st-century icons we demand bodies: bodies are to be admired, coveted and – if one works hard enough – gained. You can have something resembling Britney’s body, if you try. But you cannot have Garbo’s face. It was hers alone, a gift she used for as long as she could make it signify; and then, aged only 36, withdrew from public view, keeping it hidden until she died.
This face was memorably described by the philosopher Roland Barthes, who identified it as a transition between two semiological epochs, two ways of seeing women. Garbo marked the passage from awe to charm, from concept to substance: “The face of Garbo is an idea, that of Hepburn an event.” There was something essential, Platonic and unindividuated in Greta’s face. She was woman, as opposed to Audrey who was a woman, whom we loved precisely because her beauty was so quirky, so particular. Garbo has no quirks at all. A close-up of her face appears to reveal fewer features than the rest of us – such an expanse of white – punctuated by the minimum of detail, just enough to let you know that this is flesh, not spirit. Her vulnerable, changeable face is what comes prior to the emphatic mask of a beautiful woman – she is the ideal of beauty that those masks attempt to capture. Post-Garbo, we have taken what resonated in Garbo’s fluid sexuality and mystery and hardened it, made it a commodity.
Take Garbo’s heavy, deep-set eyelids: these have become the mark of the diva, passing down through Marlene, to Marilyn and, more recently, to Madonna, in whom they have become ironic. Hers is the ultimate modern Garbo face, attached to a worked-out body, and also to the idea of female ambition and talent. The idea of Garbo is somehow more elevated than that – it doesn’t even condescend itself to the pursuit and fulfilment of talent. It merely “is”. Let’s face it: Garbo was not an actress in the way Bette Davis was an actress. Garbo was a presence. In fact, is it OK to say, 100 years on, that Garbo was not a very good actress? That some of her best work was still and silent? It could be said that her best director was, in fact, a still photographer, MGM’s famous Clarence Bull. He did not try to know her or “uncover” her, as her movie directors sometimes did, giving her those awkward, wordy speeches that revealed less than one raised eyebrow could manage. Bull understood the attraction of her self-containment. Years later he recalled that where other photographers had tried to penetrate the mystery, “I accepted it for what it was – nature’s work of art … She was the face and I was the camera. We each tried to get the best out of our equipment.”
Garbo’s shots, lit with the “Rembrandt lighting” that would make her famous, are sculptural portraits, more Rodin than raunch. The Garbo image is yet unformed, but the beginnings of an iconic persona are here. She had a relationship with light like no other actress; wherever you directed it on her face, it created luminosity. She needed no soft or diffuse lighting to disguise defects. There were no defects. And then there is that sense of European ennui, of weltschmerz, that no MGM player had projected before. They had vamps, they had sex bombs, but they’d never had existential depression. “In America you are all so happy,” she told a reporter. “Why are you all so happy all the time? I am not always happy. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. When I am angry, I am very bad. I shut my door and do not speak.”
It is no story of tragedy. She wished to live, but not publicly. She dressed as she liked, and did as she liked. In her own later years, Crawford told a journalist: “I never go out unless I look like Joan Crawford the movie star. If you want to see the girl next door, go next door.” Garbo didn’t even look as good as the girl next door. Her face (though she refused to believe it) was still beautiful, her wardrobe less so: jumpers, hats, scarfs, slacks, raincoats. She kept a screwed-up piece of Kleenex in her left hand to cover her face should anyone try to photograph her. If she saw a fan approaching, she would say to her walking companion, “We’ve got a customer”, and change direction. She wanted to be alone. Garbo, the icon, was over. Age made of Greta a person, and the personhood of Garbo was never for sale. She would be myth or nothing at all.
- Zadie Smith, The Guardian, September 25 2005
Garbo still belongs to that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy, when one literally lost oneself in a human image as one would in a philtre, when the face represented a kind of absolute state of the flesh, which could be neither reached nor renounced. A few years earlier the face of Valentino was causing suicides; that of Garbo still partakes of the same rule of Courtly Love, where the flesh gives rise to mystical feelings of perdition.
It is indeed an admirable face-object. In Queen Christina, a film which has again been shown in Paris in the last few years, the make-up has the snowy thickness of a mask: it is not a painted face, but one set in plaster, protected by the surface of the colour, not by its lineaments. Amid all this snow at once fragile and compact, the eyes alone, black like strange soft flesh, but not in the least expressive, are two faintly tremulous wounds. In spite of its extreme beauty, this face, not drawn but sculpted in something smooth and fragile, that is, at once perfect and ephemeral, comes to resemble the flour-white complexion of Charlie Chaplin, the dark vegetation of his eyes, his totem-like countenance.
