Silents Please: Laila (1929)

Laila (Flicker Alley)

The films made at end of the silent era are a reminder of what was lost in the transition to sound. On the one hand is a mode of visual storytelling that elevated even the most generic films and, at its best, was grace incarnate, directed with stylistic invention and dramatic ingenuity, filled with communication by suggestion and gesture and metaphor. On the other is a production mode that allowed tremendous scope in location shooting and dramatic action. Simply put, you could take the camera anywhere you could haul the actors and equipment.

Harald Schwenzen and Mona Mårtenson meet

Admittedly, there isn’t much stylistic invention or cinematic elegance to Laila (1929), last great Norwegian epic of the silent era, but there is an elemental power from the film’s location shooting in the mountains of Norway. This is a film that could not be made in the sound era for a number of years due to the technical demands of the recording and synchronized sound equipment.

Laila is built on a culture of frontier prejudice covered up by a veneer of politeness and a show of tolerance that, while understood in Norway, is rather vague for American viewers. It’s set in a vague pre-industrial past, a frontier era that, at least to my eyes, evokes the American western era on the cusp when the towns provided anchors in culture shifting from nomadic lives to settled homes. In this case the Sami, or the Lapp nomads, are considered savages, treated respectfully but in no way considered equal by the civilized humanity of the Norwegians, the “daro” constantly mentioned in the intertitles. Imagine the white settlers and the tribal native Americans in a wintry American west without the wars, living in a state of peace if not exactly equality. That understanding (which the film frames rather gingerly) is essential to the film if only to establish the “impossibility” of romance between the Norwegian storekeeper Anders (Harald Schwenzen) and the beautiful Lapp girl Laila (Mona Mårtenson), raised by the richest landowner in the Lapp lands. “No Norwegian marries a Lapp girl,” one townswoman explains, but of course we know Laila’s true parentage in the dramatic rescues and turns of fate that toss her into the loving care of the great Lapp landowner Aslag Laagje (Peter Malberg) and his rugged hunter and devoted guardian to Laila, Jåmpa (Tryggve Larssen), a bear of a man with a tender heart.

All of that is laid out in the first act of Laila, which is (on the one hand) a narratively simplistic and stylistically old-fashioned adaptation of what is apparently a major Norwegian novel, and (on the other) a brawny, muscular piece of dramatic filmmaking. The film opens with a young mother taking her infant daughter to be baptized only to cross a pack ravenous wolves who have come down from the mountains to feed on the reindeer herds. She whips her steed, a reindeer, into a race for their lives. It’s a chase on the D.W. Griffith tradition, complete with pounding cross-cutting driving the pace, but the physicality of the ordeal as she and her bundled infant are tossed by the terrain in her desperate flight is palpable as a experience in this dramatic mountain terrain. This is a hard world and a magnificent landscape and director George Schnéevoigt, a former cinematographer who shot Carl Th. Dreyer’s early films (from Leaves From Satan’s Book to Master of the House), shoots it with a grandeur that captures both its danger and its beauty.

The physicality of the natural world, in all its beauty and power and overwhelming dominance, and of the two people, the rugged Lapps in rough furs and weather-beaten faces and rugged tangles of hair next to the reserved manners and elegant fashions of the daro, gives the Griffithian melodrama more strength that Schnéevoigt’s narrative direction. The migratory Lapps, traveling with the herds, work and play in the open vistas and bright skies of the mountains and live in the warmth of tents and while the town folk spend their days in clutter boxes of homes and shops.

The film was shot largely on location and the stunning landscapes and a dramatic mountain backdrops, rugged in the winter snows and pastoral in the summer sun, gives the romantic drama an elemental quality, while the practical details of life on this frontier give the film a charge of early documentary. The sleds, for example, are not made with frames and runners like the models in the North American arctic climes, but are more like animal skin kayaks that fit the body like a glove and slide across the snow. Watching them jet through the movie is a constant reminder of the unique historical culture on display.

Mona Mårtenson

Mona Mårtenson, who plays the grown Laila (and previously starred in Gosta Berling’s Saga), has a directness and a behavioral authenticity that stands out from the more traditional silent movie performance around her. She is a breath of modernity in a film that looks back to older models of expression, more Paulette Goddard than Lillian Gish, and she brightens the film with her unaffected expressions and body language. Between the landscape and Mårtenson, these two forces of nature carry the drama through narrative complications that, at least under Schnéevoigt’s hand, come off largely as obstructions on the road to destiny.

Flicker Alley releases the film in a version restored by the National Library of Norway in 2006 and digitally remastered for DVD in collaboration with Turner Classic Movies, with English subtitles under the Norwegian intertitles. Apart from a brief sequence of worn and scratchy images and couple of sequences where the frame drifts slightly out of plumb, the film is generally strong and clean, though the rounded edges of the frame are a curiosity.

Robert Israel contributes a dramatic piano score that at times veers into odd, atonal alleys inspired by the work of Edvard Grieg, which Israel notes in the accompanying 20-page booklet. The essay by Casper Tybjerg is essential reading if only for the cultural background of the novel and this film, the first of multiple adaptations. The disc also includes very brief biographical notes on the actors and filmmakers.

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Laila


2 Comments

  • Angela Arnet

    February 22, 2014

    Does anyone know the origin of the word daro to refer to norwegians – as used in the film Laila?

  • Michael Morrison

    November 23, 2015

    Very well written review, and very helpful. Angela Arnet asks about the origin of the word “daro” and I’d like to know also. It was by looking via Google for the meaning of the word I found this excellent review (except for a few gaffes a good editor [ahem] could have fixed).
    Sean Axmaker is obviously an admirable scholar and I look forward to seeing many more of his reviews and essays.

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