Video Essay for 938. The Saga of Gosta Berling (1924, Mauritz Stiller) featuring commentary by Jan Olsson
Many thanks to Jan Olsson, Professor of Cinema Studies at Stockholm Univeristy, Sweden, for his many insights that contributed to this video.
Click through for the full transcript
The Saga of Gosta Berling is Mauritz Stiller’s epic adaptation of Selma Lagerlof’s immensely popular novel. The film, in two intallments ran well over three hours when it was originally released in Sweden in 1924. In a famous letter to the director, Lagerlof voiced dissent concerning the film version and its liberties over the text. The plot follows its title character, a young defrocked minister, who is entangled in various romantic and political intrigues with various parties connected to the grand Ekeby estate. Among his chief adversaries is Martha Dohna, the grand matron of one of the neighboring estates; among his chief allies is Countess Elizabeth, played by Greta Garbo.
The Saga of Gösta Berling is best known as Garbos first major role. Dismissed by critics after the fist part, but celebrated for the second, the success under Stillers tutelage fueled one of the most remarkable acting careers in the history of the medium. Stillers close-ups and halo-like lighting paved the ground for the Garbo myth, which was totally unexpected given her early Swedish work in a commercial and later a burlesque comedy. Her further transformation in Hollywood by way of MGM’s studio style galvanized her fame and turned her into a mythic twenty-century icon.
Mirrors play a central role in Swedish silent cinema for expanding cinematographic space and also for underlying duplicity, scheming, and vanity. Here their reflections are closely interwoven with the films fabric of texts and emphasized speech acts. Märtha Dohna is introduced looking in a hand mirror, before taking in herself in the bigger mirror she sits in front of. Märtha Dohna is in one sense the films central character and her framing occurs by way of texts and speech acts, and she performs in front of mirrors and windows. She introduces the theme of texts by penning her devious plotting to outmaneuver Ebba and deprive her of her rightful inheritance. This gloating text foreshadows Göstas epitaph and also the missive from Italy declaring the marriage between Henrik and Elisabeth null and void. Gösta is however unaware of being put out as a romantic bait for Ebba by Märtha. The scene between Gösta and Ebba, initially observed from a window by Märtha, isolates Gösta and envelops him in darkness in spite of the daylight, a recurrent device in the film. Stiller thus achieves a form of emotional portraiture of the characters. This non-realistic device is primarily used for threshold-like scenes when characters negotiate their past and future. In this manner, the direction repeatedly carves out spatial private zones within bigger scenes.
Characters are overall defined by space and some are dwarfed by surroundings too big for them, especially the pompous Henrik Dohna, the husband of Greta Garbos character, Elisabeth. Tellingly, Elisabeth learns of Märtha Dohnas plan in front of a mirror reflecting the surrounding gaieties at a party. Initially, positioned just off-frame, Ebba overhears the fatal conversation.
Swedish silent cinema was often an icy and literally chilling affair and The Saga of Gösta Berling is no exception. After the wild sleigh ride on the ice across Lake Vänern, Stiller bestows a remarkable level of intimacy upon Gösta and Elisabeth in a tense scene preparing for closure, albeit a deferred one. This and many other temporarily thwarted storylines are in tune with the films grand epic scope. Historians seem to rank Stillers first ice film, Sir Arnes Treasure, as superior to The Saga of Gösta Berling. He is also celebrated for his witty comedies, not least Erotikon. His least known masterpiece is otherwise, The Song of the Scarlet Flower, the only Swedish silent film for which the producer commissioned a full symphonic score.
This was the last silent film directed by the canonical Swedish film directors. Victor Sjöström was already in Hollywood, and after completing The Saga of Gösta Berling Saga, Stiller unsuccessfully tried to place himself and Greta Garbo in Germany. Both ended up at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, but Stiller was soon pushed over to Paramount.