Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Wild at heart… The Outlaw and His Wife (1918)

Sometimes you might find yourself feeling comfortably detached when watching silent film only to be jolted back to your senses by on-screen events that still ring fiercely true. Mostly it is the exceptional skill of the actors but here, Victor Sjöström’s acting combine with his uncompromising physical bravery, his screenplay and direction to bring moments of genuine shock.

Sjöström used the coastline to stunning effect in Terje Vigan, but here he moves inland and upwards. Brilliantly photographed by Julius Jaenzon, The Outlaw and His Wife allowed Sjöström to play out his story against the rugged north Swedish countryside with his characters existing on the land and being shaped by it.

Victor Sjöström
Outlaws live in the mountains, the wild and untameable together in fragile compromise whilst flat, regulated society rules on the plains. Sjöström’s Eyvind is at his happiest clinging gloriously onto a high ridge with his wife and child or plunging into crystal pools to catch the biggest fish.

Jóhann Sigurjónsson’s 1911 play was set in Iceland but the War having rendered it impossible to use the original location, Sjöström used the barren edges of Lapland as a stand-in: Åre and Abisko in northern Sweden. Sjöström had previously directed the play in which has also played Eyvind and knew the role inside out as well as the way he was going to truly externalise it…

Eyvind arrives in a small town encountering a wool poacher Arnes (John Ekman) just about getting away with his haul hidden under lichen (makes great soup apparently: how sparse was their existence). He gives the fellow a fright but tells him that he has nothing to fear from him.

Arnes directs him to the farm of a well-off widow called Halla (Edith Erastoff) who would be able to offer him work. Calling himself Kari he soon begins to make his mark, his strength and intelligence marking him out as a superior worker.

He also begins to catch the eye of Halla, in spite of younger, prettier competitors for his affection, he tells one that it would take a much bigger farm than Halla’s to make him interested in her: character was more important than looks.

In the mean exchange economy of the time, a widow like Halla, approaching her middle years, had to form relationships like commercial alliances. The local Bailiff, Björn Bergstéinsson (Nils Ahrén) offers her a partnership; he is 47, at a loose end…and assumes she will readily align herself with his wealth and position. But Halla is still living in hope or at least has enough pride to want to stand alone when the only options are men like the Bailiff.

The Bailiff learns the secret as Arnes looks on
She begins to openly favour Eyvind and the Bailiff’s bitterness grows. In church, one of his cronies recognises Eyvind as an outlaw from the South and the Bailiff wastes no time in confronting Halla with the news.

Rather than fall at his mercy though, Halla goes straight to Eyvind and tells him of the challenge and that the Bailiff will wrestle him if he is not believed. Put on the spot Bergstéinsson tries to wriggle out of the challenge but has no option but to face the man he is accusing.

Eyvind wins and the Bailiff is sent with his tail between his legs, swearing vengeance.

Halla learns the truth from her lover as he confesses that poverty had driven him to steal a sheep to feed his starving family as his calls for help were ignored by his wealthy neighbour. He is discovered and sent to prison but escapes off into the mountains.

This reflects something of the social conscience of Sjöström’s earlier films and it’s interesting that he doesn’t shy away from Eyvind’s criminality: society has left him with no choice and, rather than be alarmed, this only increases Halla’s love and respect. She offers to run away with him to the hills and to leave her farm behind… as well as the prospect of having to marry the Bailiff… Halla’s Choice…

But in the wilderness lies happiness as the couple are shown five years’ later living in natural harmony with a bonny young daughter to share in their hard-living idyll.

Jaenzon’s camerawork is superb here, highlighting the actors against the raw beauty of the landscape, atop vertiginous cliff faces or staring out across glaciated valleys: life in all its harsh simplicity away from the mean constraints of a society that placed the value of livestock higher than its citizens.

Arnes wants to help with the washing...
One day they are joined by Arnes who has had to retreat from the Law himself. He is welcomed by the couple but becomes infatuated with Halla. Eyvind slips as they climb a cliff face and his friend considers killing him in order to gain his wife but relents, pulling him to safety.

Sjöström was a committed physical performer having climbed rigging in Terje Vigan and rowed in the rough sea. Here he dives into icy pools and clings onto the mountainside… it is really him dangling from the cliff as Arnes dithers. He had a safety cable attached but the rigging almost failed as he clambered to the top.

Valiant Victor...
Arnes has to leave after confessing his feelings to Halla but just as he is one his way, the Bailiff’s men catch up with them. In the desperate struggle that follows, Halla flings her daughter over the cliff, preferring to take her life rather than let her be captured. It’s a horrible moment that reflects how much these lives were lived on the edge: if Halla wasn’t going to be able to protect her child it was kinder in her mind to kill her.

Happiness is transitory and families live happily only as long as they are able: once happiness is removed life is not always possible and it is better to take charge of the process.

Halla and Eyvind escape again to the higher mountains, haunted by their loss but with their devotion intact right to the very last…

It’s not a straightforward slice of happiness but it is a testament to the strength of love: what else is there for people whose slightest misdeed can affect their entire life?

Halla and Eyvind almost at breaking point
Victor Sjöström proves once again that he was one of the strongest actors of the period and well beyond. There are some fascinating comments from Ingmar Bergman in the documentary accompanying the film as he reveals how totally his friend and mentor was able to switch into character, even when denied his evening gin and tonic by the tardiness of upstart directors!

Edith Erastoff
Edith Erastoff is a very skilled actress and her scenes, especially at the close are especially compelling: intelligent and subtle. Almost certainly there was more than just acting in evidence as she became pregnant during the filming and went on to become Sjöström’s third wife in 1922. This film is perhaps as much about their relationship as that of their characters: “their only law was their love”.

The Outlaw and His Wife is available on a Kino DVD, the print is decent but could certainly be improved on and I eagerly await a UK screening of the SFI’s fuller-lengthed restoration as recently screened in San Francisco and Italy.

For the original performance a full orchestra performed accompanying music based on themes from Sibelius, here Torbjorn Iwan Lundquist provides a stirring score borrowing the same spirit of epic Scandinavian mountain music.

Also included is Gösta Werner’s 1981 documentary on the director which features lengthy excerpts from his career as actor and director including those insights from Ingmar and a tantalising excerpt from Vem dömer, Sjöström’s lavish period epic about love and religious devotion

Now when are they going to release that one!?

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