Now the temptation of the absolute mask (the mask of antiquity, for
instance) perhaps implies less the theme of the secret (as is the case with
Italian half mask) than that of an archtype of the human face. Garbo
offered to one’s gaze a sort of Platonic Idea of the human creature, which
explains why her face is almost sexually undefined, without however leaving
one in doubt. It is true that this film (in which Queen Christina is by
turns a woman and a young cavalier) lends itself to this lack of
differentiation; but Garbo does not perform in it any feat of transvestism;
she is always herself, and carries without pretence, under her crown or her
wide-brimmed hats the same snowy solitary face. The name given to her, the
Divine, probably aimed to convey less a superlative state of beauty than
the essence of her corporeal person, descended form a heaven where all
things are formed and perfected in the clearest light. She herself knew
this: how many actresses have consented to let the crowd see the ominous
maturing of their beauty. Not she, however; the essence was not to be
degraded, her face was not to have any reality except that of its
perfection, which was intellectual even more that formal. The Essence
became gradually obscured, progressively veiled with dark glasses, broad
hats and exiles: but it never deteriorated.
And yet, in this deified face, something sharper than a mask is looming: a
kind of voluntary and therefore human relation between the curve of the
nostrils and the arch of the eyebrows; a rare, individual function relating
two regions of the face. A mask is but a sum of lines; a face, on the
contrary, is above all their thematic harmony. Garbo’s face represents this
fragile moment when the cinema is about to draw an existential from an
essential beauty, when the archtype leans towards the fascination of mortal
faces, when clarity of the flesh as essence yields its place to a lyricism
Viewed as a transition the face of Garbo reconciles two iconographic ages,
it assures the passage from awe to charm. As is well known, we are today at
the other pole of this evolution: the face of Audrey Hepburn, for instance,
is individualized, not only because of its peculiar thematics (woman as
child, woman as kitten) but also because of her person, of an almost unique
specification of the face, which has nothing of the essence left in it, but
is constiuted by an infinite complexity of morphological functions. As a
language, Garbo’s singularity was of the order of the concept, that of
Audrey Hepburn is of the order of the substance. The face of Garbo is an
Idea, that of Hepburn an Event.
- Roland Barthes, “The Face of Garbo.” From Mythologies. London: Vintage, 1993; pp. 56-7
About Mauritz Stiller
The curious and contradictory art of Mauritz Stiller sits as uncomfortably within the established modes of film criticism as the life of its author within the conventions of his day. Invariably cited alongside Victor Sjöström as the founding father of Swedish cinema, Stiller is generally slighted by the comparison. The Finnish-born director of Russian-Jewish ancestry, who would enjoy fame in Sweden and suffer frustration in Hollywood, and who was to write in his last months, “I have all my life wondered where I belong,” was certainly a voyager and a wanderer – yet to successive generations of critics, he has been a journeyman in contrast to Sjöström’s “artist”. The serious and nationalistic concerns of Sjöström’s work, its severe morality and literary prestige, ideally suited him for canonisation by critics seeking to promote an indigenous Scandinavian cinema in defiance of the Hollywood model, while his visual poetry and thematic consistency sustained his reputation in the age of auteurism. Stiller’s output, by contrast, was largely too trivial for the former approach and too varied for the latter. In Richard Combs’ phrase, he displayed “the versatility and lightness of a genre stylist.” If Sjöström’s pre-eminence is not seriously challengeable, Stiller is, nonetheless, the more contemporary figure. The sophisticated ironies and satiric wit of his comedies, coupled with the subjectivity and self-criticism of his masterpiece in a more serious vein, Gunnar Hede’s Saga (1923), should speak more directly to the concerns of the twenty-first century than Sjöström’s stark morality plays and pastoral melodramas. It’s also ironic that Stiller’s relative neglect was scarcely challenged by a generation of critics who in the context of Hollywood cinema admired precisely the ability to stamp personal concerns on diverse material. Stiller’s abiding themes – the function of the artist in society, the status of the outsider – span his work in all genres. He made assignments his own, and there are parallels to the single most obvious division in his work – that between comedy and epic – in the polarity between comedies and action films in the oeuvre of Howard Hawks.
