Monday, July 10, 2017
Ingeborg Holm (film group essay)
"You work hard to come up with a really innovative approach to filming something and, then, you discover that it’s already been done in 1913."
Martin Scorsese in conversation with Roger Ebert
"1913 was the final year of the long 19th century."
Ingeborg Holm is regarded as the first great film directed by Victor Sjoestroem. Made in 1913, the movie was an international hit and signaled the arrival of the Swedish film industry on the world stage. With Mauritz Stiller, Sjoestroem is identified with the first wave of Swedish films, prestigious pictures with wide distribution that culminated in The Phantom Carriage (1922), a movie so impressive and distinctive that it attracted the attention of Hollywood producers and led to Sjoestroem’s (second) emigration to the United States.
Sjoestroem ("Seastrem") was born in 1879 in provincial Sweden. With his family, he emigrated to Brooklyn when he was one year old. His mother died when he was 8 and, apparently, he clashed with his father when he was a teenager. Sjoestroem returned to Sweden, lived in Stockholm with relatives, and worked in theater. Blessed with matinee-idol good looks, Sjoestroem was recruited to film by Mauritz Stiller and appeared in his first movie in 1912. In that era, films were made at a rate of one or two a week and everyone was cross-trained – actors managed lights when they weren’t on stage, screenwriters acted, directors designed sets and costumes. Sjoestroem was thought sufficiently accomplished in the trade to direct Ingeborg Holm in 1913 – this was an important project starring the famous actress Hilda Borgstroem, Sweden’s leading lady both on stage and before the camera. (Sjoestroem was 34 when he made Ingeborg Holm; Hilda Borgstroem was 42. Sjoestroem shot at least two earlier films with her, both made in 1912. Ingeborg Holm is remarkable in a number of ways – one of them is the glimpse it affords of standards of female beauty in 1913. The heroine exemplifies the so-called Gibson Girl, a female archetype created in drawings by Charles Dana Gibson in 1898. The Gibson Girl had pale skin, regular features, and was tall and strong. Gibson portrayed her dominating men; in one of his characteristic cartoons, three Gibson girls are inspecting a tiny man with magnifying glasses. The Gibson girl is curvaceous, even, voluptuous, with ample bosom and large hips – she affects a tiny waist by wearing a tight corset. Her hair is chignon, a "cascade of curls". She is the apolitical sister of the "new woman" familiar to late 19th century audiences in the sexually liberated and aggressive female characters in Ibsen, Strindberg, and some of Shaw’s plays. The "Gibson Girl" was one of the casualties of World War One – post-war fashions were androgynous and female stars were, often, ethereal waif-like creatures with slender hips and small breasts: Lillian Gish exemplifies the new esthetic that would seize the screens after 1918. Of course, anachronisms will always exist – Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel and Mae West continued the Gibson Girl type through the silent era and, even, into the thirties.)
Ingeborg Holm was an immense success and inspired fierce debate in Sweden about social welfare and the role of the government in providing a "safety net" for the poor. Indeed, some of Sweden’s "poor-house" or welfare laws were the result of legislative action triggered by Ingeborg Holm. Sweden’s modern status as a welfare-state was caused, in part, by the public’s reaction to this film.
Sjoestroem made 44 films in Sweden, most of them lost. Several of these films were major international successes, most notable Terje Vergin ("A Man There Was"), a period picture based on a poem by Victor Hugo made in 1917 and The Outlaw and His Wife (1918). Both of these films were made on location and involve passionate characters who defy convention and suffer tragic consequences. The Outlaw and His Wife, set in 17th century Iceland but filmed in the Lappland area of Sweden is particularly uncompromising, a grim but compelling tale of doomed lovers – it’s something like a combination between a Western and a particularly cruel drama of marital dysfunction of the sort that Ingmar Bergman, Sjoestroem’s spiritual heir, would perfect. Sjoestroem’s fantasy about Death coming to seize an alcoholic, The Phantom Carriage (Bergman’s favorite film) impressed Hollywood producers and they lured him to Los Angeles in 1923.
Sjoestroem made a number of estimable films in Hollywood. His first Hollywood outing, He Who Gets Slapped, is a brutal drama involving marital infidelity and abject humiliation – it was a successful, indeed, ideal, vehicle for its star, Lon Chaney. Later, Sjoestroem worked with Lillian Gish in a film adaptation of The Scarlet Letter and, then, again starred her in The Wind (1928). The Wind is a harrowing story of a woman driven mad by the primitive conditions of the American frontier – it is relentlessly harsh account of pioneer life very much unlike other American films of the same era.
Sjoestroem didn’t adapt well to Hollywood’s transition to sound. He was about 50 when he returned to Stockholm. He made several more films in Stockholm – his last directorial effort was Under the Red Robe (1937). Thereafter, he was content with acting both on stage and on screen.
