Mauritz Stiller

The curious and contradictory art of Mauritz Stiller sits as uncomfortably within the established modes of film criticism as the life of its author within the conventions of his day. Invariably cited alongside Victor Sjöström as the founding father of Swedish cinema, Stiller is generally slighted by the comparison. The Finnish-born director of Russian-Jewish ancestry, who would enjoy fame in Sweden and suffer frustration in Hollywood, and who was to write in his last months, “I have all my life wondered where I belong,” (1) was certainly a voyager and a wanderer – yet to successive generations of critics, he has been a journeyman in contrast to Sjöström’s “artist”. The serious and nationalistic concerns of Sjöström’s work, its severe morality and literary prestige, ideally suited him for canonisation by critics seeking to promote an indigenous Scandinavian cinema in defiance of the Hollywood model, while his visual poetry and thematic consistency sustained his reputation in the age of auteurism. Stiller’s output, by contrast, was largely too trivial for the former approach and too varied for the latter. In Richard Combs’ phrase, he displayed “the versatility and lightness of a genre stylist.” (2) If Sjöström’s pre-eminence is not seriously challengeable, Stiller is, nonetheless, the more contemporary figure. The sophisticated ironies and satiric wit of his comedies, coupled with the subjectivity and self-criticism of his masterpiece in a more serious vein, Gunnar Hede’s Saga (1923), should speak more directly to the concerns of the twenty-first century than Sjöström’s stark morality plays and pastoral melodramas. It’s also ironic that Stiller’s relative neglect was scarcely challenged by a generation of critics who in the context of Hollywood cinema admired precisely the ability to stamp personal concerns on diverse material. Stiller’s abiding themes – the function of the artist in society, the status of the outsider – span his work in all genres. He made assignments his own, and there are parallels to the single most obvious division in his work – that between comedy and epic – in the polarity between comedies and action films in the oeuvre of Howard Hawks.

Stiller’s career path, however, most closely parallels that of a filmmaker like Nicholas Ray: an early period of popular yet critically scorned films in a variety of genres, interspersed with the occasional critical success; then a sequence of works in which generic plots became more clearly the vehicle for personal themes; graduation to bigger and more prestigious projects, which however proved less congenial to his talents; and a final period of exile, disappointment and failure. In fact the unhappiness of Stiller’s years in Hollywood is not easily explicable, and it’s curious that Sjöström’s rather more austere style of filmmaking should have flourished at MGM, while Stiller was left unemployed and detached from his great discovery, Greta Garbo. His one surviving American film, Hotel Imperial (1927), is both stylish and commercially shrewd. MGM may have been reluctant to exploit his talents, but by the time worsening health forced his return to Sweden, he was under contract to Paramount, the most continental and cosmopolitan of Hollywood studios, and surely the most congenial environment for Sweden’s Lubitsch. A sound remake of Erotikon with Fredric March, Roland Young and Kay Francis would be an agreeable hypothesis to go with those potential masterpieces that F.W. Murnau and Louise Brooks ought to have been producing at Paramount in the ’30s.

Stockholm’s own Hollywood had, after all, been ideally suited to Stiller’s blend of ostentatious social satire and sophistication with a self-effacing visual flair. Thomas Graal’s Best Film (1917) unfolds against the backdrop of Sweden’s developing studio system, with art and industry more at odds than they ever seemed to be in Stiller’s own career. In fact the role of the artist in society is Stiller’s most fertile theme, and the writer protagonist of Best Film and its sequel, Thomas Graal’s Best Child (1918), is only one example in a list stretching from the dancer in Ballettprimadonnan (1916) through the lovelorn sculptors in Wings (1916) and Erotikon (1920) to the strolling players and tormented poet/dreamer hero of Gunnar Hede’s Saga. Not only are Stiller’s protagonists often artists but art puts his stories and characters into perspective: in Johan (1921), the inter-titles (verses from a traditional ballad) act as a distancing device, while Erotikon uses an extended ballet sequence as an ironic reflection on the swirling ronde des amours in Stockholm’s high society. It’s a toss up as to whether the extravagant passions of the ballet make the adulterous machinations of its spectators look sordid, or whether the sophisticated ironies of the latter make the crude melodrama of the former look risible. In either case, the juxtaposition of sly humour and high drama seems to mirror the gap between Stiller’s two personas, as farceur and tragedian. Much is conveyed by the contrast between extant photographs of Stiller himself: on the one hand, the portrait of a Victorian gentlemen, imperious and eminent; on the other, in an odd surviving still from a lost early farce, The Parsonage of Dömvik (1912), an eager but helpless-looking young man glancing up with some trepidation at an aggressively maternal housekeeper.

