click to buy “Gösta Berlings Saga” at Amazon.comThe decade around 1920 in Swedish cinema is almost always called its First Golden Age, a period dominated by two directors, Mauritz Stiller and Victor Sjöström. Both were directing films by 1912 and, within about twelve years, their reputations were international, meaning both were briefly swallowed into the American film industry.

Sjöström was more successful there than Stiller. As Victor Seastrom, he made at least nine films, including two enduring works, The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928). Most of the rest are lost, including all but nine minutes of a film with Greta Garbo (The Divine Woman, 1928, available on DVD as an extra on the Garbo box. (1))

As sound came in, he returned to Sweden for only two more films, apart from a deeply moving performance in Ingmar Bergman’s Smultronstället (Wild Strawberries) in 1957, during Sweden’s New Golden Age of cinema, and three years before his death in 1960 at the age of eighty.

Mauritz Stiller did not have a successful Hollywood career. Only two of his films appear to have been completely his own (The Woman on Trial and Hotel Imperial, both 1927 and both with Pola Negri). He returned to Sweden and died there in 1928, aged just 45. He left behind in Hollywood his protégé, Greta Garbo.

So, Stiller and Sjöström as directors dominate most writings about this first Swedish Golden Age. But there were at least two other Swedes who made significant contributions to this first period and three recent Region 1 DVD releases from Kino in U.S. allow us to start to assess their importance.

Selma Lagerlöf was a novelist, born in 1858. Her first novel, Gösta Berlings Saga, was published in 1891 and was immediately successful. It was set in the rural area of Värmland, where she was born. In 1909, she became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Her works provided the source material for many films. Sjöström made five films from her writings, including Körkarlen (The Phantom Carriage, 1921). Stiller made three, including two represented in these DVD releases: Her Arnes pengar (Sir Arne’s Treasure, 1919) and Gösta Berlings Saga (1924).

Other filmmakers to adapt her material include Gustaf Molander. He was scriptwriter for Stiller on several films, including two included in this release, Gösta Berlings Saga and Erotikon (1920). In his own right, he directed three films from her books. Douglas Sirk filmed one of her works in German in 1935 as Das Mädchen vom Moorhof. Julien Duvivier made a French remake of The Phantom Carriage in 1939 (La Charrette fantôme). There is a Japanese animated series based on her internationally known book, The Wonderful Adventure of Nils (Nils no fushigi na tabi, Hisayuki Toriumi and Masami Anô, 1980), with the most recent work being Bille August’s 1996 Jerusalem, made for both cinema and television release.

Threading through this same period was the cinematographer, Julius Jaenzon, sometimes credited as J. Julius. He photographed 16 films for Sjöström, including The Phantom Carriage. For Stiller, he photographed 24, including these two adaptations from Lagerlöf. Especially in Gösta Berlings Saga, his work is arguably the most important enduring element. His assistant, Gunnar Fischer, became one of Ingmar Bergman’s main photographers.

Gösta Berlings Saga is epic in length at just over three hours and was shown in two parts on its release in Sweden in 1924. The word “Saga” in the title can lead to expectations of a highly dramatic epic story. It’s not. It has been known in English as The Atonement of Gösta Berling and The Story of Gösta Berling.

Berling (Lars Hanson) is certainly one of the dominant characters, a young parson whose heavy drinking results in the parishioners calling in the Bishop. He saves his position with a fiery sermon, but senses that God had mocked him, and he leaves his parish to wander the countryside.

This took place about 1820 in a distant parish in western Värmland.

It was the first misfortune that befell Gösta Berling; it was not the last.

Young horses who cannot bear the whip or spur find life hard. At every smart they start forward and rush to their destruction, and when the way is stony and difficult, they know now better expedient than to overturn the cart and gallop madly away. (2)

The story is developed from the incidents that happen as he wanders around Värmland. He fetches up at Ekesby, a manor house ruled over by a woman who lets a dozen or so Falstaffian characters occupy a wing of the house.

