October 21, 2009  |  An Auteurist History of Film
An Auteurist History of Film: "The Scandinavian Connection"

Charles Silver, a curator in MoMA’s Department of Film, presents a series of writings to supplement the film exhibition An Auteurist History of Film. The following post accompanies the "The Scandinavian Connection" program, which screens on October 21, 22, and 23 in Theater 3.

Although Urban Gad (1879–1947) made a few films in Germany in the 1920s, during the golden age of Expressionism, his career had petered out by 1927. He clearly was not playing in the same league as Murnau, Lang, Pabst, Leni, Wiene, etc., and though an argument could be made that he anticipated some trends in Expressionism and that his use of eroticism was ahead of his time, his most significant contribution was the discovery of Asta Nielsen (1883–1972). Working in Germany, mostly with her then-husband Gad, Die Asta developed a restrained style of film acting, comparable to American counterparts like Lillian Gish and Mae Marsh. (To fully appreciate the achievement of these women, one should check out the staginess of Sarah Bernhardt’s film appearances from this period, although an elderly Eleanora Duse in Cenere managed quite well.) The actress performed Strindberg, Ibsen, Wedekind, and a cross-dressing Hamlet, but her most familiar role to Museum audiences would be in G. W. Pabst’s The Joyless Street (1925), the film that precipitated Greta Garbo’s coming to America. After appearing in just one talkie, she began a forty-year retirement (later to be topped by Garbo’s half-century “reclusion”), but it should be noted that at the age of seventy she undertook a second career, becoming a gifted collagist.

Victor Sjöström (1879–1960) began his career while D. W. Griffith was still at Biograph (Ingebord Holm was Sjöström’s second film), and in several ways his films seem more sophisticated and adult than those of his American rival. In many of his best works (Terje Vigen, The Outlaw and His Wife, The Phantom Chariot), Sjöström relied on a very gifted leading actor: himself. This established a precedent for the likes of Charles Chaplin, Erich von Stroheim, Orson Welles, and others. It also led ultimately to his marvelous performance in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957). Like his fellow Swede, Bergman, Sjöström’s vision of the world was less than cheerful, although his work still has its comic moments. (The great Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer probably surpasses them both in the Scandinavian-somberness department). Ironically, in light of his Hollywood period (which we will deal with later in the series), Sjöström had spent his childhood in America. What might his career been like if he hadn’t returned to Sweden in the 1890’s, just as films were beginning?


MoMA’s print of Afgrunden (The Abyss) features Danish intertitles. The film will be accompanied by voiceover translation from the Danish by Jytte Jensen and Maria Lund.

MoMA’s print of Ingeborg Holm includes Swedish intertitles. The following is a synopsis of the film.

A widow is sent to the poor house, and her children are boarded out to foster families. When her youngest child fails to recognize her, she breaks down and is committed to the insane asylum, until her oldest son presents her with a photo of herself as a young woman, and she regains her wits. Based on a play by Nils Krok, a member of the poor-relief board in the city of Helsingbord, the film provoked an unexpected sensation, and was dubbed “unwholesome cinematography.” Sjöström’s company tried to get off the hook by saying that the film depicted conditions in rural areas, not Stockholm, but argued for film’s social responsibility in “arousing sympathy for the less fortunate members of society.” Here Sjöström again anticipated Griffith, who was later to make similar arguments for the cinema’s potential to change the world. The debate ignited by the film (which proved to be a commercial success) did, indeed, fuel modernization of Swedish relief laws.

Fortuitously, some of my colleagues have programmed some films in forthcoming weeks that we might otherwise have included in this cycle, thus freeing up some valuable slots for other films. Don’t miss MoMA’s new restoration of Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North on October 25 and 31 (part of the seventh annual To Save and Project. This is the first lyrical and personal (auteurist) documentary, beginning a tradition that carries through to the likes of Ken Burns today. Also featured in To Save and Project is Sjöström’s masterpiece, The Phantom Chariot (1920), which screens November 7 in a newly restored and tinted print. If you like Bergman, you’ll love The Phantom Chariot, and you’ll have a deeper understanding of the Swedish filmmaking lineage. Finally, I would like to call your attention to Thanhouser: 100 Years on October 26, an homage to an unpretentious little studio in New Rochelle that turned out some charming films in the early years of the twentieth century.