Saturday, 12 September 2015

The bear hunters… Den Starkaste (1929), with Stephen Horne, British Silent Film Festival

Day Two at the BSFF and another surprise – so many silent films so little time... This late-period silent Swedish film is so accomplished it presents almost as a modern film and you wouldn’t be surprised if someone spoke such is the eloquence with which the directors use visual language.

Den Starkaste (The Strongest) was co-directed by Alf Sjoberg and cinematographer Axel Lindblom the latter having formulated the story whilst out filming documentary footage in the Barents Sea in the early twenties. Linblom clearly loved the outdoor life and quit cinema after this film to become a farmer. Here his mastery of capturing snowscapes is superbly counter-balanced with the cramped interiors of wooden sailing ships just as his close-ups of human emotional interplay are juxtaposed by long shots of man in the uncertain enormity of nature.

The film follows a group of Arctic hunters as they take their boats into the heart of brightness during the summer months of seal and polar bear hunting: harsh work if you can get it and even harder for a bunch of southern intellectual film makers. It makes Man of Arran look like a day trip to Southport (mind you, Lord Street on a Saturday night?!)

Sjoberg and Lindblom mix what looks like documentary footage with their action, there are a number of animals harmed in the film and one hopes that this wasn’t just for the benefit of the entertainment.

Bengt Djurberg and Gun Holmquist
The cinematography is stunning – the coast and ice may look amazing but there is still a real art to capturing this in difficult conditions. At one point an actor or stunt man (what’s the difference apart from insurance premium?) leaps over slippery ice flows that even Lillian Gish might think twice about; on more than one occasion he slips and almost missed his mark, with no one anywhere near - this was dangerous business.

Maria Röhr, Hjalmar Peters,  Anders Henrikson, Bengt Djurberg & Gun Holmqvist
But there’s no story without "the human" and the heart of this tale is the rivalry between two sailors Ole (Anders Henrikson) and Gustaf (Bengt Djurberg) who is the “strongest” of the title; firm of feature and strong of jaw, with a remarkable set of teeth (as a Brit, one notices these things and feels envy). When pestered by a farm hand chopping wood, Gustaf simply picks him up and throws him away – he has the smile of a winner, the confidence to rise to every challenge but even he may need help as the story progresses.

On his way to port, he encounters willowy Ingeborg (Gun Holmquist, another Swedish superior being…) the daughter of whiskery Larsen (Hjalmer Peters) the captain of The Viking (natch!) an ocean-going hunting vessel. Ingeborg would like her father to spend more time at home but he wants to be able to hand his ship (and daughter) over to a man he can trust.

Ole about to take aim
In the frame is Ole who is gifted Larsen’s rifle and who would also like his daughter… yet Ingeborg isn’t interested and certainly not in the way she demonstrates in returning Gustaf’s appreciative gaze on the road.

The Viking’s crew prepare for their summer campaign and set off for their last night on the town, a fight breaks out (as it seems it must) and in the kerfuffle a rival crew member steals the rifle...this will be important later on.

Bengt Djurberg and Gösta Gustafson
After they set sail, Gustaf begins to make himself useful on the Larsen homestead when he finds out that Ingeborg lives there: his smile, her eyes… it was always going to happen. But, once Larsen and Ole return his over-confidence blows up in his face and he’s cast adrift after swiftly besting Ole. He vows to return for Ingeborg’s hand (and the rest of her).

Gustaf joins the crew of The Maud, captained by the even more whiskery Olsen (Civert Braekmo) and which includes a hunter called Jens (Gösta Gustafson of Sir Arne's Treasure and later Summer with Monika) who carries a familiar rifle…

Gustaf out muscles Ole
It is inevitable that the two ships will meet out on their hunt into the brutal Barents and this is where the film really takes off as the men pursue their prey and human nature reverts to its basic elements. Gustaf sets off with Jens on a boat to shoot seal, they lose touch with The Maud and things look bleak, even bleaker as Jens, jealous of the better man, leaves him for dead on an ice flow.

All looks lost until The Viking sends Ole on a boat to rescue him… the latter rather disappointed when he discovers who he’s saved. Now things really kick on and the action and emotion starts to peak with rivalry, spiced by mistrust, envy and the question of that rifle...

Den Starkaste ranks with many a good Scandanavian silent outdoor epic. The story is an old one but told very well with a good narrative focus and superb use of those contrapuntal rhythms of man and nature.

There are no weak links in the cast with Henrikson and Djurberg excelling in the rivalry and as the subject of their competition (the girl not the rifle, although she is called Gun), Holmquist injects the right mix of doe-eyed and disaffected – if Ole’s the future she’s not looking forward to it and she reserves her affection for her father until the right man comes walking along the road…

Gun Holmquist and Bengt Djurberg courtesy of SFI
The title card translations don’t always reveal it but there’s also clear evidence of the famous Swedish sense of humour and whilst there are serious moments aplenty, the story is is well-balanced all round.

Once again Stephen Horne was on hand or rather hands, to add excellent improvisations to the visuals. Whether performing a pre-composed score or making it up on the spot, he puts so much lyricism into his playing – music for the big country and huge emotions!

Axel Lindblom on site
Other silent film musicians are available though and next I shall describe Mr John Sweeney’s epic accompaniment to the almost three hours of Michel Strogoff!

More detail on Den Starkaste is available on the Swedish Film Institute database which is where I've appropriated some of the above images - the SFI  watermark is a give-away.


  1. Hi Paul (outed!),
    Lovely review, as ever, of a fantastic and gritty film.
    I do indeed, thank you.

    1. Thanks Brent - it was great to meet you too I wish I could have stayed for the full four days but I think I've got the bug now!

      See you on the front row.