The chance to see some of Stiller’s own work as an actor, which unfortunately remains entirely lost, would provide further illustration of a polarity which even on the evidence of the surviving films is clearly central to the director’s art. Wings (1916), Stiller’s adaptation of Herman Bang’s homoerotic tragedy, Mikael, which was later to be filmed under that title by Carl Dreyer, regrettably survives only in prints shorn of the framing story which book-ended the drama on its original Swedish release. (3) In its absence it’s hard to evaluate the significance of what appears to have been a farcical pastiche of Bang’s gay romance, chronicling the romantic rivalries among the film’s cast and crew. Mark Finch, writing in the European Gay Review, reads it as “Stiller’s subtextual coming-out”, and argues that the gay screen romance is “pictured as grand and worthy (albeit tragic) next to the sordid and inept obsessions of a heterosexual audience”. (4) In fact the intended function of the framing device may well have been to allow that audience to distance itself from outrageous material, but Stiller’s own appearance in the frame certainly stresses his personal involvement with the story. The parallels between outer and inner stories are also suggestive: in the former, Stiller selects Lars Hanson as his lead actor just as, in the latter, the sculptor protagonist takes the beautiful boy that Hanson plays as model rather than lover. Both artists sublimate their sexuality into creativity, and both lose their protégés to women. The film’s exploration of the border between life and art extends beyond the world of the cinema: bourgeois audiences at the time were apparently shocked by the sculptor’s physical resemblance to August Strindberg. Via such tactics, Stiller slyly turns this rather stilted melodrama into an unexpected counterpart to the meta-cinematic complexities of his most daring and delightful comedy, Thomas Graal’s Best Film.

Even in our post-modern, post-Godardian age, Best Film still looks astonishing for its conceptual modernity and philosophical sophistication. Thomas Graal is alienated not only from his managers at the studio but from the real world as a whole, and the film amazingly pre-empts Buster Keaton’s masterpiece Sherlock, Jr (1924) by seven years in identifying wish fulfilment as the cinema’s essential vocation. As in Wings, artistic creativity is furthered by sexual frustration, with the writer Graal inspired to produce his best film script when his secretary (played with charm and grace by Karin Molander) rejects his advances. His story retells the course of their relationship in decidedly idealised terms, and he ensures a happy ending in real life when he agrees to play the lead on condition that the studio track down the errant girl to act opposite him. (Thomas Graal’s Best Child, the rather less distinguished sequel to Best Film, similarly orchestrates a reconciliation through art as Molander, now unhappily married to Graal, has her affections restored when she reads his rather fulsome prose panegyric on womanly virtues).

In addition, Best Film displays an extraordinarily advanced awareness of the young medium’s brief history. Graal himself is played by Victor Sjöström, already established as Sweden’s pre-eminent film artist on the back of such critically acclaimed works as Ingeborg Holm (1913) and Terje Vigen (1916). The script Graal concocts fabricates a miserable childhood for its heroine, born in poverty and raised by an alcoholic father – a back-story befitting one of Sjöström’s own melodramas. As inter-titles recount her suffering, flashbacks (these within the film-within-a-film!) show a pampered upbringing in a wealthy home, with the girl easily getting the better of her rather helpless father. It’s a mark of the film’s syntactic sophistication that one can’t be sure whether these flashbacks represent the reality of Molander’s present situation after her return to her aristocratic family, or Graal’s own surmise as to her position and behaviour at home. When the girl is finally located and asked to read Graal’s script, she chuckles at his delineation of her fictionalised youth. Again, Stiller cuts to an illustrative sequence, but this time we see the literal dramatisation of the script, deliberately shot with an archaic mise en scène which imitates the style of Sjöström’s own earliest films of 1912-13. The importance of this moment resides in a single, seminal perception: that the events of the flashback seem comical because they are out of place in comedy. Already in 1917, Stiller understood that events in film narrative are determined not by mimetic considerations, but according to a more or less closely defined set of generic conventions – a fact that Stiller can expose only because his own film operates according to the conventions of stylised comedy. It’s rash to proclaim anything a first in a medium whose origins are still so vaguely charted, but I challenge the reader to identify any earlier film which exploits the cinema’s past history and comments on its principles of expression with such shrewdness and subtlety. (5)