Men lacking purpose – knaves, noblemen and former officers. Their past may be shady, but all were knights of adventure, of the goblet and of gallantry. (Intertitle.)

After a scenic introduction to Värmland, Stiller starts his film with these knights. Here we first meet Gösta, as the knights celebrate Christmas. But they must welcome a thirteenth guest, a spectre who has a devilish compact with the mistress of Ekeby, to provide him with a new soul each year!

This scene, with its overtone of religious mysticism, Shakespearian low comedy and good-natured pranks, works as an effective introduction to Gösta, the knights and the manor of Ekeby. The teasing deception works on us as effectively as on most of the knights, and lets us identify with Gösta’s youth, sense of fun and self-loathing.

It also showcases Julius’ stunning cinematography. A low-angle takes in the old, panelled room, cluttered with furniture and bric-a-brac. The ceiling is also panelled. A chair in the foreground and a table in the middle of the room give depth to the composition, with light probably from a window hitting and highlighting a chair back, the fireplace, a spot on the wall. When the knights enter through a door at the back, a new source of light re-models the volume of the room, animating this first dramatic location. The camera doesn’t move, but the scene is alive with the movement of the knights and the shifting masses of light, as their movement brings up new reflections and refractions. Over the scene, and almost two decades before Greg Toland’s work on Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941), the heavy presence of the ceiling weighs on the knights.

And then, Stiller moves into a flashback to let us know how Gösta finished up with this rabble of pompous old men. By doing this, he is rearranging – and improving – Lagerlöf’s structure. She starts with Gösta’s departure from his parish in disgrace. Despite her Nobel Prize and the immense popularity at the time, the novel is today very heavy going. It comes across as a collection of events and incidents often with no great cohesion – except that they happen in Värmland and do build up a mosaic of impressions of this region. But dramatically or psychologically they do not have a cumulative effect. At times, she diverts completely from Gösta and for events that do not have a dramatic pay-off later in the story.

Lagerlöf’s style is also dated, with enough anthropomorphism to last a decade. A spring flood is described as though each little ripple of water has decided it wants to break free.

Now these wild, excited waves, maddened with their new found liberty, were rushing to storm the old breakwater! Hissing and tearing at it, they hurled themselves high against it and then fell back as if they had hurt their white crests. They made a splendid storming party. They used huge pieces of ice as shields, they built the floating beams in to a battering-ram, they bent, broke, and beat against the poor breakwater till suddenly it seemed as if some one shouted to them, “Take care, take care!” (3)

This becomes tiresome over many pages.

Gösta becomes involved with several women and, through these relationships, he has to learn the nature of true love, as understood by a romantic 19th Century. Obviously it also has to result in his redemption and the regaining of his faith. In Lagerlöf’s novel, these women are mainly ciphers, characters not drawn with the psychological realism we would expect. One is the Italian countess. She has come to this region after a sudden marriage to Count Dohna (Torsten Hammarén), when he was on a visit to Italy. Gösta becomes her tutor. Events lead to the Count exploiting a loophole in the way the marriage was performed to cast her off. And it is with her that Gösta ultimately finds true love. But the manipulating hand of the dramatist seems more relevant here than emotional truth.

Stiller does not completely overcome these problems in his source material, but the structure of the film is tighter and more cohesive than the novel. Even so, characters are introduced, seem to vanish from the storyline, only to return when we’d almost forgotten them. Perhaps we notice this most in the character of the Countess, because she is played by Greta Garbo, in the performance that effectively led her to Hollywood by way of G. W. Pabst’s Die Freudlose gasse (Joyless Street, 1925). This subsequent fame today brings an almost unbalanced expectation and scrutiny to the role. There are effectively only three episodes in which she appears, one only in the first part and then several times in the second half of the second part.

Garbo’s face is heavier than in her later films and bright front lights minimise those legendary cheekbones. But Julius frequently lights her also from behind, with her long hair piled up on her head, glowing in the light. When the Countess confesses, “I have given my heart to another”, she is dressed in white, while her simpleton husband, his mother and her eventual benefactor are in dark clothes. In the dark-panelled room, Stiller and Julius design a play of light and shade, encapsulating her integrity and honesty.

