Friday, October 06, 2017

Thora van Deken (2017 digital restoration Svenska Filminstitutet)

Thora van Deken (SE 1920). Principal Brandt (Oscar Johansson), Thora van Deken (Pauline Brunius), pastor Bjerring (Gösta Ekman), Esther (Jessie Wessel). Photo: Paul van Yperen's Blog.

Thora van Deken (SE 1920). Esther (Jessie Wessel) leaves Sweden with her newly wed husband, pastor Bjerring (Gösta Ekman).

Thora van Deken (SE 1920). Thora (Pauline Brunius) observes her daughter Esther (Jessie Wessel) with her beloved pastor Bjerring (Gösta Ekman).

A Mother’s Fight. SE 1920. D: John W. Brunius, scen: John W. Brunius, Sam Ask – screenplay supervised by Henrik Pontoppidan – based on a dramatization by Hjalmar Bergström (1916 at Svenska Teatern in Stockholm directed by John W. Brunius – based on Lille Rødhætte (Little Red Riding Hood) (1900) by Henrik Pontoppidan, photog: Hugo Edlund, des: Vilhelm Bryde, Gustaf Hallén, cast: Pauline Brunius (Thora van Deken), Hugo Björne (Niels Engelstoft), Jessie Wessel (Esther Engelstoft), Gösta Ekman (pastor Bjerring), Gösta Cederlund (magistrate Sidenius), Oscar Johansson (principal Brandt), Sam Ask (attorney Sandberg), prod: Filmindustri AB Skandia, rel: 15.3.1920, DCP (from 35 mm, 1836 m; orig. 1846 m), 85 min (transferred at 19 fps), tinted; titles: SWE, source: Svenska Filminstitutet, Stockholm.
    The film was not released in Finland according to our database but according to Svensk Filmdatabas it was. It may have been released in Swedish Finland only.
    Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone: The Swedish Challenge.
    Grand piano: Maud Nelissen.
    Teatro Verdi, e-subtitles in English and Italian, 6 Oct 2017.

Magnus Rosborn, Casper Tybjerg (GCM 2017): "When Thora van Deken is called to the deathbed of her divorced husband, Squire Niels Engelstoft, she learns that he has bequeathed a substantial part of his estate to the foundation of a nursing home rather than to their daughter Esther. She pleads with him to revoke his will, but he dies before he can react. Thora takes the matter into her own hands: she steals the will and takes over the estate as Esther’s guardian, claiming that the will was burned in agreement with her late husband before he died. When nasty rumors spread, Thora stands firm, committed to maintaining control of the estate on behalf of her daughter at all costs. But Esther is far less concerned with her inheritance; despite her mother’s attempts to prevent it, Esther falls in love with the young idealistic pastor Bjerring. All Thora’s efforts may have been for nothing."

"The film is based on a short novel written in 1900 by the Danish 1917 Nobel Prize laureate Henrik Pontoppidan, Lille Rødhætte (Little Red Riding Hood). It was adapted for the stage in 1914, retitled Thora van Deken. John W. Brunius directed the play in Stockholm in 1916, and his film version features several cast members from that production. Like Synnöve Solbakken, this film, shot in the late summer of 1919, was one of Skandia’s prestige projects aiming to compete with the foremost productions of Svenska Bio. However, the two rival companies would merge into the newly founded Svensk Filmindustri before the film’s release in March 1920."

"Again like Synnöve Solbakken, the exteriors of which were shot on location in Norway, Thora van Deken intends to evoke the atmosphere of the literary work’s country of origin. The “Danish” look was captured by shooting the majority of the exteriors in Sweden’s southernmost province, Scania, which has a landscape similar to Denmark’s."

"Compared to the filmic style John W. Brunius used in Synnöve Solbakken, whose picturesque tableaux inspired by 19th-century paintings give that film a rather static impression, Thora van Deken is told in a very different manner. Considering Brunius’s previous work with Pontoppidan’s story on stage and the fact that the film is mostly set indoors, it is interesting that here he doesn’t fall into the use of a theatrical tableau staging style. Instead, Thora van Deken, with its first-class camerawork, editing, and narrative structure, is an intense cinematic drama which brilliantly reflects its characters’ psychological conflicts. The elaborate flashback structure of Thora’s meeting with her dying ex-husband in the first two acts of the film bears a close resemblance to the narrative structure of Victor Sjöström’s masterpiece of the following year, The Phantom Carriage (Körkarlen, 1921), a considerable portion of which is told through deathbed flashbacks."

"Much of Thora van Deken’s strength undoubtedly rests on Pauline Brunius’s stunning performance in the title role, which is arguably the best of her film career. (Pauline Brunius, who also directed a few films on her own, had only a limited screen acting career and is today best known as a stage diva and the first female director of the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm.) Interestingly, the film is consistently structured around Thora’s – and, in few scenes, her daughter’s – point of view."