Thomas Graal’s Best Film, as a study of the restorative potential of aesthetic escapism, finds its logical complement in the Lubitsch-like social satires for which Stiller remains most famous, where the everyday pressures of bourgeois life foment discord and frustration. The themes of Thomas Graal’s Best Child, a rather schematic account of the tensions in conventional middle class marriage and parenthood, are admirably deepened in Erotikon, a complex love triangle story set among the Swedish upper class, which was distributed abroad under the appropriate if ungainly title of ‘The Bonds That Chafe’. The bonds in fact are as much personal as social, the tensions of the film inhering in the gap between desire and performance (in all senses). Stiller’s mise en scène, consummate in its subtlety, distils the underlying significance of each stray gesture and action; unspoken longings hang in the air like the smoke that wreaths Lars Hanson’s face as he stands next to the married lover who, with perfect propriety, calmly plays the piano. For all the film’s stylistic elegance, aesthetics here seem a mere distraction from emotional troubles, and the balletic interlude, far from righting the situation as Thomas Graal’s art does, only reflects it in a distorting mirror (after witnessing the tragic ending and grasping the analogy between events on and off stage, a disgruntled Hanson leaves the theatre with the announcement that he is “going to look for comedy”). Instead, Stiller arrives at a more practical and concrete solution. His ending still looks daring after eighty years: the unfaithful wife leaves her husband for her lover, and the film ends to the mutual satisfaction of all parties, since the husband – a befuddled professor of entymology – settles down with his young and vivacious niece. This triumphant simultaneous rejection of social strictures and personal taboos is inescapably more radical than anything a Hollywood filmmaker of the Golden Age would have been permitted to propose (at least openly); even today, it’s difficult to think of any close parallel in the American cinema.


The graceful immorality of Erotikon comes as something of a relief when compared to the severe and portentous dramas in which Stiller was specialising by 1920. His transition to respectability had been initiated in 1919, when Sjöström turned over to him an adaptation of Sir Arne’s Treasure, one of many projects he drew from books by Selma Lagerlöf, who at that date passed as Sweden’s major national author. Still, the protagonists of that film – murderous Scots mercenaries abroad in sixteenth-century Sweden – bring to the fore the concern with the outsider which was to be the most constant theme of Stiller’s last decade. Already prevalent in his early work – not only in the alienated artists of Thomas Graal’s Best Film and Wings, but in the protagonists of Love and Journalism (1916) and Alexander the Great (1917): respectively, a polar explorer, and a head waiter ostracised by his town for supposed immorality – the motif takes on a particular force in the series of rural and historical epics which dominated Stiller’s later output. The subject of Erotikon is in effect the premise of Song of the Scarlet Flower (1919), where the tensions of family life drive the wilful hero into a self-imposed exile in the north, a plot device to be re-used in the masterly Gunnar Hede’s Saga. Lars Hanson’s wandering adventurer is very much Stiller’s Ethan Edwards, and the parallels between Song of the Scarlet Flower, its companion piece Johan, and the American Western deserve elaboration, not least as a corrective to the tendency of critics both in Sweden and abroad to stress the peculiarly Scandinavian characteristics of the rural melodrama as a form. (6)

In fact Stiller’s cosmopolitan art prefigures Ford as well as Lubitsch. Johan mirrors the persistent polarity in the Western between potent male adventurer and settled husband/father (7): here as so often, the latter seems “feminised” by association with a mother figure and her domestic sphere, while the potent stranger who seduces and entices away his wife foreshadows The Searchers‘ Scar, both in his sexual libertinism and his association with the elements. Stiller’s heroines, however, are rather less comfortable in domesticity than the average Fordian woman – Johan’s wife is complicit in her abduction, while in Scarlet Flower the wandering hero is balanced by a heroine whose position in her home, as an adopted child, is precarious (Richard Combs has commented on the prevalence of adopted daughters in Stiller’s work, “as if the director needed to find some domestic, feminine correspondence with his footloose heroes” (8)). Furious at her desire to marry a seemingly feckless and irresponsible man, the girl’s father tells her that she will leave his home with nothing more than she brought into it; he relents when she proceeds to tear off her fine clothes. Dressing and undressing, indeed, is another prevalent Stiller motif, and only in Wings, as Lars Hanson poses nude for his sculptor patron, does the device have an obviously erotic significance. More commonly, it carries connotations of exclusion and dispossession; thus, in addition to Scarlet Flower, the defrocked priest seeking redemption in Gosta Berling’s Saga (1924), and, in Hotel Imperial, the serving girl, decked in jewellery and finery by a lascivious Russian officer, forced back into rags when her true, pro-Austrian sympathies are revealed. That film, though made in Hollywood, is peculiarly expressive of Stiller’s own alienation, as a foreigner by birth and a homosexual, in Sweden; its hero, a wounded Austrian officer trapped in an enemy-occupied hotel, is very much a stranger in his own land, and seems a clear surrogate for Stiller.