Lars Hanson plays Gösta Berling and is well cast. His matinee-idol good looks also took him to Hollywood and a brief career in late silent films, including Sjöström’s famous works, The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928), both opposite Lillian Gish. He gives the film a strong centre, in a strong ensemble.

The locale of Värmland is also essentially a character, established in the opening title card: “Oh glorious Värmland – with your shimmering lakes and blue mountains – your dense forests and foaming streams.” Apart from the various interiors, many scenes take place in the open, including many at night and in winter. Numerous events take place in genuine exteriors, with Julius’ lighting crisp, sharp and beautiful, without resort to day for night. A shaft of light across the ice at night is more powerful than a blue tint across a scene shot at midday. A climax in Part 2 is a flight across the ice, at night, pursued by wolves. This does include studio shots intercut into the genuine night shots, but the tight editing, fast travelling shots and strong sense of movement are exhilarating. Little allowance needs to be made for the age of the film at these moments.

click to buy “Sir Arne’s Treasure” at Amazon.comStiller made Sir Arne’s Treasure in 1919, five years before Gösta Berlings Saga. It was the first of his three adaptations from Lagerlöf. (The other was Gunnar Hedes Saga, 1923.) Set in 16th Century Sweden, the slim novella was published in 1904. Three Scottish mercenaries are trying to return to their home. As they wander through the harsh wintry landscape, they attack the home of an ageing vicar, Sir Arne. The household is pillaged and burnt, and all members of the household apart from one poor maid.

Plot points hinge on Lagerlöf’s dated Romantic mysticism. For example, the sea remains frozen over as long as the mercenaries are on board a boat that could take them to their freedom and away from retribution.

But on board one of the ships that lay there wind-bound was a man who had robbed churches, and he would have gone free but for the story. Now they had time to search him out, and as soon as he had been taken ashore there came good weather and a fair wind. (4)

Even a dog recognises bad men just from hearing them talked about. “But no sooner had Torarin said [they are good men] than his dog rose from the sledge, threw his nose in the air, and began to howl.” (5)

Lagerlöf structures her story around the figure of Torarin, a poor hawker of fish. But he is more of an observer, at times a commentator, than an actual protagonist. Her story is over a third of the way through before we meet Sir Archi, the youngest of the three mercenaries. Sir Archi falls in love with the sole survivor of their massacre, and it is her actions when she discovers who her lover is that propel the climax.

Selma Lagerlöf was involved with writing the screenplay, along with Stiller and Gustaf Molander. We don’t know who restructured the story – whoever, the structure adapted for the film is more dynamic. Dramatic landscape shots introduce us to the troops of mercenaries being hounded out of Sweden in disgrace. Clearly filmed outdoors in the middle of a cold Swedish winter, the image of a line of straggling soldiers in the wintry countryside is a mirror, and a premonition, of the justly famous image that will close the film.

Then we cut to our three main characters – Sir Filip (Erik Socklassa), Sir Donald (Bror Berger) and Sir Archi (Richard Lund) – prisoners in the tower. They interrupt their game of leapfrog to seize the opportunity to snatch keys from a guard and escape. This sequence exhibits Stiller’s effortless mastery. Tightly edited, it moves from the jollity of the game to the excitement of snatching the guard, and the suspense of their escape from the cell and over a roof. At times, the camera tracks as though it were us; then we’re peering out to see if the escape route is clear. Within the first ten minutes, Stiller has our adrenalin pumping, and we are fully identifying with the three, especially Sir Archi. Stiller will taunt us with this identification later, when we realise what Sir Archi has done!