Ingmar Bergman, who revered Sjoestroem, lured him out of retirement to appear as Professor Borg, the elderly, dream-haunted protagonist of Wild Strawberries (1956). Sjoestroem and Bergman clashed repeatedly and the experience of making the film was unpleasant for both of them. Bergman has written a moving account of the difficulties of working with the headstrong old man – he was 78 when Wild Strawberries was made. Bergman had to bribe Sjoestroem with whisky to get him to appear in the final scene in Wild Strawberries – Sjoestroem’s habit was to quit work at 4:30 pm sharp and, then, have several shots of whisky. The late afternoon light on this particular day, however, had a particularly translucent quality that Bergman wanted to capture and so he enticed Sjoestroem into working after he wanted to quit. There was a bitter argument. But when the camera was engaged, Bergman said that the petulant, childishly angry old man became "beatific, transcendent, reflecting a great inner peace and serenity" for the film’s final shots. When the filming ended, Sjoestroem reverted to being an angry old man, but Bergman thought that his film revealed Sjoestroem’s secret essence.
Sjoestroem died in 1960. At his funeral, Ingmar Bergman recalled the final shot in Wild Strawberries:
(His face) showed total tranquility, a soul that has achieved peace and tranquility. Never before, or since, have I experienced a face so noble and enlightened. And yet this was nothing more than a piece of acting in a dirty studio. And it had to be acting. This exceedingly shy human creature would never have shown us bystanders this deeply buried treasure of compassion and purity had it not been involved in a piece of acting of acting, a performance.
Ingeborg Holm is based on a stage play by Nils Krok, first produced in Stockholm in 1906. (Sjoestroem directed the show for the stage). The play differs markedly from the film version – most notably, the motif of the photograph central to the movie does not exist in the stage play. In the film, a photograph of the titular heroine, always presented in the same uniformly lit shot – the picture is presented against a paper background that is not motivated by the story – appears at three points in the narrative. First, the heroine gives the picture to her little son Erik before being separated from him – this shot lasts five seconds. Fifteen years later, Erik looks affectionately at the photograph as he returns home from the sea (ten seconds). Finally, Erik thrusts the photograph before his mother’s face and, therefore, shocks her back into realizing her own identity and that of her son (ten seconds). In all instances, the same shot is used and close analysis reveals that the picture seems to exist in some space outside of the movie – it has the hallmarks of an uncanny talisman that neither ages nor accepts the light (or darkness) in which the picture is viewed: it retains an uniform undying brightness against the paper on which it is displayed. Thus, the photograph seems both a narrative device and a symbol for an identity that can not be effaced by hardship and madness.
Sjoestroem uses the so-called tableau or proscenium method in his mise-en-scene. There is no parallel cutting of the kind pioneered by Griffith in American films of the same date. (As an example: parallel cutting shows a person in peril intercut with images of people coming to rescue the endangered character.) Similarly, Sjoestroem doesn’t dissect his scenes into shots showing various details and differing angles on the action. By 1924, American films made in Hollywood would have used as many as 1100 shots in a ninety minute movie – Sjoestroem’s cutting is much slower and he tends to begin and end sequences in a single shot.
Tableau direction requires that the film-maker exercise remarkable ingenuity to prevent the images from becoming formulaic or tedious. Staging patterns that Sjoestroem perfected include a number of devices. Some shots feature a slow reveal by characters added or subtracted from within the proscenium arch – a slow reveal could also be accomplished by posing actors so that they literally block the view of other figures important as the scene progresses. In some instances, Sjoestroem divides the image into small box-shaped apertures – we look through the window of the proscenium arch and see another window or opening that further narrows of perspective on the part of the image to which we are supposed to attend. In some instances, motion is stylized or characters slow down to emphasize the activity of another figure who acts with naturalistic motion or more quickly than the others. In each shot, Sjoestroem finds some way to guide the eye to seeing what he thought significant in the frame. Action often proceeds on various planes, exploiting early silent camera’s great depth of focus. In a successfully staged film like Ingeborg Holm, the audience is provided complex images that are always moving on one plane (or in one dimension) or another. The viewer’s eyes are active in constructing the space and locating the events that are significant to the narration playing out against that space.
Poor Relief in Sweden
In the latter half of the 19th century, plagues of locusts devastated many counties in the upper Midwest. Farmers lost their crops and were rendered impecunious. Some families starved to death. Others abandoned their ruined fields and fled to the cities. This natural disaster triggered a great debate in the states where it occurred: to what degree should the state government intervene to provide relief to the victims of this calamity? This debate raged with ferocious polemic expressed on both sides. The fact that social welfare was once debated with such vigor should not surprise us – in our own time, we have heard that welfare demoralizes workers, destroys families, and leads to a cycle of poverty. These same issues were fiercely argued in Nebraska, Iowa, the Dakotas, and Minnesota in the wake of the locust infestations. Ultimately, the government was persuaded to take action: army units that had been assigned Indian fighting duties were deputized to provide clothing, blankets, flour, bacon, and beans to indigent farmers. But this outcome was not without controversy.
The Poor Law is a book in the series The English Citizen. Written by T. W. Fowle (of Islip) in 1881, the book provides a specimen of thought on this topic during the Victorian era. "Legal provision for the relief of the poor...would seem, at first sight, artificial and even unnatural for it establishes a state of things in which persons are not obliged to work, unless they choose to provide themselves with the means of subsistence; while those who work for their own living are compelled, whether they like it or not, to maintain those who will not or cannot support themselves." Fowle cites Edmund Burke’s skepticism about social welfare: "To provide for us in our necessities is not within the power government. It would be a vain presumption..." Burke further argued that social welfare was a moral, but not civic, responsibility. In the past, Churches provided for such welfare within their parishes. It would be best, Burke thought, for welfare to be administered as private charity.
