As the film opens, a brief introduction of the plays original author, the lead actress, and “the youngest cast member,” is given. Does this introduction serve as to spare us the belief that the events in the film are equivelent to truth? To say “don’t worry, this is reality?” By the end of the film we don’t even remember this prolouge. We wouldn’t even dare to. Perhaps it is the other way around; that this higher reality is the only reality, the reality of these characters and of our own collective memory.
Ingeborg Holm stands out in Sjostrom’s filmography in that it is his earliest surviving feature film. It also lacks the poetic grandeur of his later films, such as The Outlaw and His Wife or The Wind. Yet his first short, “The Garderner,” made the year previous, includes much of his trademark evocative settings and sense of poetry. That film, about the rape of a servant girl by her boyfriends father, later having her return to that spot many years later, and die, was called by Sjostrom “the marriage of death and beauty.” Ingeborg Holm, however, is ostensibly a more social realist film. Even here though, there is already a synthesis between the performer and their surroundings within the composition. Ingeborg and her children will play in a field of grass, healthy plants and flowers while her husband is living. Later she will faint in a field of weeds in search of them. The influences on the film are clearly more Lumiere than Griffith or Edison, but nevertheless, like the best of Griffith, the environment prefigures the emotions of the characters. Later, in one of the films best scenes, there will be shades of German Expressionism as Ingeborg packs her childrens clothes to go live with their foster parents.
Again, while this may not overall have the same feel for nature that Sjostrom’s later works will, this is unquestionably his most nakedly emotional work, and perhaps his most humane. The performances are extrodinarily subtle and the direction is astonishing coming from the same time that Griffith was doing Judith of Bethulia. While Griffith, and the vast majority of America and France for that matter, was cutting faster and faster, Sjostrom refined and refined his compositions. The takes are all very long, and every movement by every actor is deftly choreographed. Certainly the sets can be called stagelike, but acting this subtle would never have been possible on the stage. One of the films most moving moments is with Hilda Borgstrom’s back to the camera for an extended period of time, like Chaplin’s Woman of Paris, only ten years earlier.
One of the key items of the film is a small photo of Ingeborg that she packs in the bag of her eldest son, the night before giving him up for adoption. This same image will be the one that restores Ingeborg to sanity twelve years later when that son returns. Images bring us salvation, images based on things past, things we once knew. When we see Ingeborg years later, it is like she is holding onto a ghost. Yet can the image restore humanity? Can it raise the dead? Perhaps, but surely it brings us trancendence. When Ingeborg at last sees the son who she lost so many years ago, it’s telling that all available prints of the film tear up and become awash in a barrage of scratches and unrestorable damage, leaving white marks all over the screen. It is as though the light held within the film can no longer contain itself, and we are at last in contact with the spirit. The spirit of the world. Ingeborg is not any mother. She is the mother.
It’s too difficult to continue describing this film, something that feels too intensely personal and affecting, when all there is are pure images. It must be seen again and again, for years and years to come.