Thursday, May 18, 2017

Ingeborg Holm and Terje Virgen (A Man There Was)

Ingeborg Holm (1913) and Terje Virgen (1917) are silent films directed by Victor Sjoestrom.  A founding father to the Swedish film industry, Sjoestrom was recruited to Hollywood in the twenties where he made several notable films including The Scarlet Letter (1927) and The Wind (1928).  Ingmar Bergman revered Sjoestrom and cast him as Professor Borg in 1954's Wild Strawberries.  Some critics have suggested that Sjoestrom, and not the more melodramatically inclined D. W. Griffith, was the greatest of the first generation of film directors.  Griffith's great works look back to the conventions of late 19th century theater; Sjoestrom, at least in his best films, seems modern -- although Ingeborg Holm was made 104 years ago, and is badly damaged, the film retains its power to appall and has a relentless documentary urgency.  Terje Virgen, based on a heroic poem by Henrik Ibsen, is more dated.  However, it retains considerable power as well. 

Ingeborg Holm's story is simple and chilling.  The father of a happy bourgeois family borrows money to begin business as a grocer.  He falls ill and, after a debilitating sickness, dies.  During his illness, the clerk at the grocery store mismanages the enterprise and drives it into debt.  The dead man's widow, Ingeborg Holm tries to run the grocery but is unsuccessful.  Under pressure from creditors, she retreats to a workhouse with her baby and two small children.  The workhouse is a poor place to raise children and, so, everybody agrees that Ingeborg Holm's three kids have to be "boarded-out" -- that is, placed in foster care.  This is accomplished with Nordic efficiency and a tearful Ingeborg bids farewell to her children.  Later, Ingeborg's little girl becomes ill and her foster parents send a letter to the workhouse demanding money to finance medical care.  The workhouse officials decline payment, apparently, condemning the child to death.  Ingeborg learns that her daughter is gravely ill and escapes from the workhouse -- the place has high walls like a prison.  After an exhausting journey, she reaches her daughter's bedside but is immediately captured by local officials who detain her like a common criminal, ship her back to the workhouse, and, then, submit an invoice for their services to the same officials who refused payment for the little girl's medical charges.  A little later, Ingeborg's baby is brought to the workhouse for a reunion with her mother.  The baby doesn't recognize her mother and Ingeborg collapses with grief.  Fifteen years pass, and Ingeborg's son, who has become a seaman, returns to the harbor city where the story takes place.  He has preserved a picture of his mother, a keepsake that she left with him when he was boarded-out.  The young man goes to the workhouse where he is told that his mother has lost her mind.  She is brought to see him.  (Ingeborg Holm seems to be the prototype of the "log lady" in David Lynch's Twin Peaks; she cradles a piece of wood in her arms, crooning to it as if it were an infant.)  Her son shows her the picture that he has carried throughout his travels, a photograph of his mother.  She recognizes herself and, also, acknowledges her son.  They embrace and the movie ends.  It's a vague simulacrum of a happy ending -- except, of course, nothing can reverse the misery that Ingeborg has suffered and we are left wondering about the whereabouts of the heroine's other two children.  Presumably, the little girl died and the baby, of course, has gone permanently missing. 

Although the story is grim, the film is surprisingly nimble and remarkably ingenious.  The picture is 74 minutes, but doesn't drag and, indeed, is a model of efficiency.  When Ingeborg's husband dies, we don't see a funeral, nor does anyone have time to mourn the man's passing.  The film cuts directly from the husband's deathbed to Ingeborg's dismay at discovering that she has been left penniless.  The movie coolly chronicles a remorseless series of events, one succeeding another, each blow more devastating than the last.  Sjoestrom doesn't waste any time on showing tears or sorrow -- the emotion is implied in the pitiless occurrences that the film documents.  Furthermore, we are not asked to wallow in Ingeborg Holm's suffering -- indeed, we experience a certain distance from her misery based on the fact that the character is played by the formidable Hilda Borgstom.  Borgstrom embodies a pre-W.W. I style of beauty that is as archaic as the Venus of Willendorff.  The woman is massive, and spectacularly voluptuous.  (She embodies the attributes of the zaftig Gibson girl, the kind of beauty that Mae West flaunted in the face of the androgynous flappers and depression era girl Fridays populating Hollywood pictures in the late Twenties and Thirties.)  Sjoestrom dresses his heroine in form-fitting, knee-length black coats and, as she charges fiercely about the countryside during her escape, she is like a force of nature.  The sheer viciousness of the powers arrayed against her is dramatized by the fact that grief, in the end, drops her to the floor -- but it's like a cow being dropped to the floor of a slaughterhouse by a sledgehammer blow.  And, as the film progresses, the heroine becomes increasingly disheveled -- when she is brought back from the country by two puny deputies, Borgstrom looks like a maenad, her hair in disarray and smudges of dirt all over her enormous breasts and hips.  Ingeborg Holm is supposed to symbolize motherhood, the maternal instinct, and, I suppose, there is some element of fin-de-siècle allegory in the film, but the actress is so vibrant and imposing that she swallows up everything extraneous to her and seems simply to be -- that is, to project and austere and terrible kind of truthfulness.  And, indeed, the film as a whole has the purity and clarity of the truth. 