Fowle cites J. S. Mill at length and, ultimately, concludes that social welfare administered through the government can be justified on two grounds. A "sentimental" ground is compassion – every one who lives within a land should be supported by that land. The more hard-headed justification is that a poor man is prone to theft and other disorder – he will steal to feed himself and his family. If we wish to maintain the public peace, then, we must provide some kind of social "safety net" for the "worthy poor."
Intrinsic to Fowle’s analysis is the notion of the "worthy poor." In 1836, the Edinburgh Review opined that there was no such thing as the "laboring poor" – someone who was working (or who could work) could always earn a living. The "worthy poor" were widows, orphans, and the "impotent" – that is, people with injuries or afflictions, such as insanity, that debarred them from productive labor. Such persons could be succored either by "out-relief" or "indoors relief." "Out relief" meant the dole – some form of weekly assistance paid as a stipend "Indoors relief" meant the "workhouse" or the "almshouse." Fowle is quick to note that the "relief of the destitute should be administered so that their condition is worse than that of the laboring poor" – in other words, there should be no disincentive to work. Almshouses were planned to be unpleasant and uncomfortable places.
Sweden relied upon Church management of the poor within individual parishes. In the mid-17th century, statutory law regularized these practices and provided for "municipality" management by elected Boards of Commissioners in each political subdivision – households were taxed to support th is function. Changes in the law in 1847 further rationalized Swedish poor law into a national system. In rural areas, the destitute were assisted by a system called rotegang – a rote was a group of six levy-paying households. Poor folk were assigned to rotes and lived, as laborers and servants, in each household in succession. If a rote wished it could by its collective labor carve a cellar (backstuga or "hillside cottage") into a hillside and designate this as the home for the destitute living within its boundaries. In larger cities, almshouses were built to house the poor. If a destitute man or woman or child was capable of labor, that person could be auctioned at a so-called Pauper Auction (or Fattigauktion). In such an auction, citizens would bid on purchasing the services of the pauper, agreeing to pay for that person’s room and board in exchange for a fee offered by the "municipality." Bidding was competitive – the bidder offered to take a pauper as servant in exchange for a stipend paid by the municipality. The low bid won the right to indenture the pauper, an infernal system that led to many abuses. Obviously, if I have secured the "low bid" on a pauper, my incentive is to work the poor creature to death while providing the most minimal rations and housing. The ars Fattigvardforordning of 1847 abolished pauper auctions as applied to children.
Ingeborg Holm shows the protagonist, in effect, selling her children to keep them from living in the almshouse where she finds herself. Under the Reform Act of 1847, incentives were created to provide "foster care" for the children of paupers – these reforms were intended to eliminate the old "Pauper Auction" system, but, in effect, that institution remained viable under the guise of "foster family care." (As the film shows, the foster family is liable to pay room and board for the indigent child for which it cares; the foster family was not liable for medical bills incurred by a pauper’s child and avoided those expenses typically by simply not providing access to medical care in the case of illness.) Ingeborg Holm resulted in the Reform Act of 1918 – this law entirely eliminated the practice of rotegang.
Ingeborg Holm is shown cradling a piece of wood. She regards this wood as her lost baby. (In this respect, she is the precursor to the "log lady," a woman similarly traumatized in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks). It is worth noting that paupers involved in rotegang were obliged to carry at all times a Fattigklubba or Fattigbricka – that is a "pauper’s club" or a "pauper’s brick". This was a wooden tablet specifying the pauper’s status and indicating the physical tasks and labor that the pauper could be called upon to perform for the common good. It’s not clear to me whether the log that Mrs. Holm carries represents this medieval institution not abolished until 1918.
Samuel Davidson was a German Jew born in Berlin in 1875. At 15, he emigrated to the United States and developed a vaudeville persona exploiting his ethnic background. He worked in Hollywood from 1912 throughout the silent era and made a number of well-received two-reel comedies. Pass the Gravy was produced by the Hal Roach Studios in 1928 and is characteristic of Davidson’s many two-reelers. (Almost all of Davidson’s films are lost.)
Davidson had difficulty navigating the sound era. He died in 1950. His last part was a small role in a Three Stooges comedy produced in 1940.
Nicholas Schenck and Louis B. Mayer were prominent Jewish producers at MGM, the parent studio for Hal Roach. Reportedly, Schenck and Mayer were appalled by Davidson’s comedies and felt that his Yiddish schtick was a disgrace to assimilated Jews. They supposedly pressured Hal Roach to fire Davidson and made it difficult for him to find work between 1930 and his last cameo part in 1940.
The Library of Congress and Smithsonian Institute have declared Pass the Gravy to be a "culturally significant film worthy of preservation." Curiously, Davidson’s Hollywood pictures have been collected and lovingly restored by the Munich Film Museum in Munich, Germany.