An elegant, cheeky comedy, Erotikon influenced Charlie Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris (1923), Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game 1939), and much of the later work of Ernst Lubitsch. Its warmly erotic echoes could still be heard decades later in Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (1955). Stiller’s bemused look at the social institutions of marriage and monogamy humans have created suggests that the species may have a made a colossally dimwitted mistake, out of tune with its true nature.
One of the most expensive film of the Swedish silent era, Erotikon revolves around the romantic entanglements of six stock characters from drawing room comedy: Professor Leo Charpentier (the clueless husband), Irene (the restless wife), their niece Marte (the flirtatious ingenue), sculptor Preben (the Bohemian artist), aviator Baron Felix (the pretentious flyboy), and Sidonius (the absentminded professor), an ensemble knowingly crafted by the screenwriting team of Gustaf Molander, Arthur Nordén, and Stiller.
The story opens with Leo giving an entomology lecture about the mating habits of beetles. Some varieties of male beetles are monogamous, some practice bigamy, others are polygamous. “Generally two females will suffice,” the professor says, “but one is never enough.” This is an apt summary of the proceedings that are about to unfold.
Leo’s heart goes aflutter in the presence of his niece Marte, who quietly flirts with her uncle. Irene, bored with her self-absorbed professor of a husband, is carrying on with both Preben, who is the professor’s best friend, and Baron Felix. The sculptor Preben is noticeably infatuated with his female model, igniting the jealousy of the headstrong Irene.
A 1919 merger that resulted in Svensk Filmindustri meant that the company now distributed and exhibited films as well as produced them. The critical and financial success of Victor Sjöström’s Terje Vigen (1917) led to a change in policy. Studio head Charles Magnusson decided to make fewer films, each with stronger production values and bigger budgets. He also wanted films with more international appeal. Stiller was presented with an unprecedentedly large budget for Erotikon. He used it wisely. Aside from the imaginative aerial photography and other outdoor camerawork, he created an original ballet especially for the film that paralleled the lives of the film’s protagonists.
The lavish sequence, which includes some 800 extras, features the premiere of Schaname, the story of the Shah of Persia’s favorite wife who loves someone else, a prince of the court. Schaname asks the prince to run away with her, but he refuses; he cannot betray his best friend. Stiller cleverly managed to inject more eroticism into his film by setting the ballet in another culture, another time —with skimpier costumes. But even in the contemporary scenes, in the risqué situations and dress, and in the conduct of its characters, Erotikon was way ahead of its time.
“All my life I have wondered where I belong,” wrote Stiller late in life in a letter to a friend. This intimate revelation seems unusual, because his outward persona was all self-confidence and assertiveness. “In high and Bohemian Stockholm society,” writes film historian Richard Dyer, “[Stiller] came to be regarded as the smartest man in town, with dozens of bespoke suits, four fur coats, and fingers awash with diamond rings.” Upon his arrival as an immigrant in Sweden, Stiller pretended to be a successful producer in order to attract work. He was very convincing. And, as if he were a living rebuke to the absurdity of bourgeois morality, he had both male and female lovers.
Stiller was born in 1883 to Russian Jewish parents living in Finland, which, at the time was part of the Russian Empire. In 1904, he escaped to Sweden to
dodge the Tsar’s draft and soon found a home in the theater, where he made his mark as an actor and director. But the siren call of cinema drew him to make films.
Hired by Charles Magnusson of Svenska Biograft-eatern, later to become Svensk Filmindustri, Stiller directed more than 30 features between 1912 and 1916. Fellow Swedish director Victor Sjöström, who came up with Stiller at Svenksa Bio, later wrote that Magnusson was “so wise that he discovered that the best way to handle Stiller and me was not to handle us at all, but to leave us alone and let us do what we wanted to do.” In a few years, Stiller became, alongside his good friend Sjöström, the leading filmmaker in his adopted country. In the protected atmosphere of Svensk Filmindustri, Stiller flourished.
Just prior to Erotikon, Stiller made what is today remembered as perhaps his most touching film, Sir Arne’s Treasure (1919), the tragic story of a teenage girl’s love for a roving scoundrel. After the success of Erotikon (it was sold to 45 markets abroad), Stiller made several films that became landmarks of Swedish cinema. Gösta Berlings saga (1924) attracted the attention of Louis B. Mayer, who offered Stiller and his greatest discovery, the 16-year-old Greta Garbo, contracts at MGM. When Stiller and Garbo set sail on the SS Drottningholm in July of 1925, it was the beginning of a brilliant future for her, but a tragic undoing for him.
There was little of Magnusson’s wisdom in Tinseltown. Stiller was not chosen to direct Garbo’s first film, Torrent (1926). He did get the assignment to direct her next film, The Temptress (1926). But after a series of conflicts with the studio, he was thrown off the film. Stiller was unable to make an accommodation to Irving Thalberg, the micromanaging head of MGM production.
As Mark Vieira writes in his biography of Thalberg, “After seeing the rushes from The Temptress, Thalberg sensed that Stiller was deviating from the script. He asked Lars Hanson, ‘Is the man mad? Has he never been behind a camera before?’” Hanson, a Swedish émigré and another Stiller discovery, attempted to explain the director’s approach, but Thalberg wasn’t buying it.
“They brought me here to direct because they liked my methods,” Stiller said to Hanson. “They say they are something special. Then they won’t let me use my methods. Instead, they try to teach me how to direct.” Mayer tried to defend Stiller, but, before long, Thalberg pulled the plug on him and replaced him with Fred Niblo.
After being fired from The Temptress, Stiller was, in effect, branded as damaged goods—another unmanageable von Stroheim—and he returned a broken man to Sweden in 1927. The once dapper man-about-town became ill and succumbed to a lung ailment in 1928, still nourishing the delusion of making another film.
In 1941, a fire broke out in the archive of Svensk Filmindustri and destroyed a vast treasure house of early cinema: 50 percent of Swedish silents were lost, only 15 out of 43 of Sjöström’s films and 14 out of 45 of Stiller’s remain. We may never know the artistic arc that led to the pinnacle of his comedic achievements in Erotikon.
As the final indignity to his memory, Stiller was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960, but his name was misspelled as Maurice Diller. This gaffe wasn’t corrected until 1988 when it was feared the impending visit of the Swedish royal family to Los Angeles might cause an international incident.
Miguel Pendás is a film historian and freelance writer and editor. He is on the board of the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society.
Presented at SFSFF 2012 with live music by the Matti Bye Ensemble