Saturday, 6 September 2014

Judging Jenny Hasselqvist … Vem Dömer (1922)

This is a film with many alternate titles Love's Crucible, Judging?, L'épreuve du feu, Who judges?, Mortal Clay, The Acid TestGod's Judgment… Maybe the distributors struggled with the precise meaning of a photo-play that is clearly more than it might seem.

Vem Dömer was Victor Sjöström’s follow up to The Phantom Carriage and was a lavish production premiered on New Year’s Day in 1922 accompanied by the Red Kvarn Orchestra and a publicity campaign including an illustrated book of Hjalmar Bergman’s story. Sjöström co-wrote the screenplay and whilst this tale of illicit period romance may appear atypical it has much in common with its predecessor and the director’s earlier work. Just as characters in There Was a Man and The Outlaw and His Wife must endure extremes in order to survive, so must Jenny Hasselqvist’s Ursula overcome not just a physical test but also a moral one:  she has to judge herself.

Gösta Ekman and Jenny Hasselqvist
I’ve raved about Jenny Hassselqvist before and she gives a great performance here with her ballet dancer’s physicality under-pining an energetic focus that draws the viewer in like few others. From the first moments when she is shown praying alone in the cathedral to her stunning appearance in silhouette mounting the wooden steps for her ordeal by fire, she holds herself so well and is able to convey so much just through posture – it’s remarkable. Then for her close ups, as she wrestles with the guilt of love and betrayal, she conveys a very modern, Huppert-esque intensity….

The film is in dark contrast to Sjöström’s al fresco classics and is largely studio-based with the majority of exterior shots taking place at night. This puts the focus firmly on the main players… it’s dark and claustrophobic and you can count the smiles almost on one face. Given this delicate darkness, it’s a shame that there isn’t a restored version generally available:  the sections included in the Sjöström documentary on the Kino discs, reveal so much more of the lighting, set design and Hasselqvist’s expression than the copy I was able to view.

Gösta Ekman
But, even given the low-res limitations, Vem Dömer is gripping viewing. It’s an ostensibly Christian tale of faith in truth and love yet it’s also a meditation on self-doubt and guilt: redemption comes either through a kind of miracle or the realisation of truth… the choice is yours.

The plot: The film opens with Ursula praying alone, dwarfed in the dark mystery of a medieval cathedral. She is due to marry an older man she does not love and pleads with the statue of Christ at the alter for a way out so she can marry her true love Bertram (Gösta Ekman). She glances at a Latin inscription: “… and realises that she must do her duty.

The marriage has been arranged by Bertram’s father, The Mayor (Tore Svennberg) and Ursula’s intended, Master Anton (Ivan Hedqvist) a sculptor considerably older than his intended. Their wedding takes place amongst civic joy whilst Bertram looks on in misery.

Anton sculpts a statue of Ursula as the Virgin Mary a she poses exhausted on a pedestal… which is exactly where he has put her.  Anton worships her but she can only reciprocate with hatred for lost opportunities their bond has cost her yet, whilst Anton chip-chips away, she finds freedom reading in their garden where she is joined by Bertram.

Anton's work of worship
Anton and the Mayor head off to the ale house leaving the frustrated bookworms: two old men blind to the clear and present dangers of poetry... Ursula’s desperation is on the rise and the visit of a friar selling herbs and remedies (Waldemar Wohlström) provides her with a way out:  she will buy some rat poison and commit suicide with Bertram.

Hearing their plan, the Friar substitutes a harmless powder and heads off to spill the beans… and to get help.

No way out?
 The Mayor and Anton beat a hasty path with a large angry mob behind them… arriving at the house Anton confronts Ursula who, in misery, reaches for another solution; pouring what she thinks is poison into his drink. Seeing this in the mirror, Anton is crushed and his weak heart gives out as he reels from her betrayal.

Ursula is immediately suspected – as if the crowd needed much encouragement - but is saved after the friar’s story reveals the truth. Yet this is not a straightforward morality play: Ursula did have intention and, though she doesn’t yet know it, she was the cause of her husband’s apoplexy.

Soon the figure of Christ in the cathedral is seen to be weeping blood – by a young Nils Asther no less. Naturally… this is seen as divine evidence of Ursula’s guilt and the authorities waste no time in arranging a trial by fire to establish the truth.

Who judges? Nils second left.
Spoilers: The final set piece is a tour de force from Sjöström and I’ll try to avoid specifics… needless to say there are flames, fear and forgiveness and an emotional dénouement as powerful as it is unexpected.

The “modern” agnostic viewer might cringe at the non-secularity but I’m not so sure, as with The Phantom Carriage, that Sjöström has a straightforward Christian aim: these stories work on many levels and at their heart is the need to self-examine and to be true to one’s self.

Fire walk with me...
Jenny: The narrative is simple and could so easily encourage over-playing but Jenny Hasselqvist’s control enables her to play out Ursula’s whole story as if it were a ballet. Her pantomime is so impressive from a forlorn looseness at her opening prayers to the love-lightness of her scenes with Bertram and the heavy-hanging misery of her sterile posing for Anton’s statue. Once the accusations fly she stands tall in defiance and after the contortions of recrimination her final brave steps towards redemption are taken with head held high resolution.

Put this together with her ability to hold the camera’s gaze whilst emoting with equal grace and you have to my mind one of the most convincing dramatic actresses of the period. Her style still stands and, yes, there really should be a fan club!

Victor: Sjöström’s direction is powerfully economic and he keeps the focus on character above costume. The wonderfully expressive set designs of Axis Esbensen and Alexander Bakó are perfectly aligned from the unforgiving cathedral to Ursula’s little garden of romantic solace. J. Julius' cinematography captures every dark moment and flutter of joy – how good would this look on the big screen!?

Apart from the brief segment on the Kino DVD extra there’s no way to view Vem Dömer other than to wait for a rare screening or borrow someone’s VHS copy (merci Christine!) – it’s about time more of Sjostrom’s Swedish work was made available.

As for Jenny Hasselqvist, if you haven’t seen her performances in Sumurun, Johan and Gosta Berling then I recommend you go straight to Amazon right now: you will not be disappointed.

Gösta Werner's 1981 documentary is included as an extra on The Outlaw and His Wife - available direct from Kino Lorber.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you very the nice post. Even though it is really old, I am wondering if I can buy a copy of the film from you or your friend.