Friday, October 09, 2009

Gunnar Hedes saga

Gunnar Heden taru (Il vecchio castello / The Blizzard [US] / The Judgement [GB]). SE 1923. PC: AB Svensk Filminspelning (Stockholm). P: Charles Magnusson; D: Mauritz Stiller; SC: Mauritz Stiller, Alma Söderhjelm, freely adapted from the novel En herrgårdssägen (From a Swedish Homestead) by Selma Lagerlöf (1899), translated into Finnish as Herraskartano (translated in 1900 by Maija Halonen / WSOY); DP: Henrik Jaenzon, Julius Jaenzon; AD: Axel Esbensen; CAST: Einar Hanson (Gunnar Hede), Mary Johnson (Ingrid), Pauline Brunius (Gunnar’s mother), Hugo Björne (Gunnar’s father), Adolf Olschansky (Blomgren), Stina Berg (Mrs. Blomgren), Thecla Åhlander (Stava), Gösta Hillberg (lawyer), Gustaf Aronson (inspector), Albert Christiansen (Gunnar as a child); orig: 2083 m; 1370 m /17 fps/ [70 min announced] actual duration 75 min, Svenska Filminstitutet, a new restored version straight from the lab (2009). E-subtitles in English + Italian, grand piano: John Sweeney. Viewed at Teatro Verdi, Pordenone, 8 Oct 2009.

Theme tune: Charles Gounod: the waltz "Ainsi que la brise légère" ["Like A Light Breeze"] from Faust (1859).

From the GCM Catalogue: "In 1939 the Swedish film critic and historian Bengt Idestam-Almquist (1895-1983), writing under his pseudonym of “Robin Hood”, published a book entitled Den svenska filmens drama: Sjöström-Stiller, with a preface by Victor Sjöström himself. Since Idestam-Almquist’s pioneering work in the 1930s, which apart from this book includes two volumes co-written with Ragnar Allberg in 1932 and 1936, the homegrown narrative concerning Swedish silent cinema has been virtually uncontested. The story – or “drama”, as Idestam-Almquist aptly termed it – features two canonical directorial titans, Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller; a visionary producer in the background, Charles Magnusson; and a company with humble origins in the provinces. After moving to Stockholm in 1912, Svenska Biografteatern gradually emerged as a force to be reckoned with after alliances and subsequent breakups with both Pathé and Nordisk Films Kompagni.
Besides the three protagonists in this drama, everyone else has been pushed off-frame, apart from a few famous authors who became poster figures for a downsized quality production. Terje Vigen (1917), based on Henrik Ibsen’s epic poem, marked the sea change, but Selma Lagerlöf soon emerged as the prime provider of literary material. The cut-off year for this national production is 1923, with Gösta Berlings saga (1924) as a last, disputed hurrah before international co-productions allegedly drove the Golden Age down into a bland abyss. This coincided with the country’s two most celebrated directors leaving Sweden for Hollywood; Stiller only reluctantly, after an unsuccessful detour to Berlin. The former glory of Swedish cinema would not be fully resurrected until the rise of Ingmar Bergman – so the received story goes. The key link between these stellar film domains was Bergman’s casting of Sjöström in Wild Strawberries (Smultronstället, 1957), as a gesture of apotheosis.
Another intervention from Ingmar Bergman brought Georg af Klercker briefly into the limelight. The programming of several af Klercker titles at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in 1986 placed him on the scholarly map and in the international textbooks. Hasselblad, Georg af Klercker’s studio, was awarded its film series in 1983, and in 1992 Stockholm’s first retrospective in af Klercker’s name was programmed. This was followed in 1993 by a screening of the then-newly restored Nattliga toner (1918), which was shown in conjunction with the opening of Ingmar Bergman’s play Sista skriket.
Gunnar Hedes saga (1923), screened 13 times between 1974 and 2001, is a second-tier film. It has generally been programmed as part of Stiller or Lagerlöf retrospectives. The film has been awarded short shrift in scholarly discourse, perhaps partially due to the preserved print’s incomplete status. This is the film’s first showing in Pordenone. The screen is thus set for a premiere-cum-discovery for this incomplete torso. The element for all extant material is a copy from the Cinémathèque Française; about 1300 metres remain of the original’s approximately 2,000 metres – which coincidentally mirrors the preservation ratio for Ingeborg Holm (1345 out of 2006 metres).
Gunnar Hedes saga opened to mixed reviews in 1923. Stiller’s free adaptation of Lagerlöf’s text put off some critics, while other voices pronounced it the best Swedish film ever. This production marked the beginning of a strained relationship between Stiller and Selma Lagerlöf which culminated with Gösta Berlings saga, due to his lack of respect for the integrity of her literary source material when preparing the shooting scripts.
After long deliberation, Stiller elected to cast the inexperienced Einar Hanson in the title role and not his customary star, Lars Hanson. This was Einar Hanson’s second film, and his breakthrough. He lived fast and died young, in an automobile crash on the Pacific Coast Highway in 1927, after having faced a much-publicized trial for reckless driving in Sweden before leaving for Hollywood.
In the film, the boy Gunnar idolizes his grandfather and the mythic, very Nordic feat that originally brought wealth to the family. After his father’s premature death, Gunnar’s mother forcefully tries to take away the boy’s romantic notions, symbolized by his violin, and instead aims to prepare him for managing the family business and estate. Gunnar refuses, and leaves home after an altercation with his mother. While trying to replicate his grandfather’s feat and quick monetary remuneration, Gunnar is severely injured, and loses his grip on reality. He is eventually nursed back to sanity by love and music, which, contrary to Mrs. Hede’s career plan for Gunnar, proves to be the path for salvaging the family’s fortunes.
Criticized by some for being Americanized due to its overly stately grand interiors, Gunnar Hedes saga is built around a spectacular attraction with roots in Nordic culture – a Stiller trademark. This time it’s a daring exploit in the snow seemingly involving a zillion reindeer. The attraction emerges from a clash between commerce and art, with art’s redeeming powers eventually winning the day. Stiller creatively balances high-art claims by placing the performance in the humblest imaginable artistic setting, which also movingly offers comedy relief. In this attempt to set cinema apart from literature, intermediality is key. The storytelling strategy inspires an unprecedented reliance on trick effects, with dreams, memories, and hallucinations as motivating features, until the power of music restores sanity and happiness, with prosperity thrown in for good measure. In the initial intermedial stance, music is embedded in an evocative painting.
The next assignment for the film’s photographer, Julius Jaenzon, was as cameraman for Svensk Filmindustri’s first international production. Karusellen (1923), directed by Dimitri Buchowetzki and largely shot in Berlin, received rave reviews in Stockholm, and, more importantly, paved the way for novel production practices. – Jan Olsson

