Less than half of the Swedish silent fiction film production has survived to our day and age, but every now and then a previously thought lost film turns up on a shelf in another archive as uncatalogued elements are being inspected and identified, or in more unlikely places such as in an attic of a private collector. (Mauritz Stiller’s 1913 Gränsfolken was even discovered a few years ago in a Polish church!)
Receiving news of a lost film suddenly reappearing is among the most rewarding aspects in the life of an archivist or a curator. Not only does the resurfacing of a film give us the opportunity to enrich our understanding of the development of a studio or of an individual filmmaker, but the possibility to make dormant images, movements, faces, gestures, and colors come alive again is nothing short of a miracle. A miracle that would not be possible without the collaboration between archives belonging to the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF), and the notion that we are all custodians of one, global cinematographic heritage.
But even films that have survived, even well-known films, can get a new life when new material is discovered or when existing elements are readdressed. Some ten years ago, we became aware that the Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique in Brussels had a tinted and toned nitrate print with French intertitles of Victor Sjöström’s classic Berg-Ejvind och hans hustru (The Outlaw and His Wife, 1918), whereas all the existing elements in our collections were in black-and-white. But when comparing the elements, we could also see that some scenes in the French print were missing from our material. After making a new black-and-white negative from the different sources and recreating the intertitles from original title cards, a new color print was struck in 2013, and the first screening took place one summer morning in a small rural theater on the island of Fårö, during the Ingmar Bergman festival.
This well-known epic, depicting the story of a man who cannot escape his past but is forced further and further up the mountain with his loved one, could again be seen with new eyes, closer to what the film originally looked like. As the film unfolded, accompanied by the lyrical score of composer Matti Bye and his ensemble, the atmosphere in the sixty-seat theater became more and more electrified. As the stunning final images of the protagonists buried in the snow lingered in the minds of the spectators, it was evident when exiting the theater into the bright sunlight that Sjöström’s depiction of how it is circumstances of poverty and indifference that create unlawful acts and not any intrinsic quality of good and evil and of the beautiful love story of two people sacrificing everything in order to be together had a much more powerful impact than previous restorations. Later that year we were happy and honored to share it and its revelations with a San Francisco Silent Film Festival audience.
JON WENGSTRÖM is senior curator at the Swedish Film Institute in Stockholm. This year SFI provides the print for A Sister of Six.