Nonetheless, despite their thematic interest, the bulk of these later films tend towards stolidity when set alongside the flair of the best of the early comedies. The characterisations are thinner, and the symbolism blunt and unenlightening. Peter Cowie’s assertion that, in Johan, the wife’s “emotional confusion and remorse at deserting her husband are brilliantly suggested by the waves lashing the tiny boat” (9) as she and her seducer make their escape downstream, is faintly comical, the symbolism hammering home a point perfectly evident in the script and characterisation. A similar ponderousness and tendency to over-emphasis are apparent in the medieval melodrama, Sir Arne’s Treasure – a film chiefly notable for the technical assurance of its opening jailbreak sequence – and (here combined with portentousness) in the overrated Gosta Berling’s Saga, which for decades maintained a spurious reputation as Stiller’s masterpiece largely on the basis of the presence of a debutante Greta Garbo. Among the later Swedish films, Gunnar Hede’s Saga is the one exception, and the triumphant synthesis of Stiller’s most fertile themes. (10) A film of exquisite dreamlike beauty, his last and most sophisticated study of artistic ambition and personal alienation, it’s also his most psychologically perceptive film because of rather than despite the entirely symbolic logic of its plot (the substitution of the sensitive, expressive and rather feminine Einar Hanson for the macho and often somewhat stolid Lars Hanson is doubtless also a factor). Again the story evokes the Western, with the young Gunnar Hede exiled from suffocating domesticity (a milieu again presided over by an oppressive mother) to follow in his dead grandfather’s footsteps, herding reindeer in the far north. Here, however, the hero’s prime motive is aesthetic; his grandfather was not only a pioneer, but also an artist (a violinist, like the young Stiller) and Gunnar is inspired by an imaginative idealisation of his grandfather’s escapades. The old man’s portrait hangs over the mantelpiece, a motif which typically in the cinema would symbolise patriarchal oppression (11); here, by contrast, it symbolises the potential for liberation, and it’s significant that the painting itself comes to life, in superimposition, under Gunnar’s imaginative stare. Echoing the character of the grandfather, and in contrast to Gunnar’s own immediate family, is the family of strolling players, also artists, also wanderers, whose daughter Gunnar loves. Ultimately, it is the sound of her violin that restores his sanity after his experiences in the northern wilderness drive him mad.

Gunnar Hede’s Saga is also – and again the paradigms of the Western are relevant here – a film about private property. Gunnar’s family estate was founded from the wealth his grandfather earned from herding and selling the reindeer: nature is taken into possession, converted into property and a financial asset. The values of Gunnar’s parents are wholly material, and his own artistic ambitions are scorned; he is to be a mining engineer, and thereby save the estate from ruin. Destroying the violin that she finds Gunnar playing, his mother is moved to contrition only when she learns that it is the property of another. Financial reparation, she assumes, will be sufficient apology. Stiller’s triumph is to fashion a resolution which appears, however tentatively, to reconcile the conflicting demands of aesthetics and capitalism. In a hallucination, the maddened Gunnar collects what he believes to be gold coins from the river bank; in fact, they are only stones. Yet on his recovery, Gunnar realises that they are valuable copper pyrites, in sufficient quantity to restore the house’s fortunes. As Richard Combs argues, the resolution proves that Gunnar “functions best as an engineer, no less than as an artist, when his imaginative faculties are allowed free play.” (12) Even so, Combs’ description of the climax as “a reconciliation of the hero’s real and fantasy life” (13) is optimistic. The last scene is tellingly equivocal: Gunnar, restored to a fragile sanity, playing a violin-piano duet with his new wife in the parlour of his home, watched approvingly both by his own mother and by his parents-in-law – the strolling players now domesticated. The presence of the piano, that archetypal symbol of bourgeois domesticity, gives the game away: Gunnar’s wilder ambitions have been suppressed, and his imagination is allowed to flourish only when it leads to material benefit. Such were the compromises that Stiller himself would soon have to face after his journey to Hollywood.

