Greta Garbo & Mauritz Stiller
Cinema came to Sweden at the end of the 19th century. The first public projection was in the southern city of Malmö, on June 28, 1896. In 1897, Stockholm photography shopkeepers Numa Peterson and Oliver Florman created newsreels and short portraits of Swedish life and the aristocracy. That same year Florman began to experiment with dramatic sketches and made The Barber’s Shop in the Village, the first-ever Swedish film drama. By 1898, Florman’s Swedish scenes were touring all over the country, and by 1905, most towns already had their own cinemas. In fact, the screenings’ popularity led a young bookkeeper named Gustav Bjösrkman to convince his middle-aged boss, N.H. Nylander, to open his own film production company in the town of Kristianslad in 1905. In February, 1907, the two founded AB Svensk Biografteatern and launched the golden age of Swedish cinema. (The company became known as Svensk Filmindustri in 1919.) Newsreel photographer Charles Magnusson was hired as Svensk’s first head of production. A critical figure in the evolution of Swedish film, Magnusson insisted on location shooting and technical refinement. Thanks to Magnusson, films from Sweden’s early silent era were regarded as some of the finest films of that nascent art form. Magnusson also established two characteristics that have come to dominate Swedish film: the constant appearance of the Swedish landscape and the mastering of cinematic techniques. He also hired Sweden’s first superstar directors, Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller. Between 1915 and 1925, these two filmmakers won an international reputation for the excellence of Swedish silent cinema.
Synnöve Solbakken (1919, John W. Brunius)
Drawing on Swedish literature of the late 19th century, which is filled with national ideals, thematically resonant landscapes, allegory, adventure and tales of man against the elements, Stiller developed a distinctive brand of ironic comedy, which was later to inspire Ernst Lubitsch. Meanwhile, Sjöström explored man-in-nature narratives and examined Swedish social life. His famous Ingeborg Holm (1913), an attack on Sweden’s laws for the poor, was followed by a series of impressive adaptations such as Terje Vigen (1917), based on an Ibsen poem, and from the Selma Lagerlof novel, The Phantom Carriage. Meanwhile Stiller established his brilliant career with films such as Sir Arne’s Treasure (1918), Erotikon (1920) and best known of all, Gösta Berling’s Saga (1924), which starred his discovery, Greta Garbo. The latter earned both Garbo and Stiller an invitation from Louis B. Mayer to work in Hollywood. So began the trend that saw Swedish actors and directors such as Ingrid Bergman, Ingmar Bergman, Max von Sydow, Bo Widerberg and most recently, Stellan Skarsgård, move to Hollywood. It is important to emphasize that the Swedes began producing their own images of and for themselves, without relying on Americans or Europeans. Clearly, Swedish participation in cinematic expression was–and still remains–a cultural priority. Sweden’s neutrality in the First World War also contributed to the development of a golden era in its silent cinema. While other national cinemas were being weakened by the war efforts and while no foreign films were shown in their country, the Swedes produced, distributed and exhibited their own films, developing an audience at the same time.
Prästänkan (aka The Parson’s Widow, 1920, Carl Theodor Dreyer)
The golden age lasted into the twenties when the arrival of sound movies proved problematic. The lack of international interest in films that only a few million people could understand and the emigration of stars such as Garbo and Stiller to Hollywood made the thirties difficult. Although the number of films produced didn’t decline significantly, Hollywood films began to show up on Sweden’s screens more and more. A few talents did emerge, however, with director Gustav Molander and his 1936 melodrama, Intermezzo, which featured stars such as Gösta Ekman and Ingrid Bergman. While the domestic Swedish market was satisfied in this first decade of talking films, Sweden’s international reputation dropped precipitously, a drop that forced the industry to turn around and look inward for answers. The situation was so dire that industry workers held a protest meeting in a Stockholm concert hall to complain about the low artistic standards in Swedish films. (A short history of Swedish cinema by Tom McSorley)The Golden Age
Victor Sjöström (1879-1960) and Mauritz Stiller (1883-1928) are the two towering figures of Swedish silent cinema. Both had successful careers as actors and directors for the stage when they were hired by legendary producer Charles Magnusson in 1912 to direct films for Svenska Biografteatern. Magnusson had just moved his operations from the rural town of Kristianstad to Stockholm where he had new studios built. Sjöström and Stiller quickly learned their trade, and made no less than 64 films between them in their first five years as directors, the most famous being Sjöström’s Ingeborg Holm (1913), an extraordinary drama about a single mother losing custody of her children.
The years between 1917 and 1924 are sometimes referred to as the Golden Age of Swedish cinema; a period when Sjöström and Stiller produced most of their best work, beginning with Sjöström’s Terje Vigen (A Man There Was, 1917), adapted from an Ibsen poem. When the film became a critical and financial success, Magnusson decided to radically change the company’s production policy. Instead of the usual twenty or more films a year, the annual output dropped to only a handful, but each single film would be longer, better prepared and with a bigger budget. Another feature of Terje Vigen was the spectacular on-location photography. Sjöström used the scenery (beautifully captured by cinematographer Julius Jaenzon) not only as a backdrop for the unfolding drama, but as a terrain where Man and Nature interact.