Stiller’s career path, however, most closely parallels that of a filmmaker like Nicholas Ray: an early period of popular yet critically scorned films in a variety of genres, interspersed with the occasional critical success; then a sequence of works in which generic plots became more clearly the vehicle for personal themes; graduation to bigger and more prestigious projects, which however proved less congenial to his talents; and a final period of exile, disappointment and failure. In fact the unhappiness of Stiller’s years in Hollywood is not easily explicable, and it’s curious that Sjöström’s rather more austere style of filmmaking should have flourished at MGM, while Stiller was left unemployed and detached from his great discovery, Greta Garbo. His one surviving American film, Hotel Imperial (1927), is both stylish and commercially shrewd. MGM may have been reluctant to exploit his talents, but by the time worsening health forced his return to Sweden, he was under contract to Paramount, the most continental and cosmopolitan of Hollywood studios, and surely the most congenial environment for Sweden’s Lubitsch. A sound remake of Erotikon with Fredric March, Roland Young and Kay Francis would be an agreeable hypothesis to go with those potential masterpieces that F.W. Murnau and Louise Brooks ought to have been producing at Paramount in the ’30s.
- Alexander Jacoby, Senses of Cinema
Like the other two distinguished pioneers of the early Swedish cinema, Sjöström and Sjöberg, Mauritz Stiller had an essentially theatrical background. But it must be remembered that he was reared in Finland of Russian-Jewish stock, did not immigrate to Sweden until he was 27, and remained there only 15 years before going to Hollywood. He responded relatively late to the Swedish cultural tradition, so heavily influenced by the country’s extreme northern climate and landscape, and by the fatalistic, puritanical literary and dramatic aura exerted most notably by the Swedish dramatist Strindberg and the Nobel prize-winning novelist Selma Lagerlöf. The latter’s works—Herr Arne’s Treasure, Gunnar Hede’s Saga, and Gösta Berlings Saga—were inspired by tradition and legend, and were all to be adapted by Stiller for the silent screen.
- Roger Manvell, Film Reference.com
”Borg, people say that I am in love with Mauritz, don’t they? That is not true. Borg, I have never been anything to any man, not even Mauritz. I do not love him that way, nor he me. I am afraid of him and I think we are finished as it has been before, although I shall always think he is the greatest man in the world.
“You have seen me, Borg, sit on his lap and smoke with bins the same cigarette. You have seen him hold me like a child. It is so good when his arms are around me, for sometimes I am afraid. But it is not love, Borg.” And, in spite of all that has been said of Garbo’s love for Stiller, I believe her, for I have seen them often together. ,later, when Garbo and John Gilbert were “going places “ together, Stiller would cail me.
“Borg,” his low, deep voice would rumble, have you seen Greta?” ”I have not, Mr. Stiller,” I would reply. Is there any message?” ”No,” he would rumble, “ except to tell her to remember what I have taught her never to let life hurt her.” He knew that she was going about with Gilbert, and his attitude was not that of a jealous man, but of a father who would shield his daughter from hurt Stiller was a strange man. His artistic soul loved the finer, more subtle forms of passion, and it is doubtful if he ever loved a woman—any woman.
- From Sven-Hugo Borg, The Private Life of Greta Garbo – By Her Most Intimate Friend. 1933, Amalgamated Press, London.
About Jules Jaenzon
The English film critic Caroline Lejeune, in an assessment of the early Swedish cinema, noted the sense of reality given by the feeling of texture in objects and clothing and the awareness of landscape. It is obvious that Sjöström and Stiller, the masters of this great period of Scandinavian cinema, owed much to the technical and artistic skills of their cameramen, the principal of whom was Julius Jaenzon.
Stiller used him to film his epic The Story of Gösta Berling, originally a two-part film. The range of Jaenzon’s work is remarkable. In the exciting sequence of the sled chased across the frozen lake by wolves, or the lovely visions of Garbo in her first great success, and the cavaliers of Ekeby in their revels, the beauty of Jaenzon’s work is unmistakable. One remembers the blazing eyes of Lars Hanson as he denounces his parishoners from the pulpit or the two lonely figures of Margarita Samzelius and her old mother pushing the great wooden levers of the old mill while no words pass between them.
- Liam O’Leary, Film Reference.com
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Biography on Books and Writers