Sjoestrom stages the film without any close-ups (except for inserts of writing and several shots of the photograph that Ingeborg has given to her children.)  He uses a tableaux staging that was common in films before Birth of a Nation and brought to a high level of expressiveness in the serials made by Louis Feuillade (Judex and The Vampires.)  Sjoestrom has mastered this method of story-telling and his tableaux mise-en-scene is remarkably flexible and, indeed, even, imposes a sort of stately and forceful rhythm on the material.  The viewer peruses the image, studies its elements, and, then, notes the position of parties in space.  Sjoestrom uses a variety of blocking techniques to direct the viewer's eyes to what is important in the scene.  Furthermore, the tableaux technique, necessarily, keeps the audience at a distance -- the highly charged emotions of the film would be unbearable and would feel exploitative if the picture used the effects Griffith was simultaneously perfecting in the United States -- that is, close-ups and the use of montage (cross-cutting) to further manipulate viewer response.  As it stands, Sjoestrom's picture exudes a raw and direct honesty that makes it seem absolutely convincing and truthful.  And the truth is dignified:  it doesn't require exclamation points. 

Terge Virgen seems more conventional and, indeed, employs many of the techniques of Griffith's melodrama.  There are no close-ups but a number of two-shots devised according to the so-called American Plan -- that is, two figures visible from about the waist up interacting in the frame.  Sjoestrom retains some of the elements of his tableaux style -- some shots are held for a long time so that action can be developed advancing from very deep focus to relatively close to the lens of the camera.  (In general, many shots have deep focus with action occurring on varying planes in the pictorial field.)  Worse, I think, Sjoestrom seems to have discovered beauty -- about a quarter of the shots in the film are self-consciously beautiful, that is, carefully framed and lit to cause the audience to gasp in awe.  At least, this was my reaction to several of the shots in the film's first five minutes -- images that establish the hero as a kind of heroic and wild-eyed giant, the figure of a prophet or bard posed against wild sea-scapes with towering waves battering rocks.  This film has been reconstructed with tint and the night shots, dyed a deep midnight-blue are particularly impressive.  (There are clearly a half-dozen shots in Ingeborg Holm that must have been tinted in the film's premiere prints -- but no effort was made to restore that aspect of the movie; it is resolutely and unostentatiously in plain black and white.)  Ibsen's story is like a romantic fantasia out of the works of Victor Hugo -- the hero is an "ancient mariner" with a literally "glittering eye", apparently half-mad.  His story is told in flash-back.  The man is a fisherman who braved a naval blockade to buy bread and wheat for his village -- the place is starving and the hero's children have nothing to eat.  The French capture the brave seaman after an impressive sequence involving a boat chase across the ocean and between the rocks of a sea-girt shoal.  Virgen is thrown in jail and held there for some years.  When he returns to his village, his wife and children have died of starvation.  When a French ship, also bearing women and children runs aground on the shoal, Virgen encounters one of the French officers who captured him, callously swamping his small skiff and ruining the provisions that he was bringing to his village.  At first, the hero plots revenge, but, then, his better instincts prevail and he acts to save the castaways, the officer and his wife with baby whom he previously planned to drown.  All of this is conveyed with the utmost flourish and the robustly handsome Sjoestrom plays the part of the hero.  Sjostrom has a huge head -- he looks like a bull -- and he glares at his foes with impressive ferocity.  When called to act the part of madness, he accomplishes the role with rolling eyes and bared teeth -- you couldn't ask for a more powerful embodiment of Coleridge's ancient mariner who "stoppeth one of three" and holds him there with the savage charisma of his "flashing eye."  The picture is also fantastically efficient -- a vast amount of information is conveyed in a mere 54 minutes -- and there are several action scenes that would be creditable in a Hollywood blockbuster made today.  But, whereas Ingeborg Holm seems to present the naked and terrible truth, Terje Virgen is an exercise in the beautiful -- and beauty, I think, should be subordinate to truth.   

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