An Interview with Jon Wengström of the Swedish Film Institute
Home to the masterpieces of Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller, among other treasures of Sweden’s Golden Age of silent cinema, the Swedish Film Institute (SFI) has been a vital ally for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival for almost a decade. Recipients of the 2018 San Francisco Silent Film Festival Award, SFI and its curator of archival film collections Jon Wengström have provided at least a film a year since 2011, save one. This year, SFI furnishes a photochemical restoration of Mauritz Stiller’s The Saga of Gösta Berling, the most complete version to date of Stiller’s last Swedish production. In anticipation of his festival appearance, Wengström spoke with me about the state of film preservation in his country, and beyond.
Your research into the Golden Age of Swedish silent cinema has yielded some exciting film recoveries. Which one was the most meaningful for you?
Like with Gösta Berling, we find parts of films that allow us to restore them to their most complete form. More exciting has been the rediscoveries of films from other periods of production, like some of the earlier works of Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller, and films from the latter half of the 1920s made by less well-known directors. We also spend a lot of time on the preservation of Swedish short and nonfiction films from the silent era. Furthermore, most of the films shown across Europe in the very early years were French. So, we’ve identified and preserved early films by Pathé, Gaumont, and lesser-known studios, which we consider part of Sweden’s film heritage.
Tell me about your work recovering Mauritz Stiller’s films in cooperation with other archives.
His films The Avenger (Hämnaren, 1915), Madame de Thèbes (1915), and Brother Against Brother (Gränsfolken, 1913), long considered lost, have recently been uncovered. The latter is particularly interesting, as an early work it gives us a better understanding of Stiller’s evolution. An almost complete print, tinted and with German intertitles, surfaced in a church in the southwest of Poland where a former priest had a collection. When foreign distribution prints like this are found, we try to re-create the original Swedish version, including Swedish intertitles with the original font and design. The possibility of doing all this is, of course, dependent on the exchange of elements with the other archives.
You once said that the window of opportunity for mass digitization projects is already closing. How will that change the work of archivists and restorers?
I wrote that article in 2013 and was a lot more pessimistic then than I am today. It seemed that the industry was moving away from shooting on film toward shooting new productions with digital cameras. This meant that the industry demand for scanners would wither, as they no longer would need to scan negatives for postproduction or for digital distribution. Archives-only demand would not be enough to sustain the industrial development and production of scanners. Of course, there would always be the possibility for archives to build and develop their own scanners, but they would probably have slower scanning speeds and only a handful of films would be able to receive full-scale digitization during any given period of time. But Hollywood is still making movies shot on film, so scanners are still available. That is good news for archives. Eventually, we will see the end of scanning, but not for a while.
The restoration of Gösta Berling is certainly a cause for celebration. Can you tell me how the pieces of that puzzle were put in place?
Our archive has a duplicate positive master copy from the 1950s made off the original negative. The negative had already been shortened, so the existing preservation from the 1970s is 40 minutes shorter than the film’s original 223 minutes. Earlier preservations were done in the wrong aspect ratio, only in black and white, and with intertitles using modern fonts. By gathering materials from other archives, we were able to make a new print that restored the original aspect ratio, color, intertitles, and added sixteen more minutes. The new material came from a tinted nitrate print held by the Cinemateca Portuguesa. Cinémathèque Française, Deutsche Kinemathek, and Gosfilmofond in Moscow also provided prints. We used five existing intertitles in our collection as the source for the fonts and the design in restoring the more than four hundred intertitles in the film. We have our own photochemical laboratory north of Stockholm where the work was carried out.
Can you tell me about the score by composer Matti Bye and what he adds to Gösta Berling?
We like Matti Bye because he doesn’t use the film as a backdrop for the score. He is sensitive to the film, bringing force to strong scenes and underplaying the quieter moments. He started doing work for us in the 1990s, and he composed the score for Gösta Berling when the previous restoration was released on DVD in 2007. After the new, longer restoration, Matti expanded his score to incorporate the new information.
In recent years, SFI has focused on equality for women in film production funding. Does this focus on parity have any impact on the archive’s work?
SFI digitally restores up to one hundred films a year, and more than twenty percent of the films were made by female directors, even though the number of female directors of all Swedish films in our collection is just a little over ten percent. So we are actively highlighting films made by women. This female focus is not particularly relevant to the silent era, however, because there weren’t many female directors. The most notable one is Karin Swanström, who directed four silent films and later went into production and became head of Svensk Filmindustri in the 1930s. Her 1926 The Girl in Tails had been partially preserved in the 1970s, but was only fully restored in 2008. Another of hers is preserved, another lost, and another exists only as a five-minute fragment. We do try to highlight women in other capacities behind the camera, including scriptwriters and designers of intertitles.
Jon Wengström accepted the San Francisco Silent Film Festival Award at the screening of The Saga of Gösta Berling.
Image credit: Pamela Gentile