For a brief period between the late 1910s and early 1920s, Swedish cinema challenged the supremacy of Hollywood in the production of sophisticated, mature, and visually majestic films. Filmmakers Victor Sjöstrom, Mauritz Stiller, and the lesser known outside Sweden Gustaf Molander led the way, turning to literary works and setting the powerful psychological and emotional forces of their characters against the elemental grandeur of snowbound mountains, stormy coasts, and icy seas in films like A Man There Was (1917) and Sir Arne’s Treasure (1919). Where American and Europe filmmakers of the 1910s generally relied on locations near the studios or constructed imagined worlds on studio stages, Sjöstrom, Stiller, and others took their cameras deep into the wilderness and up into the mountains or onto the rocky coasts and out onto the seas in order to capture majestic views and unforgiving environments unseen in other national cinemas. The landscape wasn’t merely backdrop, it was an essential element of being Swedish and, in turn, became a character in its own right. Hollywood lured away Sjöstrom and Stiller as well as stars Lars Hansen and Greta Garbo and the Golden Age passed, but Swedish cinema was far from over.
Den Starkaste (The Strongest), one of the final silent films from Sweden, is in many ways a return to the elemental cinema of Sjöstrom and Stiller. The film’s codirector and cinematographer Axel Lindblom developed the original story set against the summer season of hunting seals and polar bears in the near-perpetual daylight of the Arctic seas. Before photographing films in the 1920s for Sjöstrom and Molander, Lindblom had sailed to the Arctic to shoot a series of nonfiction shorts. The experience inspired him to pen a scenario about the competition between rival crews in the Arctic hunting season. The title refers to the Darwinian order in the stark environment of the far north seas: “The right belongs to the strongest,” explains a veteran sea captain to the new man on his crew as they lay claim to their hunting ground.
Lindblom wrote the screenplay in 1923 but shelved it until 1929, when Svensk Filmindustri put it into production with Lindblom as photographer and codirector along with Alf Sjöberg, a theater director who made his name as a filmmaker a decade later with The Road to Heaven (1942) and the Cannes Grand Prix-winner Miss Julie (1951). The two first-time film directors divided the job according to their experience: Sjöberg was responsible for directing the actors and shaping the performances and Lindblom was in charge of location scenes.
The Strongest begins and ends on a pastoral farm on the banks of a picturesque fjord lazily winding through verdant hills. The cozy farmhouse where Viking sea captain Larsen (Hjalmar Peters) lives when he’s not at sea is worlds away from the hunt, which dominates the film. Lindblom’s photography enhances the differences between the gentle beauty of the farmland and the harsh environment of the Arctic, a desert of black water, white ice floes, and constant sunlight that can suddenly dissipate into a haze of fog, swallowing ships like seals disappearing under the water’s surface. The inland farm is surrounded by life in bloom, like an impressionist painting of a rural paradise come to life. But even the pastoral country existence has a natural order. When out of work sailor Gustav (Bengt Djurberg) strolls up to the Larsen farm after The Viking has set sail with its crew, the grandmother offers him a meal in exchange for chopping firewood: “You get nothing for free here.”
Snow and sea, defining elements of Sweden’s Golden Age, become the arena in which Gustav and Ole, Larsen’s loyal first mate (played by Anders Henrikson), compete for the hand of Larsen’s daughter Ingeborg (Gun Holmqvist). Handsome and broad-shouldered, Djurberg cuts a mighty figure on the screen. The man seems hewn from the landscape, alert and poised, his chest out as if ready to meet any challenge, yet also at ease and quick with a hearty laugh. He is the ideal of morality and masculinity in action.
Apart from interiors, which were shot on studio sets, the muscular northern adventure was filmed mostly on location. The crew began their journey at the port of Tromsø in Norway, where the ship docked for supplies before making the trip north in late spring, followed by a five-week expedition to the Arctic. Sjöberg kept a journal of the production, which is preserved at Swedish Film Institute library in Stockholm. “By and by we force the ice, and the ships pass as smoothly as cats between treacherous floes with their dangerous bottoms underneath,” he wrote on June 17, 1929. Two weeks later, as their northward journey took them to bigger floes, he observed: “The sensation of the wasteland, its colors and grandiosity, were unforgettable and never before experienced.”
No special effects here (apart from an attack by a polar bear). Seals are shot and slaughtered on-screen. The actors row their own boats from the ship to the floes. When Gustav races on foot across the melting river to save a fellow hunter, a dynamic sequence that alternates long shots of the black-clad hunter against the white of that frozen world with close-ups of the treacherous obstacles, that’s frigid Arctic water surrounding him, not a safe studio tank. On July 2, the crew sighted a bear and filmed the pursuit. Sjöberg wrote in his journal:
We put out a boat that is dragged over the ice. Djurberg by the bow, Dahlqvist in the stern. They go out—after an enormous struggle they get a lasso round the neck of the old, grey bear and hold him, hour after hour, while our ships force the ice, millimeter by millimeter, at times by means of dynamite. Then we come loose and hasten to the bear. Three boats are finally put out, after tremendous difficulties we loosen the snare, and he swims towards the waste of ice. The boats with the cameras follow. He dives under an ice-floe, gets up on the ice, and dies after three shots…
The hunt gives the film a documentary authenticity as powerful as anything in Nanook of the North. The film is a harmonious marriage of documentary, poetic realism, the elemental drama of Sjöström, and a climactic sequence edited with a dramatic rhythm inspired by Sergei Eisenstein (whom Sjöberg had discovered in 1928). “Qualities as strong, rugged, and manly signify this new Swedish film,” reads the unsigned review in the October 29, 1929, edition of the Stockholm newspaper Dagens Nyheter. “We are shown men who fight for their livelihood under harsh conditions, men who struggle with the forces of nature in the Arctic Ocean’s majestic, but also desolate, region, fraught with danger.”
Sjöberg’s debut feature proved to be his last film as director for more than a decade. As sound arrived and the industry turned to comedies and light drama, he returned to the theater. He made his second film, Med livet som insats (They Staked Their Lives), in 1940 and became a towering force in Swedish cinema and a major influence on Ingmar Bergman. In fact, Sjöberg directed Bergman’s first screenplay, Torment (1944). Film critic and historian Peter Cowie, in his 1970 volume on Swedish cinema, wrote that The Strongest remains Sjöberg’s most purely cinematic production.
Axel Lindblom never directed another feature. After shooting Anthony Asquith’s A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929), a British film coproduced by Sweden’s Svensk Filmindustri, he retired from the movie business. One source reports he turned to farming. Perhaps not so much of a surprise given the affinity with the outdoors he had shown in The Strongest.
(Translations of quotes from the original Swedish by Marina Dahlquist of Stockholm University.)
Presented at SFSFF 2016 with live music by the Matti Bye Ensemble