Stiller frequently reveals his awareness of the potency of a single image. When Sir Archi first meets and starts courting Elsalill (Mary Johnson), the survivor from the vicarage massacre, one shot conveys her love and his sense of guilt. He is seated in the bottom right of the frame, wearing heavy furs and staring out of the frame. Elsalill, in a pure white dress, white bonnet and clasping her hands in front of her, approaches Sir Archi from behind. She speaks gently to him, but he half turns in anguish towards her. Without any dialogue, his torment and sense of guilt, her love but bewilderment, come across powerfully.

Perhaps, his emotions come across a little too strongly. An actress called Mary Johnson plays Elsalill. Her performance feels fresh, natural, unmelodramatic. By contrast, most of the male performances in Sir Arne’s Treasure come across as stereotypical silent movie performances, a little over demonstrative, a little unsubtle.

In the dramatic climax, Sir Archi is on board a ship hoping the ice will break and allow them to escape out to sea. Elsalill has sacrificed herself to ensure the three killers do not escape. Sir Archi is aware of his sins and is now not prepared to have all his soldiers die because of him. And so the three knights are brought to shore.

As soon as the criminals were brought to shore, the storm began to rage again. … And from his lofty vantage point on deck, the skipper saw a lengthy procession approach his ship. (Title cards)

Out of the snow and mist, snaking across the top of the image, the procession of villagers crosses the frame vertically and then turns towards us, down the left hand side of the image. Their dark cowls cut across the white of the snow, as they come towards the ship to collect Elsalill’s body. “They had come to collect the young maiden who had loved an evildoer … and had given her life to destroy him.” (Title card.) Two decades later Sergei Eisenstein would stage a similar scene for Alexandr Nevskiy (1938).

Finally, God’s retribution carried out, the storm opens the passage out to sea, and an iris closes on the final image of a now clear passage away from the land. The impact and emotional power of this final sequence is heightened not only by the stunning visual compositions, but by the clear evidence that this was not done in a studio. The snow is palpable; actors really are huddling for warmth.

click to buy “Erotikon” at Amazon.comThese two adventures are probably Stiller’s most famous films today. However, at the time he was also known for his comedies, and these are represented in these DVD releases by Erotikon, from 1920. A sophisticated romantic drama, its heroine, Irene (Tora Teje), is married to Professor Leo Carpentier (Anders Der Wahl), a “shining light in the field of entomology”. Of course, he is so preoccupied in his studies of the bigamous and polygamous nature of various beetles, he’s not aware of what his wife is up to, with Baron Felix (Vilhelm Bryde), a daring aviator or the handsome sculptor Preben Wells (Lars Hanson).

Again, the credits reflect the compact community involved in filmmaking at that time. But instead of the cinematographer Julius Jaenzon, the film was photographed by Henrik Jaenzon, his brother. One of the scriptwriters was Gustaf Molander and the Professor’s niece, Marte, was played by his wife Karin Molander. The lover, Preben Wells, was played by Lars Hanson, who several years later would appear as Gösta Berling.

Technically, no allowance has to be made for the vintage of the film. The crudities and exaggerations of the early days of cinema are long in the past. Performances are restrained and naturalistic.

Morally, the resolution of the story is actually still shocking today, to audiences used to endings dictated by the morality of the MPAA Codes in America. The marriage of Irene and Leo is not preserved. Instead, Irene is going off with her lover, Preben Wells. Magnanimously, she wishes happiness – and his niece, Marte – for her soon-to-be ex-husband.

But there is also a heaviness about the film. When Erotikon was first shown, Ernst Lubitsch was making his first films and he is reported to have been very impressed with Stiller’s film. Subsequently, he would make similar films, seemingly frivolous love stories among the upper classes, with a dash of daring impropriety. But Lubitsch added his “touch”, something missing here.

Overall, the characters are too thinly realised. Surely the husband is made an entomologist just so there can be witty/risqué title cards about the behaviour of beetles.

