Without the writings of Selma Lagerlöf, Sweden might not have experienced its first Golden Age of cinema, which lasted from 1917 to 1924. The first woman and first Swedish writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (1909), Lagerlöf wrote novels suffused with a respect for nature and deeply rooted in the myths and folklore of her native country. In 1917, she granted exclusive rights to her work to Svenska Biografteatern (later Svensk Filmindustri), which turned her stories into films directed by Mauritz Stiller, Victor Sjöström, and others that became enduring classics of the burgeoning international art form.
The two master directors were close friends. Although their styles, interests, and temperaments were very different, they often seemed to be on parallel paths. Their greatest films were based on Lagerlöf’s books and stories. Sjöström made five films from her works, and Stiller three. Both later directed in America but had difficulty adjusting to the Hollywood studio system; and both returned to Sweden after only a few years. And, while Sjöström’s career took a different direction into theater as an actor and director, Stiller’s life and work were cut tragically short, his brilliance unfulfilled.
Born Moshe Stiller in Helsinki in 1883 of Russian Jewish parents, Stiller began working as an actor at the age of 16. In 1904, he fled to Sweden to avoid being drafted into the Russian army. By 1912, he was working as manager and director at an avant-garde theater in Stockholm, where he was recruited by the newly-formed Svenska Bio, along with another promising actor-director, Victor Sjöström. The two directed, wrote, and acted in their own and each others’ films. Sjöström, who came from the same rural province of Värmland in southern Sweden as Lagerlöf, was the first to adapt her work with Tösen från Stormyrtorpet (The Girl from the Marsh Croft, 1917). He also considered directing another Lagerlöf adaptation, Herr Arnes pengar (Sir Arne’s Treasure, 1919), but turned it over to Stiller, who closely followed the original story, incorporating both its mystical elements and its focus on the natural world. As Hans Pensel writes in Sjöström and Stiller in Hollywood, “Nature becomes an active part in the life of [Lagerlöf’s] characters: sunshine, snow, wind, rain, dusk, dawn, and night are described more like characters in a fairy tale than mere physical phenomena.”
But Stiller the foreigner did not work exclusively with Swedish themes. He had shown a flair for comedy in his earlier films and, following Sir Arne’s Treasure, he made Erotikon (1920), a sparkling and sardonic roundelay of marital infidelity. According to film historian Richard Combs, Stiller displayed “the versatility and lightness of a genre stylist.” Masters of sophisticated comedy Ernst Lubitsch and Jean Renoir admitted they were inspired by Erotikon. So did Charles Chaplin.
In his next Lagerlöf adaptation, Stiller hewed less closely to the author’s novel than he had with Sir Arne’s Treasure. The story of a sensitive young musician whose effort to restore his family’s fortune has disastrous consequences, Gunnar Hedes saga (The Blizzard) blends Lagerlöf’s themes of nature and dreams with Stiller’s own ideas of how to tell a story on film. In an appreciation of Stiller that Sjöström wrote for Bengt Idestam-Alquist’s 1952 book, Swedish Cinema: The Stiller and Sjöström Period, the director noted that “Stiller was so modern that he made whatever changes in the story that he thought would be of best effect, regardless of what the author had written.” According to Sjöström, Stiller saw some documentary footage about reindeer in Lapland at the studio’s lab and decided to change the novel’s climactic sheepherding scene to reindeer herding, using that footage. Lagerlöf was furious, but the film was a popular and critical success, and its impact has not diminished. In 1977, Richard Combs wrote, “It is one of those rare works in which every detail and gesture functions perfectly on both a literal and symbolic level, so that the scenes do not so much open out as downwards … suggesting that the film is constantly plumbing the connections and uses of dreams.”
Great chunks of The Blizzard have been missing for years, a factor that, according the Swedish Film Institute’s Jon Wengström, may have contributed to the film’s unjust status as “second-tier.” The most recent restoration, in 2009, uses original intertitles to bridge the missing footage, and, even at little more than half its original length, the film retains its power. British critic Alexander Jacoby wrote: “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.”
Stiller’s final Lagerlöf adaptation, the epic Gösta Berlings saga (1924) was even more freely adapted. It originally ran three or four hours (sources differ) and was shown in two parts but was later re-edited to 137 minutes. It remains Stiller’s best-known film because it gave the world Greta Garbo. The rest of Stiller’s own saga, according to legend, plays out in fast-forward. Both he and Garbo were signed by MGM and went to Hollywood. Garbo was a success, Stiller was not, and MGM fired him before he made a single film. He went home to Sweden and quickly died of a broken heart. The truth is less melodramatic, but no less tragic. Used to doing things his way, Stiller clashed with MGM bosses and was replaced as director on the Garbo film The Temptress (1926). His friend, German producer Erich Pommer, then head of production at Paramount, offered him work directing the Pola Negri vehicle, Hotel Imperial (1927), which was notable for its innovative camerawork and earned good reviews. Paramount seemed like a nice fit for Stiller, but his health was failing and, after a few more films, two of which he was unable to complete, he returned to Sweden in late 1927. He died of a lung ailment about a year later.
Sjöström, who had returned to Sweden for the holidays, visited Stiller in the hospital daily before his death and found him brimming with enthusiasm about future projects. A few days before Stiller died, Sjöström received a call at home from a nurse telling him that Stiller wanted him to go back to the hospital, that he had something important to tell him. When Sjöström returned, the two men talked about inconsequential things, and, finally, as Sjöström was leaving, Stiller became agitated and didn’t want to let him go. “I want to tell you a story for a film, it will be a great film, and you are the only one who can do it,” Stiller said, weeping. Sjöström soothed him and promised he’d be back the next day to hear the story. But by then it was too late. Stiller had become incoherent and then comatose. He died a few days later.
Presented at SFSFF 2011 with live music by the Matti Bye Ensemble