Though the thematic complexity and formal imagination of Gunnar Hede’s Saga is not unique in Stiller’s oeuvre, he did not reach such heights consistently; of his dozen odd surviving films, only three or four can be considered outstanding. Despite my admiration for those works, I don’t regard Stiller as a genuinely great director, as Sjöström, less modern in his concerns, surely is. Stiller is, even so, a major figure. This essay has attempted to outline his themes and methods without claiming to be an exhaustive study. I don’t claim either to have written with a coherent ideological project in mind (unless unconsciously) – in fact, given the variety with which Stiller’s characteristic concerns are inflected from film to film, it would be difficult to do so. I do maintain, however, despite his current neglect, that Stiller was and remains an important figure in world cinema. As a simple matter of justice the Swedish silent film, so often considered in isolation from the rest of cinema, ought to be re-integrated into the mainstream of film history, and Stiller, its most cosmopolitan and accessible representative, may well have been more generally influential than Sjöström, both in Sweden and abroad. Erotikon, whose resolution still looks radical today, remains ripe for feminist interpretation, while Stiller’s concern with the frustration and marginalisation of the artist looks more contemporary by the year – Gunnar Hede’s Saga is a fable for our times. Of course this marginalisation has affected Stiller too, and in an age when the arts in general, and the cinema in particular, are treated with unembarrassed ignorance and contempt, it may be futile to seek to promote the achievement of a filmmaker who worked eighty years ago, in a foreign country, on a variety of unfashionable genres. Stiller’s concerns, however, as I hope to have shown, are very topical; it’s only the mode of their expression which feels alien. In the final analysis, the short-sightedness of contemporary film culture prevents us from viewing our own time through fresh eyes.


  1. Stiller, in correspondence, 1928
  2. Combs, ‘Mauritz Stiller’, in Cinema: A Critical Dictionary (1980, Secker and Warburg, London), ed. Richard Roud, pp. 961-67 (p. 961)
  3. The frame was apparently judged too confusing and cut from prints intended for export. A recent restoration reconstructs it with intertitles and surviving stills. For this and other information as regards the historical background to this film, I am indebted to the article by Mark Finch, cited below.
  4. Finch, cited in NFT programme note, June 2001.
  5. I rather hope the challenge is met – the discovery of a major unknown work is the supreme delight of film scholarship. Given the essential randomness of the process by which films of the ‘teens have been preserved and shown, one shudders to think how many potential classics have simply been airbrushed out of the cinema’s history.
  6. See for instance Peter Cowie: Sweden 2 (1970, A. Zwemmer Ltd, London), for whom Johan “stresses Stiller’s profound grasp of the Nordic character and temperament” (p. 36); also Tytti Soila: ‘Five Songs of the Scarlet Flower’, in Screen 35:3, pp. 265-74 (p. 265), for whom Song of the Scarlet Flower “condenses many thematic stereotypes […] which may be called ethnic in the sense that they are particularly common in Scandinavian fiction and seem to ‘speak’ directly to the people in these countries.”
  7. For a treatment of this persistent opposition, both in the Western and elsewhere in the American cinema, see Robin Wood: ‘Ideology, Genre, Auteur‘, in Hitchcock’s Films Revisited (1989, Columbia University Press, New York & Oxford), pp. 288-302.
  8. Combs, in Roud (Ed.), p. 966
  9. Cowie, p. 37
  10. Outside the Swedish cinema, though, Hotel Imperial remains underrated; though usually denied Hollywood resources, Stiller clearly knew what to do with them when he had them.
  11. One suggestive example out of many possible ones: the use of the portrait of George Brent’s father in The Spiral Staircase (1946, Robert Siodmak), where a weak son is similarly driven mad by his attempts to live up to an example set by the family patriarch.
  12. Combs, in Roud (Ed.), p. 967
  13. Combs, in Roud (Ed.), p. 962

About The Author

Alexander Jacoby, born in 1978, is a British film critic whose particular interests include Japanese cinema and silent film. His writing has appeared in various publications, both on and offline.

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