Gentlemen, today we will focus on the habits of tree beetles. … The subject of cohabitation is particularly illuminating. Red spotted varieties opt for polygamy – while the violet varieties are monogamous … the most important species – the Ips.typographus – indulges in bigamy, gentlemen. (Title cards)

The two lovers are presentable, but again characterised thinly. There’s a sense that Preben is a sculptor because that allows several comic moments with models, and a lifestyle that makes it easy for a lady to visit him during the day. The Professor’s friend, Sidonius (Torsten Hammarén), never rises above the level of caricature, with his comically bent knees and shock of unkempt white hair.

Irene, his wife, is played by Tora Teje. She is a beautiful presence, but the character is again simply conceived. Her frivolous amoral approach to life is just that. Lubitsch’s heroines would have greater complexity and often a sadness underneath the hedonism. In an early characterising scene, Irene consults her diary for the day: “2 p.m. Teach furrier a lesson in patience.” Then we see her getting the furrier to take out every fur for her consideration, before she leaves without buying anything. It is mildly amusing, but is also unbalancing for our first impression of our heroine. It is a shallow, unjustified action and one that does not really create a sympathetic identification with her.

In a central scene, we join Irene, her husband and her lover at the ballet. The performance is an oriental extravaganza, a ballet called “Schaname”, about the favourite wife of the Shah. While the Shah is away, she attempts to have her lover run away with her. He refuses, so she has him jailed. But when the Shah returns, he misses his best friend. After investigating, he learns of his wife’s infidelity – and has her put to death.

Stiller devotes almost ten minutes to this sequence, an obvious paralleling of the theme of his film. This also signposts his own ending. The Professor notices that Preben doesn’t applaud at the end. Preben comments, “I do not care for unhappy endings. In that respect I fully agree with the motion picture audience.” Is this a filmmaker more aware of his audience’s demands than of a particular vision he wished to explore?

This ballet sequence does represent one important aspect of the film. Just as in his films from Lagerlöf’s books, Stiller takes his camera out in to the world. This is not a studio-bound world. The performance, for example, really does take place in front of a full theatre audience. Several sequences occur in the streets of the city. And we even go up in the air, for a joy ride with Baron Felix, surely a thrilling event for audiences of 1920.

Henrik Jaenzon’s photography is effective, but it does not have quite the same brilliance of his brother’s work in the historical adventures.

* * *

The three titles are separate releases from Kino. Each film is accompanied by a new score. In all cases, the scores are well conceived, filling in the silence, but without drawing unnecessary attention to themselves or attempting to underline too heavily what we can clearly see on the screen.

Sir Arne’s Treasure and Erotikon are tinted. The restorations prepared in co-operation with the Swedish Film Institute are also effective without being stunning. The restoration of Gösta Berlings Saga dates from 1975, and it is the only film that is not tinted. Generally, I prefer this, as it allows the brilliance of the photography to be more strongly seen.

Each DVD includes the same short introduction, “Rediscovering Sweden: Peter Cowie Introduces the Films of Mauritz Stiller”. Each film also has an extra section on that title. Cowie has long specialised in writing on Swedish cinema and these introductions are interesting. The Saga of Gösta Berling also includes extra material with Garbo, an except from an early (1922) film, Luffarpetter, an early filmed advertisement in which she appeared and newsreel footage of her departure from Sweden.

In an earlier edition of Senses of Cinema, Alexander Jacoby has written at length on Stiller’s work. See www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/01/18/stiller.html.

Click here to order Sir Arne’s Treasure from  Amazon.com

Click here to order Gösta Berlings Saga from  Amazon.com

Click here to order Erotikon from  Amazon.com


  1. Garbo: The Signature Collection, Region 1, Warner Bros.
  2. Selma Lagerlof, Gösta Berling’s Saga (London: Dover Publications, 2004), p. 7.
  3. Ibid p. 187-8.
  4. Selma Lagerlof, The Treasure (Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2005), p. 23.
  5. Ibid, p. 24.

About The Author

Peter Hourigan has spent many years going to the movies, being involved with film society and film festival bodies, as well as teaching movies with secondary students. He also leads adult discussion groups with Centre for Adult Education (Melbourne).

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