The Saga of Gösta Berling (Mauritz Stiller / Sweden, 1924):
(Gösta Berlings Saga; The Atonement of Gösta Berling)

Apogee of silent Swedish cinema, or calling card sent out to Hollywood honchos? The defrocked vicar, Gösta Berling (Lars Handon), is introduced summoning up a fake demon as a sloshed-party prank; "dejected by man and God," he becomes a knightly jester at Ekeby Manor, presided over by "the mightiest woman in Värmland" (Gerda Lundequist). Handon is the founder of the Richard Burton School of Dissolute Clergymen, so the ladies flock: A countess’ stepdaughter (Mona Mårtenson), a young mistress (Jenny Hasselqvist) later ravaged by smallpox, and an Italian noblewoman (Greta Garbo) all suffer for their passion ("It was a disgrace to love him, a disgrace to be loved by him"). Mauritz Stiller’s epic of outcasts in furs and snapping wolves is designed as a reverent visualization of a national best-seller (Selma Lagerlöf’s novel), so comparisons with Gone With the Wind are inevitable -- both aim to marshal all of the medium’s resources in the name of transcendent spectacle, and both end up with drugged elephants instead. Over three hours, however, there’s plenty to savor. Dutch painters inform Stiller’s style (Vermeer for long-shot interiors, Rembrandt for close-ups), his adaptation captures that Scandinavian blend of romanticism and severity ("No man who has the love of a woman is doomed. ... Don’t you know that most people are dead already?"). As the tough, queenly old aristocrat, Lundequist seizes the camera with her own narrative of heartbreak and redemption. And there are cyclones amid the sprawling stolidity: Handon’s pulpit skirmish, the burning of the manor, and above all young Garbo’s face alive with fear and excitement during the sleigh ride across the frozen lake, a lambent stretto edited to the heroine’s increasingly intoxicated pulse. Garbo, Stiller and Handon after its success would join Sjöström at MGM, effectively pulling the plug on Swedish film; Mollander and Sjöberg were the subsequent rebuilders, Bergman the dismantler. With Ellen Hartman-Cederström, and Hilda Forsslund. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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