Saturday, October 05, 2013

Jon Wengström: Sealed Lips: Sweden’s Forgotten Years, 1925-1929 (Pordenone 2013 introduction)

Jon Wengström
Labbra sigillate: gli anni dimenticati del cinema svedese, 1925-1929
Sealed Lips: Sweden’s Forgotten Years, 1925-1929

The late 1910s and early 1920s are often referred to as the Golden Age of Swedish silent cinema, beginning in 1917 with Victor Sjöström’s Terje Vigen (A Man There Was), which set the production policy of major studio AB Svenska Biografteatern and its later incarnation AB Svensk Filmindustri for years to come. After the release of Mauritz Stiller’s Gösta Berlings saga (The Saga of Gosta Berling) in 1924, many of the biggest names, among them directors Sjöström and Stiller as well as actors Greta Garbo and Lars Hanson, left Sweden for pastures new in Europe and Hollywood, and the glory days of Swedish cinema were regarded as over. This version of film history has led to an unfortunate neglect of Swedish films produced in the latter half of the 1920s. Our programme “Sealed Lips” aims to give these traditionally overlooked films the chance to speak again.

The “Golden Age” label is problematic, since it can be said to refer to the films’ mode of production rather than necessarily their quality. In AB Svenska Biografteatern’s formative years – after moving from the rural town of Kristianstad in the south of Sweden to Stockholm, where their first studios were erected on the island of Lidingö in 1912 – they made around 20-25 films a year. The success of Terje Vigen, an adaptation of an Ibsen poem, led the studio to concentrate on fewer but more prestigious films, often based on famous literary sources, and annual output dropped to only a handful. And even though Terje Vigen was by no means the first Swedish film to be set in natural locations, its depiction of Man’s struggle against the elements set the model for films to come. Seen in this light, a post-1924 film like Gustaf Molander’s Ingmarsarvet (The Ingmar Inheritance, 1925; shown at the Giornate in 1999 as part of the “Nordic Explorations” retrospective) – a big-budget adaptation of a work by Nobel laureate Selma Lagerlöf, shot on location showing the characters’ interaction with nature – clearly belongs to the Golden Age, which is why it is not included in this programme, although it deserves reappraisal and far greater recognition. This recipe for success was eventually adopted, with more (and sometimes less) successful results, by other Swedish studios, such as Filmindustri AB Skandia’s adaptations of works by Norwegian writer Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, Ett farligt frieri (A Dangerous Wooing, Rune Carlsten, 1919) and Synnöve Solbakken (A Norway Lass, John W. Brunius, 1919).

Though the local flavour of these rural dramas was part of the overseas appeal of Swedish films during the late 1910s and early 1920s, there were already ambitions before the end of the Golden Age to make films with a more international character, in urban settings. After the success of Stiller’s comedy Erotikon (1920), about a desperate housewife courted by several men, set in upper-class Stockholm milieux, the director and the studio contemplated a series of films in the same genre, although nothing came of it. Sjöström’s Klostret i Sendomir (The Secret of the Monastery, 1920; screened in Pordenone in 2011) was a similar case. Though set in the mid-17th century, it was clearly conceived for an international audience, with the action taking place on the Continent. The most emblematic film of this internationalist tendency was Karusellen (The Merry-Go-Round, Dimitri Buchowetzki, 1923; screened in Pordenone in 2010), entirely produced and financed by AB Svensk Filmindustri, but made with an international cast and crew (except for cinematographer Julius Jaenzon) at the Johannisthal studios outside Berlin, and featuring an anonymous modern metropolitan setting.

It is often argued that by deviating from the specific national style that emerged in the late 1910s in order to try to accommodate more international tastes Swedish cinema was responsible for its own demise. But just as it is far from true to claim that all films made during the Golden Age were great, it is equally unjust to discard all post-1924 films. The films included in “Sealed Lips” may not form a coherent body of films with similar themes, shared stylistic traits, or common production values, but taken as a whole they show us that Swedish cinema still produced highly interesting films even after Gösta Berlings saga.

