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.
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.
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.