Sunday, 27 May 2012

Victor Sjöström, now… There Was a Man (1917)

Terje Vigen (There Was a Man) is widely seen as the start of the great period of Swedish cinema with its breath-taking cinematography, deft editing and performer intensity.

Directed by and starring Victor Sjöström, the film was based on the poem by Henrik Ibsen. It’s a harsh, uncompromising tale made in and around the rocky shore line not far from Stockholm, which had to pass for the unforgiving Grimstad coast where the poem was originally set.

The film is shot almost entirely on location and beautifully photographed by the great Swedish cinematographer, Julius Jaenzon, in conditions that can only be described as difficult and downright hazardous… His camera seems to be right inside the boat as Vigen rows away from the enemy, battles both them and the storm and finally comes close to a tragic resolution.

Considering it was filmed mostly in 1916, these shots are remarkable and echo Sjöström and Jaenzon’s later work in The Outlaw and His Wife (1918).

The story begins with the strange figure of Terje Vigen (played with trademark intensity by Sjöström himself), living alone in a darkened cottage at the sea’s edge. He is unkempt, wild-eyed and forever watchful of the sea as it rages outside.

We are then told how he came to be… Vigen had once been a very capable fisherman but he had retired from the sea upon the birth of his baby. His domestic peace was disturbed by the Napoleonic wars and in 1807 the British fleet blockaded the Swedish ports. Vigen’s family and whole community is under threat of starvation and he resolves to set off in search of food in a small skiff.

He is successful in evading the enemy on the way out but is spotted on return.

The scenes in which Vigen is pursued are exceptionally well filmed and show the desperation of Vigen’s plight. Even after his boat and it’s precious cargo are sunk he dives deep to escape the British bullets… after what seems like an age – during which we hope as much as any contemporary audience that he might escape – he fails and is held down by superior numbers.

On board the British man o’ war, he is ridiculed by the captain and his men… there is no pity in war. He is sentenced to long years in captivity and when peace finally comes five years later he has aged with long matted grey hair and is worn down. But he seeks solace in finally being able to return home to his loved ones.

Yet…tragically, he finds that both his wife and child were amongst those who died of starvation and that it was believed he had deserted them. This is too much for his mind to bear and he breaks down.

Years later we see the same man who began the film. He is gone mad and rails against the sea as it thunders down against the rocks. He is a pilot helping to steer ships into the harbour…the only semblance of his former self.

He sees a foreign yacht in trouble and is the only man foolish or brave enough to go to the rescue. Once on board though he discovers that the owner is none other than the British naval officer who not only humiliated him all those years ago but robbed him of his liberty and his life…

This is to be his revenge and he drives the ship onto the rocks and then steers the man, his wife and daughter onto the Goslings: the treacherous outcrop on which his own skiff ran aground.

Spoilers ahead: Vigen rams his oar through the base of the skiff and resolves to kill them all. The mother screams out for him to spare their daughter and he falters…then when he looks at the child he reels back… The veil has been lifted from his mind and he works to save all of them.

There is redemption, even from the darkest and most hopeless of situations and, as he tells the Lord and Lady later, he didn’t save them, their daughter did. He couldn’t take the life of an innocent like his own child.

Sjöström directs with real pace and a sure hand. This is a step up from Ingeborg Holm but then it is a simpler and more action oriented tale. As with the earlier film it’s another unflinching tale and one that his superbly well-acted, primarily by the man himself.

There Was a Man is available on the Kino DVD with the earlier film and is available from Amazon and all the usual places (got mine from those wonderful people in the BFI Filmstore who are gradually driving me towards bankruptcy... ).


  1. Nice synopsis-review.

    1. Thanks Scott and for the link - Sjostrom and Stiller were so sophisticated.

      I keep waiting for the former's Vem Dömer (1922) to get shown again - it features another favourite Swede Jenny Hasselqvist.