The supreme beauty of Swedish silent films

These are some notes on the magnificent Swedish silent cinema tradition to a non-Swedish audience who might not be aware of this cineastic treasure; thus I write them in English.

I once remarked to a group of younger people that at least some works from the period of silent movies are unsurpassed in cinematographic aesthetics and in terms of emotional expression – others might be more mediocre. My remark was met with incredulity and even anger by almost everyone in the group. Since cinema has developed technologically into sound, colour, higher definition and so on, also the aesthetics of cinema should have evolved as a fruit of this development, they argued.

Not so in matters of aesthetics. Europides  – not to mention Chekhov – is more advanced and diversified in terms of composition, psychology of characters  and so on but this does not mean that they are better dramatists than the more ”primitive” Aischylus. And don’t get me started on Mozart or Goethe who  can be said to  represent the culmination of a period of classical aesthetic beauty.

I came to think of this discussion when recently I was rewatching some sequences of two films from the Golden age of Swedish Silent cinema, ”The Gösta Berling Saga” (1924) by Mauritz Stiller  and Victor Sjöström’s  ”The Phantom Carrier” (Körkarlen) from 1921. I would dare to say – and this will raise some arguments – that the best works by Sjöström and Stiller have never been surpassed or rarely even equalled, at least not in photographic beauty (Julius Jaenson’s marvellous imaging technique). In this context one might also quote the remark by Swedish poet Lars Forssell: ”after Chaplin nothing in the movies is REALLY funny”.

In the late 1970ies I was posted at the Swedish Information Service in New York, responsible for handling films and exhibits (a dream job if there ever was one). In the  field of exhibitions I initiated a Swedish Nature Photography exhibit which subsequently was shown all over the world and an avantgardistic art exchange programe  (with The PS One studio) together with artist Jan Håfström.

However,  an equally exciting high point during my New York period was assisting the NY Museum of Modern Art and the Swedish Film Institute  in arranging in 1977 a comprehensive showing of almost the entire remaining and admirably restored collection of Swedish silent movies from the  ”Golden Age of Swedish silent  films” during the period from about  the First World War until 1925 when Mauritz Stiller moved to Hollywod (together with Greta Garbo, see headline picture ) – Victor Sjöström had left in 1923. At the first showing and the following dinner nobody less than Lilian Gish, the most famous Hollywood actress of the silent film period (picture right) appeared as a honorary guest. So I have met Lilian Gish to tell my grandchildren.

When I rewatched the ”Körkarlen” and ”Gösta Berling” sequenses  I experienced anew the tremendous excitement that my first encounters with those Swedish silent  films aroused in me at the New York showings. In ”Körkarlen” (after a short story by Selma Lagerlöf), the famous double exposures by Julius Jaenson are probably unsurpassed in cinematic photography, but to me Sjöström’s emotional projections both as the director and leading actor, portraying the alcoholic and miserable David Holm on and over the treshold to his death on New Years Eve, was equally impressive. For once flashbacks – and even flashbacks on flashbacks – worked in a wonderful way and must have been considered very avant-garde at the time of he silent cinema. I  remember that I was especially moved by the looking back on  Holm’s abuse of his wife and neglect of his children as well as his cruelty towards the nurse who tried to help him (it was 33 year since I saw the entire film so there are voids in my memory of it).

Mauritz Stiller’s films are generally considered slightly more superficial than those by Sjöström but to an amateur movie watcher like me they where equally impressive, from the experimental ”Thomas Graal’s Bästa Film” (1917) over the dark murder story of ”Herr Arnes Penningar (Sir Arne’s Treasure) from 1919, to the elegant ”Erotikon” (1920).  More about the films by  Mauritz Stiller in this link.

Ingmar Bergman is without doubt the Swedish film genius who is most influenced by Victor Sjöström,  which is obvious not only by his casting of the 78 year old  Sjöström in the portrait of professor Isak Borg looking back on his life in Bergman’s most emotional (and best) movie, ”Smultronstället”  (Wild Strawberries) from 1957  but also in the many scenes and style elements borrowed from ”Körkarlen”. Bergman has frequently told interviewers about the deep impression Sjöström’s spooky movie made on him.

More about Victor Sjöström and some good remarks in this blog.

Instead of hopelessly trying to emulate experts on Swedish films, like Peter Cowie, by commenting on each film (the details of which I mostly have forgotten), I should maybe try to convey why I like them so much:

In short, to finish were I started this text, because they are are genuine objets d’art, like  paintings or piecces of music. They are not trying to document things, to lecture, to be philosophic or to moralize, they are pieces of art for art’s own sake, ars gratia artis.  As such their aesthetic power is enhanced rather than diminished by the lack of dialogue, colour, high def and so on. Everything must be expressed by means of direction, scenography, photo, facial expression, body language.

Many of today’s Oliver Stones or George Cloonies would have a lot to learn from the Swedish silent movies – like Woody Allen did, either directly, or indirectly, by enthusiastically watching the movies by Ingmar Bergman.


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