For a brief period between 1913 and 1924, the most sophisticated, mature and visually majestic films were coming from the Scandinavian countries in general and Sweden in particular, a trend that impressed Hollywood so much that the studios started importing artists from the Scandinavian film industries: Victor Sjöström (who became Seastrom in Hollywood), Mauritz Stiller, Benjamin Christensen, Lars Hanson and of course Greta Garbo. One of the unique qualities of this regional cinema was the embrace of the landscape as an essential part of the stories. Where Hollywood filmmakers of the 1910s generally scouted locations near the studios (when they didn’t try to construct their own worlds on studio stages), Sjöstrom, Stiller, and others took their cameras deep into the wilderness and the mountains to find majestic views and epic vistas unseen in other national cinemas, a fitting backdrop for characters driven by powerful psychological and emotional forces. The roots of Ingmar Bergman, whose natural landscapes are much more intimate yet just as expressive and evocative of his themes, can be traced back to the silent era; he cited Sjöström as one of his most important inspirations and influences and paid tribute to his legacy by casting him as the old professor in Wild Strawberries.
Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957) followed his sunny, airy sex comedy Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), the first Bergman film to catch the international spotlight, and the dark medieval allegory The Seventh Seal (1957), where a knight’s faith is shaken by the death and cruelty of the crusades and the doom of the Black Plague sweeping through his home. Set in the present but tied to a past viewed through the lens of remembrance and dream, Wild Strawberries is more melancholy and introspective than Smiles and more hopeful and self-reflective than the enigmatic Seal. It is also more autobiographical, with details of aging protagonist Isak Borg’s past drawn from Bergman’s own childhood. To what extent Isak or his emotionally closed in son Evald Borg (note the initials EB) represent Bergman himself is open to question (he claimed Evald was based on his father), but such concerns are secondary to the film itself, an often painful drama but one of Bergman’s warmest and most touching films.
Victor Sjöström, an actor and the great Swedish director of the silent era (and one of Bergman’s heroes), plays Isak Borg, a widowed doctor living a quiet retirement in a lovely country home. He was coaxed out of retirement to play the fragile old man being presented with an honorary doctorate in the college town of Lund, and Bergman pays tribute to the director in the opening sequences of the film. Isak has a nightmare where he wanders through a sun-seared yet ghostly village, and the silent movie-like sequence recalls Sjöström’s 1921 masterpiece The Phantom Carriage, with its driverless hearse carrying the corpse of Isak himself through the streets. It’s unlikely that audiences of the time would make the connection, which makes the moment even more touching: a personal gesture from one artist acknowledging his debt to another.
Whoever dies at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve is doomed to drive Death’s carriage for the next year, collecting the souls that pass on and carrying them to the afterlife.
This bit of folklore is the narrative conceit on which The Phantom Carriage rests. It opens as a supernatural tale — part ghost story and part religious fable — but soon reveals itself as a tragedy.
“Send for David Holm,” asks the dying Edit (Astrid Holm, looking saintly in her suffering), a devoted and dedicated Salvation Army sister with consumption. She’s surrounded and worried over by everyone but David (Victor Sjöström), a shameless drunkard who refuses to attend her and remains (ominously and fittingly) in a graveyard to swap stories to his carousing buddies. He drinks to George (Tore Svennberg), the swell of a crook who made David what he is today and the man who told him of the legend of Death’s driver. Both will visit David before the night is over, taking him on a kind of ride through his past, a spin on A Christmas Carol with George as his Jacob Marley and David as a wretch of a Scrooge. His legacy is measured in the misery he caused and the lives he destroyed and he’s forced to watch the cruelty of his life on the eve of his death.
Directed by and starring Victor Sjöström, the father of Swedish cinema, from the novel by Nobel Prize-winning author Selma Lagerlöf, The Phantom Carriage is one of the masterpieces of Swedish cinema and its reputation is well deserved. Where most of the great Swedish classics of the era were sweeping sagas set in the rugged landscape of grand outdoors (such as Gosta Berling’s Saga and Sjöström’s own The Outlaw and his Wife), The Phantom Carriage is an intimate work created in the controlled environment of the studio. Where the sagas were visually muscular and set against vast natural landscapes, this is delicately-crafted, carefully lit and composed and performed with an understated intensity, in particular Sjöström himself as the reprobate David. The once responsible family man changes into a reckless ne’er do well who corrupts his young brother and terrorizes his wife and children and then slips even slips into complete misanthropy as a bitter and vengeful drifter searching every small town to find his runaway wife. When Sister Edit, the idealistic young officer in the Salvation Army posted to a small rural town, determines to redeem David when he comes looking for a bed, he responds with contempt and cruelty. Sjöström’s restrained performance makes David all the more terrifying. His brooding manner and sneering looks communicate quiet disdain and a vicious misanthropic streak (a consumptive, he freely coughs in the faces of the healthy “to finish them off quicker”) until he loses himself in drink, when his anger spills out into violence.
Bardelys the Magnificent
The most anticipated event at any silent film festival is the premiere of a “lost” film, rediscovered and restored. Bardelys the Magnificent, the 1926 swashbuckler starring John Gilbert and directed by King Vidor, was long thought lost for good but for a brief glimpse in Vidor’s Show People. Then a single surviving print, in poor shape and missing a reel, was found in France in 2006. An exhaustive digital restoration was undertaken by Serge Bromberg (of Lobster Films) with David Shepard (of Film Preservation Associates) and others and the results are thrilling. Apart from a very effective reconstruction of the lost reel through stills and shots from a surviving trailer, it looks superb.
This was the last of five collaborations between Vidor, one of the class acts of the silent cinema, and Gilbert, at that time one Hollywood’s greatest stars. Both are at the top of their game; from the opening scenes they walk that fine line between swashbuckler and spoof with sure footing and unflagging confidence. Gilbert is the Marquis de Bardelys, an an infamous womanizer and the kind of character that John Barrymore did well, the arrogant aristocrat lover and rogue. Gilbert plays it with more dry wit and insouciance than Barrymore ever did. He’s helped immensely by the pithy gems of the intertitles written by Dorothy Farnum (this film features the finest and funniest intertitles of the festival and is a reminder of the often overlooked art of silent movie title writing), but his performance sells the lines. Within seconds of the opening images, he’s suddenly engaged in a fencing duel with the husband of his latest conquest (which he treats as rather familiar sport) and ends the scene by reconciling the two and driving them both out the front door, still tossing off dryly witty lines as it has all been a mere inconvenience. The story, adapted from the novel by Rafael Sabatini, turns on a challenge from a rival aristocrat (Roy D’Arcy, looking like an over-coiffed villain from the Richard Lester The Three Musketeers) to woo the stubbornly resistant Roxalanne de Lavedan (Eleanor Boardman), who already rejected the vain aristocrat. Boardman (who soon became director Vidor’s wife) is a modern presence in this costume picture of flamboyant manners. With minimal make-up and a direct, unshowy performance style, she stands in contrast to the rituals and elaborate shows of affection and outrage. It’s not hard to see how the frivolous Bardelys, a man who could marry any woman he wanted to (if, in fact, he wanted to), is smitten and transformed by this unpretentious, unspoiled, unfailingly honest beauty.