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.
Silent cinema was uniquely suited to shooting in extreme conditions. Without worries of sound recording, cameras could be taken almost anywhere a person could, especially in the twenties, as equipment became more portable. But even in the early days of silent cinema, cameras were being hauled all over the world to capture parts of the world most American audiences had never seen and likely never would, except through the cinema eye. It began with the Lumiere “actuality” programs, which took the travel lecture slideshow and transformed them into packages of moving picture postcards and sent them to theaters where everyone could see them. (See Kino’s Lumiere Brothers First Films for a well curated selection of these early travel films.) But that was only a hint at the wonders to come.
That’s a grand introduction to a pair of films that share little more than extreme snowy climes (Antarctica and the wilds of Northern Sweden) and a determination to film in the extreme conditions of said locations, but I use it as a reminder that the silent cinema was far more adventurous in taking cameras to otherwise inhospitable and difficult locations than the subsequent sound era, when the machinery of moviemaking became much more cumbersome. Of course, things changed when lightweight news cameras and, more recently, digital video made it easier to carry cameras into difficult situations, but that was years later. Until then, films like The Blizzard (1923) and The Great White Silence (1924) were the great true-life adventure cinema of the 20th century.
The Great White Silence was completed and released by photographer and cameraman Herbert Ponting in 1924, years after South (1920, documenting the Shackleton expedition), and Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), but the footage itself was shot over a decade before. Ponting was the unit photographer of Captain Scott’s British expedition to the South Pole, a journey that began in 1910 and ended in tragedy. Ponting was a photographer by trade and brought the heavy and cumbersome glass plate system rather than the new film stock, but he also learned to use a movie camera specifically for this project and he brought a documentarian’s eye to the still relatively new format.