A tinted nitrate print of Gunnar Hedes saga was duplicated by the Archival Film Collections of the Swedish Film Institute in the mid-1970s. The nitrate source no longer exists, but single frames were at one point extracted from it and kept in an uncatalogued file of colour records. Using these frames as a colour reference, a Desmet print was struck from the black-and-white negative in 2009.
In the process of comparing the existing film material with the original list of intertitles – submitted to the Swedish board of censors before the film’s release in 1923 – it was clear that some of the titles in the negative had been erroneously placed. While correcting the editing, it was also established that only 107 of the film’s original 133 intertitles had been used; the reason of course being that the film was incomplete, and no corresponding visuals existed for the remaining titles. However, since some of these intertitles include significant narrative information (most importantly on the misfortune of the family estate after the death of Gunnar Hede’s father), all the additional intertitles were inserted in the duplicate negative in 2009, using the original title cards in the library collections of the Swedish Film Institute. – Jon Wengström".

It was a thrill to see a new print of Gunnar Hedes saga with the missing intertitles added, bringing a more full experience of a big Mauritz Stiller film that has survived in an incomplete form. - The reindeer stampede sequence is probably unique in the history of the cinema. - The most moving performance is by Pauline Brunius as Gunnar's stern mother, who experiences a transformation as Gunnar descends into madness. - The new print has been produced with tender care by Svenska Filminstitutet. - It has been restored from very difficult source material, which suffers from a softness and a weak definition in the image. - It is a matter of taste, but I would prefer to see this restoration without tinting. As we can no longer see a print struck from the negative, I would now prioritize to see a maximum brilliance of light, and I would sacrifice colour, especially tinting, preferring a simulation of toning. - This is a film about the power of music:  music brings Gunnar and Ingrid together, and Ingrid heals Gunnar back to sanity with music. John Sweeney acknowledged this and introduced the original theme tune, Charles Gounod's Faust waltz, in his performance. This film would be a good candidate for a special musical film event.

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