"Thora van Deken (released in Britain as A Mother’s Fight) is one of the foremost examples of films by the minor directors of the Swedish “Golden Age”. Yet sadly it has been overshadowed by the work of the masters Stiller and Sjöström in both film history and screening praxis. The latest known showing for a theatre audience was in France in 1985."

"The print  In 1968 a fine grain master was made from the original camera negative, which no longer exists. To complete the parts of the negative that were missing (the majority of Act 3 and the whole of Act 4), a duplicate negative was struck from a nitrate print. In 2017 the fine grain master and duplicate negative were scanned by the Swedish Film Institute and edited together with full-length intertitles. The tinting scheme of the final DCP is based on a severely deteriorated nitrate print.
" Magnus Rosborn, Casper Tybjerg

AA: Thora van Deken is the tragedy of a strong and proud mother and her disappointment in life. We meet her as a bitter and taciturn woman arriving at the deathbed of her ex-husband Niels. "Jag är vad livet gjort mig till": "I am what life has made of me".

Her father was a fun-loving rogue who came home with other women. Han spelade bort det sista vi ägde: he gambled away the family fortune.

Thora was a poor teacher when she met Niels. "Jag älskade dig, Thora": "I loved you, Thora". Sedan var det kärleken till Esther: his love was then transferred to the daughter Esther.

When Niels starts to play with another woman, Sofie Brandt, Thora becomes cold towards him and prevents even Esther from expressing tenderness to him. Divorce ensues, Niels marries Sofie, but within a year Sofie dies.

Now even Niels is on his deathbed, and in his testament he bequeaths the Sofiehöj estate to Sofie's brother, principal Brandt, to become a ladies' rest home. Thora asks Niels to burn the testament. Sofiehöj must belong to Esther. When Niels dies, Thora hides the testament and claims that Niels had asked her to burn it.

There is great commotion in the district when Thora settles in Sofiehöj. A mob gathers. There is a threat of violence. A stone is thrown, breaking a window.

The country magistrate Lars Sidenius (Gösta Cederlund) remembers Thora as a little girl like Little Red Riding Hood. After Thora's father's death Sidenius came to say goodbye, but livet skilde oss åt: life separated us. Lars had loved Thora and was disappointed when she married the rich Niels.

In a police investigation Thora commits perjury about the testament because she wants justice for her daughter. But Esther has seen the testament in her mother's hands. In a special effect prefiguring Stroheim's The Wedding March Thora's fingers on the Bible turn to skeleton fingers.

Esther is getting fond of pastor Bjerring who had alerted Thora to Niels's deathbed in the first place, in hope of reconciliation. Bjerring is getting an appointment as a missionary in Asia. Thora has secretly donated money to the congregation, perhaps hoping that Bjerring will move far away. But Esther wants to follow him.

Thora does not believe in God. In defiance of Thora's ban Bjerring comes to propose to Esther. Thora asks Esther to choose between her and Bjerring. At night Esther leaves, having asked Bjerring to "take me with you, I die of agony here".

Thora calls Lars to confess. "Jag är färdig med livet": "I'm through with life". She throws Esther's photograph to the fire. The ship carrying Bjerring and Esther recedes towards the horizon. Thora faces prison.

John W. Brunius's approach is sober, balanced, and subdued. The mise-en-scène is assured. The atmosphere is melancholic rather than dramatic. In the beginning the exposition is lengthy and convoluted, and the storytelling feels static and stolid at first. Although the performances are good there is at times too much gesticulation. Strengths of the film include Pauline Brunius's complex tragic performance and the agony at Niels's deathbed.

The screen debut of Pauline Brunius and Jessie Wessel. John W. Brunius and his wife Pauline Brunius were a dynamic duo in the Swedish theatre and film scene, and Gösta Ekman was their closest collaborator for instance at Oscarsteatern. Pauline Brunius was a grande dame of the Swedish theatre, a Shakespeare and Strindberg actor, also a theatre director and soon after this screen debut one of the first female film directors in Sweden. She was the managing director of Oscarsteatern and the first female managing director of the Royal Dramatic Theatre in 1938–1948.

Thora van Deken has been little seen for decades, but Magnus Rosborn reported that Ingmar Bergman booked it twice for his private screening sessions. We can imagine Bergman admiring what has been called Pauline Brunius's finest film performance. She only acted in 13 films of which Gunnar Hedes saga is the best known.

Maud Nelissen brought a sophisticated musical interpretation to an unusual and psychologically complex tragedy.

This restoration is highly welcome and very watchable. The imagery is often darkish, and as usual I belong to the minority that would prefer to see this untinted.

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