A master of 20th century cinema, the Swedish director and actor Victor Sjöström is best remembered for his moving performance as the elderly physician reflecting on his life in Wild Strawberries (1957). As a director, his highly acclaimed 1921 adaptation of Selma Lagerlöf’s novel The Phantom Carriage convinced MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer to bring him to America where Sjöström directed the prestigious projects He Who Gets Slapped (1924), with Lon Chaney, and two starring Lillian Gish, The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928), arguably the pinnacle of his Hollywood tenure. While The Outlaw and His Wife (1918) is not as well known, it is considered by many film historians to be Sjöström’s silent-era masterpiece and, nearly a century after its release, is enjoying a revival that should elevate its stature in the director’s pantheon.
The Outlaw and His Wife was produced during a renaissance in the Swedish film industry between 1916 and 1918 when the production company Svenska Biografteatern (it later became Svensk Filmindustri) decided to focus on quality over quantity. The studio reduced its yearly production schedule of around 26 films to five or less. Its first major success was Sjöström’s Terje Vigen (A Man There Was), based on Henrik Ibsen’s 1862 narrative poem set during the Napoleonic Wars. Unanimously praised by critics and a box-office success, the 1917 production showcases what became Sjöström’s directorial style and predominant themes: an emotional realism that transcends mere melodrama, nature’s impact on human behavior, a keen interest in social issues, and a gift for capturing the essence of literary works on film.
One year later, The Outlaw and His Wife confirmed the promise of Terje Vigen and popularized visual motifs now identified with Swedish cinema: summer representing harmony and renewal and winter, death and despair. Adapted from the 1911 play by Jóhann Sigurjónsson, The Outlaw and His Wife bears the subtitle “A pictorial drama (in seven parts) of the lives of two people” and takes place in mid-18th century Iceland (though it was filmed in Sweden). Based on historical events, the narrative spans an emotional arc encompassing love, lust, jealousy, retribution, grief, and despair, all of which are played out by the main characters against the beauty and grandeur of an untamed wilderness. Like a western with a romanticized renegade hero, The Outlaw and His Wife is the ballad of Berg-Ejvind (played by Sjöström), an accused thief on the run who travels under the assumed name of Kári. He finds work on the farm of Halla, a generous, self-sufficient widow, and their growing attraction turns to love. When a jealous rival alerts the authorities of Ejvind’s true identity, Halla willingly abandons her prosperous life and property and rides off with her lover.
Sjöström brought a psychological realism to the acting in The Outlaw and His Wife that gave it an intimacy and honesty lacking in many silent melodramas. With a minimum use of title cards, Sjöström revealed the inner emotional state of his protagonists through subtle but revealing close-ups or their interaction in both claustrophobic and wide-open spaces. Another major strength was his decision to film the outdoor scenes on location, lending an authentic sense of place and time to the action. The painterly cinematography by Julius Jaenzon shows the influence of 19th century Swedish landscape artists Edvard Bergh and Alfred Wahlberg, with stunning panoramas of waterfalls, forests, volcanic hot springs, and mountains providing more than just picturesque scenery.
Nature is a mood-altering force affecting the protagonists’ behavior and becomes a predominant character in the film. The majestic long shots often integrate people into the setting as if they were part of a tapestry. In one exemplary scene, Ejvind and his companion Arnes drag their fishnets in a mountain lake against the backdrop of snow-capped hills and low-hanging clouds. The Outlaw and His Wife is also infused with a kind of pantheism and puritanical morality that came to mark Swedish cinema. As social renegades the lovers feel their transgressions are subject to the laws of an indifferent universe and when cornered by their pursuers, Halla makes a personal sacrifice that reflects an Old Testament sense of vindication.
Portions of the movie, particularly the summer sequences, were filmed at Mount Nuolja near Abisko National Park in Swedish Lapland. Most of the interiors were shot at the Svenska Bio studios in Stockholm, including the climatic blizzard created on an indoor set. As was typical of Sjöström’s working methods, he spent several months preparing The Outlaw and His Wife, and, during production, his perfectionist nature demanded the reshooting of any scene that lacked the emotional truth or meaning he wanted to convey. Lillian Gish, who worked with Sjöström in Hollywood, once said of him, “His direction was a great education for me … the Swedish school of acting is one of repression.”
Despite the challenges of filming on location for The Outlaw and His Wife, Sjöström insited on doing most of his own stunts. One of the most unforgettable is when Ejvind dangles from a rope beneath a mountain cliff as Arnes, his rival for Halla, ponders pulling him to safety or cutting the line. In a diary entry, Sjöström described how he was attached to a hidden cable and pulled up by crew members out of camera range, though disaster was barely avoided: “Everything went fine, and I reached the cliff edge itself. Then a technician suddenly jumped forward and hugged me in his arms. It was at the last moment—the hook that was holding me had straightened out as a result of rubbing against the cliff edge—and the next instant … yes, I have never been in such mortal danger as I was then.”
Film critic David Thomson noted a recurring quality in Sjöström’s best work of “wild feelings bursting through moral and social inhibition” and that is an apt summation of the universe of The Outlaw and His Wife where passion and intolerance coexist. In the title role, Sjöström enjoys an undeniable chemistry and soulful rapport with Edith Erastoff (as Halla), which could be more than just acting. They met and fell in love during the making of Terje Vigen when he was still married to his second wife, actress Lili Beck. During The Outlaw and His Wife shoot, Erastoff became pregnant and later had a daughter, though the couple was not able to marry until 1922.
Under contract to MGM, Sjöström directed nine films in seven years under the name Victor Seastrom. But he missed working in the Swedish film industry. After completing A Lady to Love (1930), his final U.S. production, the homesick director returned to Stockholm to resume his filmmaking career. No one could have predicted how quickly it would stall and end. Sjöström, however, went on to find great satisfaction acting for the stage and screen. While serving as head art director of Svensk Filmindustri (1942–43), he met and became a mentor to young aspiring director Ingmar Bergman, who later cast him in To Joy (1950) and Wild Strawberries (1957). Sadly, of the 43 features that Sjöström directed, only 15 survive. Yet, what remains is enough to ensure his enduring legacy as one of the greatest silent film directors not just in Sweden but worldwide.
Presented at SFSFF 2013 with live music by the Matti Bye Ensemble