Körkarlen (Victor Sjöström, 1921)
This integration of natural locations into the drama is a characteristic of several classics of the period – Sjöström’s Berg-Ejvind och hans hustru (The Outlaw and His Wife, 1918) and Stiller’s Johan (1921), to name only two of them. It became part of Swedish cinema’s “exoticism” or “otherness” which, together with the level of technical skill and subdued acting style, appealed immensely to foreign audiences. However, this international success must also be attributed to the fact that – coming from a neutral country – Svenska Biografteatern managed to find its way into several foreign markets amidst the turmoil of, and immediately following, World War I.
Many films of the era were adaptations of literary works; the richest source being the writings of Selma Lagerlöf. The rural settings of her tales made them highly suitable for the screen, consistent with the “Swedishness” referred to above. The recurrent infusions of a certain otherworldliness were readily transposed to the realm of cinema, most congenially so in Stiller’s Herr Arnes pengar (Herr Arne’s Treasure, 1919) and Sjöström’s Körkarlen (The Phantom Carriage, 1921). The latter film’s amazing performances, complex narrative structure and striking use of multi-exposures make it perhaps the greatest of all Swedish silent films.
Häxan (Benjamin Christensen, 1922)
The best of Stiller’s early works is Vingarne (Wings, 1916). He added a framing structure to Herman Bang’s original story, showing the production of the film itself and how it is received by critics and audience. This kind of self-reflexivity is also very much at the centre of his amazingly vivid Thomas Graals bästa film (Thomas Graal’s Best Film, 1917). With the elegant marital comedy Erotikon (1920) Stiller excelled in ironic storytelling, not least thanks to the use of ambiguous and funny inter-titles designed by Alva Lundin. Stiller’s last Swedish film was the epic Gösta Berlings saga (1924), which launched the career of Greta Garbo. He then accompanied Garbo to Berlin, where she was to act in Pabst’s Die freudlose Gasse (1925), before they both embarked on a journey to Hollywood. Garbo would rise to eternal stardom, but Stiller returned in misery after a few years, having completed only one film. Sjöström had already left Sweden in 1923, and his American career was far more successful than Stiller’s, The Wind (1928) possibly being the film that most resembles his Swedish works in terms of acting style, character depth and use of natural locations.
Gösta Berlings saga (Mauritz Stiller, 1924)
Another important figure of Swedish silent cinema was Georg af Klercker, hired by Charles Magnusson at the same time as Sjöström and Stiller, in 1912. But Klercker soon fell out of favour with the producer and tried his luck at the Hasselblad company in Göteborg for which he made a series of visually striking adventure films. In works like Fången på Karlstens fästning (The Prisoner at Karlsten Fortress, 1916) the outdoor locations are used not so much to show the interaction of Man and Nature; instead the scenery is put to graphically stunning effect. By a twist of irony and through a series of takeovers and mergers, Hasselblad ended up as part of the newly created major company Svensk Filmindustri in 1919 – under the leadership of producer Magnusson. Thus Klercker’s days as a director were effectively over.
During its peak years in the early 1920s, Svensk Filmindustri also attracted foreign talents. The still unknown Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer directed Prästänkan (The Parson’s Widow) in 1920, which – apart from Dreyer’s own signature style – has a distinctive Swedish look. In 1921, Svensk Filmindustri signed a contract with another Dane, Benjamin Christensen, to direct a film that is like no other: Häxan, a strange mixture of informative “lectures” and suggestive dramatizations about the conception of the devil and medieval perceptions of witchcraft. (filmmuseum.at)
- Gabriel Alw
- Nils Aréhn
- Nils Asther (Danish-born Swedish actor active in Hollywood)
- Stina Berg
- Erik “Bullen” Berglund
- Hugo Björne
- Hilda Borgström
- Oscar Byström
- Gösta Cederlund
- Nils Olaf Chrisander
- Dagmar Ebbesen
- Greta Garbo
- Manne Göthson
- Einar Hanson
- Ivan Hedqvist
- Linnéa Hillberg
- Adolf Jahr
- Ivar Kåge
- Jullan Kindahl
- William Larsson
- Alfred Lundberg
- Gerda Lundequist
- Mona Mårtenson
- Gull Natorp
- Warner Oland
- Mimi Pollak
- Clara Pontoppidan (Danish actress. She worked in Swedish and Danish silent films)
- Mathias Taube
- Inga Tidblad
- Jenny Tschernichin-Larsson
- Frida Winnerstrand
- Olof Winnerstrand
- Tollie Zellman