The most prolific director of this period was Gustaf Molander, later to become the dean of Swedish directors, with a successful though uneven career that lasted well into the 1960s. Molander began as a scriptwriter in the 1910s, working with Sjöström (Terje Vigen, 1917) and Stiller (Herr Arnes pengar / Sir Arne’s Treasure, 1919), and when he turned to directing he continued partly in his colleagues’ vein. Ingmarsarvet (1925) has all the traits particular to Swedish films during the Golden Age, although the new trend is evident in its casting of German actor Conrad Veidt.

The four Molander films included in “Sealed Lips” all manifest this shift towards internationalism. Hans engelska fru (Matrimony, 1927) bears all the hallmarks: co- produced by AB Svensk Filmindustri’s international co-production subsidiary AB Isepa in tandem with a German company, it was partially set in a London high-society milieu, and starred German actress Lil Dagover. The film which gives our programme its title, Förseglade läppar (Sealed Lips, 1927), was a Swedish-German-French co- production, is set in Italy, and features Austrian-born Louis Lerch as its male lead. Synd (Sin, 1928), a Swedish-British-German co-production set in Paris, includes Elissa Landi and Gina Manès in the cast. All three are highly interesting films, obviously in the hands of a very skilful director, with some remarkable individual scenes aided by the expert cinematography of Julius Jaenzon, but apart from the rural sequences in Hans engelska fru there is absolutely nothing revealing their country of origin; they could have been made anywhere, which of course was the intention of the Swedish studio that produced them. Our fourth Molander film, Polis Paulus’ påskasmäll (The Smugglers, 1925) also has an international factor, as it was a “Pat and Patachon” vehicle for the Danish comedians Carl Schenstrøm and Harald Madsen.

Another co-production was Fången n:r 53 (Convict no. 53), the Swedish release version of Anthony Asquith’s British classic A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929). The film’s Swedish participation was minor, but included cinematographer Axel Lindblom and main actor Uno Henning, and was a way for AB Svensk Filmindustri to continue its involvement in co-productions even after AB Isepa folded. The Swedish version of Asquith’s film is significantly different from the British, most notably in changes in the story’s chronology, editing, and use of intertitles. Two other films made at the very end of the silent era, Rågens rike (The Kingdom of Rye, 1929) and Den starkaste (The Strongest, 1929), both share characteristics with earlier Swedish films, with action in rural settings and some spectacular location shooting; indeed, Den starkaste is even more exotic than films from the Golden Age, depicting a seal-hunt in the Arctic Ocean, with some of the most stunning sequences in all Swedish silent cinema. Although Rågens rike contains fights among farm-hands and heavy drinking in summer “white nights”, and a spectacular river-ride sequence harking back to Stiller’s Sången om den eldröda blomman (Song of the Scarlet Flower, 1919) and Johan (1921), it differs significantly in atmosphere and style from its more famous counterparts, displaying an aspect rarely seen in Swedish films, the influence of Soviet cinema. Flickan i frack (The Girl in Tails, 1926) is a film apart, neither representing the internationalist trend nor being a variation on familiar motifs, but particularly interesting in the way it is driven by the dialogue conveyed by the intertitles, even to the extent that one can say it works despite being silent. Based on a script by Hjalmar Bergman (a member of the exodus to Hollywood a few years earlier), Flickan i frack is the only film in our programme directed by a woman, Karin Swanström, who came to play a very significant part in Swedish film production in the 1930s.

To say that the films of the latter half of the 1920s have suffered academic neglect is not quite accurate, as some prominent scholars like Jan Olsson have taken an interest in this period, but the films from this era have received far less study at home and abroad than those of the Golden Age and the formative years of Swedish cinema in the early 1910s. One reason is that some films have long been unavailable either in their original versions or in any intelligible version, a situation arising from archival neglect but now happily being redressed. The Pat and Patachon film was not available at all until only very recently, when preservation was carried out by using source elements from three different archives. Flickan i frack surfaced in the form of a foreign nitrate print in the 1970s, when it was first duplicated, but for more than three decades it existed only with English flash-titles, which was devastating for this comedy of words. For various reasons, the films included in “Sealed Lips” for many years have not been able to talk to us in their full voice. This is particularly true of Konstgjorda Svensson (“Artificial Svensson”). For more than eight decades, this 1929 comedy featuring scenes of spoken dialogue and music, with sound originally on Vitaphone discs, was only available in its silent version, but its lips are no longer sealed, and it is again able to speak. – Jon Wengström

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